Familiar results mask the true story at Tottenham

 • by Mark Thompson
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Every year, on February 2, Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy has a tradition. He and Mauricio Pochettino travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to see the local residents pull a poor little marmot from its burrow.

Americans believe that if the creature sees its shadow, winter will last for another six weeks. Levy knows that if it sees its shadow, Tottenham will be doomed to live the same season for another year. GroundPoch Day.

For the last three seasons, Spurs’ finishes in domestic competitions have been remarkably consistent. Third, second, third in the league. Fifth round, semi-final, semi-final in the FA Cup. Third round, fourth round, fourth round in the League Cup.

This season it’s the same story all over again. Spurs are third, and they reached the semi-final of one domestic cup competition and the fourth round of another (ok, so this year they switched around).

No wonder that there are people who say Tottenham need to win a trophy. The club, on paper, look like they’ve been standing still for years.

The treadmill

In reality, it’s less standing still, more running on a treadmill.

Spurs were unfortunate in that their break-out year was 2015/16, the season every other big team floundered and Leicester City were on fire to win the title. If the class of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen had made things tick a year earlier, they’d have probably beaten Leicester to the prize; a year later, they’d never have the (unfair) tag of bottlers.

Since Leicester won the title, the Premier League has seen the winners get two of the three largest points tallies in the competition’s 38-game history. Only Chelsea of 2004/05 (95 points) comes between Conte’s Blues (93) and City’s Centurions (100). This season, it’s possible for two teams to get 90-plus points.

In any other four-year stretch of Premier League history, perhaps Spurs would have already won the title by now. Certainly, their league finishes since 2015/16 are an incredible achievement. As every wage bill chart shows, they’re a distance from the clubs they’re competing with, and Tottenham haven’t finished on the league podium for three years in a row since the early 1960s.

Results obscuring reality

The competition finishes aren’t the only consistency, it’s that the narrative around them obscures the reality of the position Tottenham are really in.

In 2015/16, it’s Arsenal who were best-placed to win the league. They were the obvious ‘big team’ candidate. Spurs only get called bottlers because Arsenal bottled it so hard that they crashed out of the race early.

For 2016/17, Football Whispers’ expected goals numbers put Manchester City comfortably ahead of Spurs. Finishing in second meant Spurs felt like they were going places quickly, but, in reality, that was another mask.

This current season is similar. Looking at the quality of chances that Pochettino’s side have created and conceded in games, they have no right to be talked about in the title race.

There was a point in the season where Wolves had a better expected goals difference. Injuries have racked up to crisis levels. They’ve been the first club in Premier League history not to bring in a single player all season. Next press conference, someone check the bottled water on Pochettino’s desk for alcohol levels, because these are miracles he’s working.

What does this mean?

But, even if we peel back the pulp of newspaper narrative for the juicy fruit of footballing truth beneath, what does this mean for Tottenham?

If their expected goals are to be believed, they’ve been the fourth-best team in the league, behind City, Liverpool, and Chelsea, somewhere between the genuine best in the league and the challengers for the top four. They’ve been in that kind of space since 2016/17.

So Spurs are still consistent, just not quite at the level their league finishes suggest. It’s impressive that they’re keeping pace with the rapid change in the league but, ideally, you’d want to be leading that change, not just keeping pace with it.

Continual improvements are needed if the pace is going to keep quickening though, Spurs need to keep their pace up on that treadmill to avoid shooting off the back of it. That’s where the lack of transfers this season, and the rumours of imminent departures of key players and staff, are worrying.

This Tottenham team does not, or should not, need a bauble to recognise them as great. Clubs work within their budgets, and Spurs have maximised theirs incredibly well.

But individual people are different. Their ‘budget’ is their talent level, and some may start to feel like third-place in the league, a domestic semi-final per year, and making the early knock-out rounds of the Champions League is underperforming what they’re capable of.

GroundPoch Day has come around for another year but, at some point, the spell’s going to have to be broken. Daniel Levy needs to make sure it’s in the right direction.