“If I were a greedy optimist, I’d say we can take 6 points out of 6 from the Watford and Chelsea games. But realistically, 4 from 6 would be good enough in our current position.”
So spoke yours truly not even a week ago looking ahead to Spurs’ first 2 fixtures of 2017. I’ll be honest, I never expected the first part of that sentence to come to fruition, but here I am writing this column confirming just that. Our away win against Watford was a relatively safe prediction, even if I didn’t think it would be quite as good as the 4-1 win we wound up getting. Yesterday’s home win against a Chelsea side who were unbeaten in 13 games, much less so.
Yet as I sit here and try to pull my thoughts from a great start to 2017 together, Spurs sit third in the table and have just stalled the determined march of an admittedly impressive Chelsea toward the Premier League title. In what was perhaps a cruel reversal of fate for the Blues, who enjoyed the distinct pleasure of snuffing out Spurs’ final hopes for the title last season with a 2-2 draw, Spurs pumped the breaks on Chelsea’s dominance with their 2-0 victory Wednesday. It’s a result that could serve to breathe some life into the chasing pack, and certainly helps keep the title within striking distance for the rest of the top 4.
A combination of factors is, in my opinion, responsible for Spurs’ recent run of positive results. First and foremost is the ever-improving form of some of our biggest players. I gave Eriksen and Dele Alli a bit of stick earlier this season for looking jaded, but they’ve both bounced back in the last few weeks in spectacular fashion. Dele has managed a brace in each of our last 3 games, and has now drawn level with Kane as the team’s top scorer. He’s converting with his feet, converting with his head, and in general seems to be the most likely man to find his way onto any service inside the penalty area.
Speaking of service, Eriksen has found consistency in that regard of late, and his two pinpoint crosses for the goals against Chelsea were solid proof of his progress. With those two on form, the burden comes off of Kane and opposition teams will have to choose who they focus their attention on. Case in point, Chelsea pretty much marked Kane out of the game Wednesday night with Luiz and Cahill, but this led to the mismatch between Dele and Azpilicueta that directly contributed to both of our goals.
I’d be remiss not to single out our defensive players for praise too, and in particular our midfield core of Dier, Dembele, and Wanyama. All 3 were outstanding against Chelsea, and simply didn’t allow the opposition midfield to get any foothold in the match. Wanyama was practically everywhere, becoming the perfect counter to Chelsea’s top ground-coverer Kante and minimizing service to the dangerous Hazard and Costa. Dembele was his usual silky-smooth self in possession and ran his socks off until Winks replaced him with about 20 minutes to play. Dier was calmness personified whether in midfield or filling in at the back, and tracked his runners with casual ease throughout. In short, these 3 were the engine that kept our pressing game alive well into the second half, and gave the attacking players a platform to spring counters from.
Finally, Pochettino has shown admirable adaptability in terms of the systems he employs against our various opponents and the personnel he makes use of to lock up results. Against Chelsea, we transitioned fluidly from a traditional 4-2-3-1 to what looked like a 3-4-1-2 at times, with Kane and Alli both very high up the pitch and Eriksen operating behind them. As always, the fullback play was key, with Rose and Walker providing width and hemming Chelsea’s wide players back into their own half for most of the match. Poch has also rotated really well, with Vertonghen and Walker both rested against Watford and looking sharp in the following match against Chelsea, and the players being called upon from the bench are making telling contributions. Look no further than Trippier’s 2-assist performance in the 4-1 victory over Watford for evidence of that strength in depth. Sissoko and Son have also been used judiciously either as starters or impact subs depending on the opposition.
At a minimum, Wednesday’s result firmly entrenches Spurs in the race for the top 4, the target every fan of the club wants to see them hit. I’ve seen chatter today about us being in the title race as well, but I won’t go so far as to say that just yet. We need to show more consistency over extended periods to really be at that level, and a win against Chelsea for example is useless if we lose to West Brom or Sunderland in the coming weeks. For now, I’ll take solace in the fact that last year’s Spurs appear to be back, and look ahead to our next two fixtures against our bogey team West Brom and fellow top 4 contender Man City.