The golden rule of predicting is never to assume that Tottenham Hotspur will achieve anything. For half a century it has flattered to deceive, promising greatness and offering glimpses of majesty but never quite delivering. But every now and again Tottenham offers a sense of something building. Every now and again you look at its manager and its squad and the way it is playing and you wonder why not. And then you remember it is Tottenham, and that underachievement is written into their DNA.
But suppose this wasn’t Tottenham. Suppose history didn’t exist. You’d look at the side that eviscerated Queens Park Rangers 4-0 last Sunday and, even taking into account the fact it was QPR, you couldn’t help but be impressed.
Emmanuel Adebayor was lively, held the ball up well and took his goal clinically, the model of a modern mobile target-man. Behind him the creative three of Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli were superb, interchanging at will, sometimes passing and sometimes dribbling, constantly probing. At the back of midfield Etienne Capoue looked the man mountain he was at the beginning of last season, with Nabil Bentaleb scuffling around him for scraps while distributing intelligently. The back four didn’t have a huge amount to do, but the full-backs, Eric Dier and Danny Rose, got forward judiciously, generating a goal and an assist between them. And behind them, Hugo Lloris was as quick off his line as ever, allowing the back four to push up, keeping the lines compact.
It was encouraging too for Spurs that their four goals were very different: a cross to the back post after a counter-attack, a header from a corner, and exceptional 48-pass move leading to a dart and cross from Lamela and a neat header from Chadli, and a classic breakaway using an overlapping full-back. There was variety and intelligence to their play but there was also physical robustness.
In part that’s the result of the methods of the manager Mauricio Pochettino. It was generally accepted that his Southampton side was one of the fittest – if not the fittest – side in the Premier League last season, while Brad Friedel, the Spurs reserve goalkeeper, who at 43 has played under plenty of managers, says he has never done so much conditioning work as he has in pre-season this year.
But it’s also to do with the transfer policy of the past couple of years, last summer in particular. Franco Baldini, the technical director, was widely criticized for his spending and, perhaps, he did attempt too much too quickly. The seven players he brought in at a cost of a little over £100million necessarily took time to settle.
It perhaps didn’t help either that, in Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham had a manager who seemed to rub players up the wrong way. Of course, when results go awry it’s easy for players to brief against their manager, but what’s clear is that his decision to ostracise Adebayor and make him train with the youth team â apparently after he refused to take off a beanie hat in a team meeting, although you assume that was the culmination of a number of issues rather than the whole problem â robbed him of a key player who did have Premier League experience.
Replacing Villas-Boas with Tim Sherwood, meanwhile, was a whole new level of oddity, not just because Sherwood had no experience but because his style of football was so out of keeping with that of Villas-Boas or the squad Baldini had put together. Replacing him with Pochettino, somebody who, like Villas-Boas, prefers to operate with a high line and to play a pressing game, made complete sense and the early signs this season are good.
Perhaps most heartening for Spurs are the players who didn’t start on Sunday, the fact that they have the likes of Sandro, Paulinho, Mousa Dembele, Roberto Soldado, Lewis Holtby, Michel Vorm, Kyle Walker, Andros Townsend and Vlad Chiriches in reserve. This is an exceptionally strong squad. In every position there is at least one reserve. Not only that, but it is a coherent squad. Changing one player doesn’t need to mean a change of shape. This is a squad of tall physically imposing players comfortable playing in the tactical set-up preferred by Villas-boas and now Pochettino.
If it weren’t Spurs, if it weren’t for the bizarre Sherwood inter-regnum, if it weren’t for the memory of the chaos of last season, there would be praise for the transfer policy and a realistic expectation of a top-four finish. It’s true that Spurs so far have beaten only West Ham — and that a little fortuitously â and QPR; two sides who will probably finish in the bottom third, but the underlying trend surely is positive. Liverpool on Sunday, of course, will provide the sternest test yet, and it could still all go horribly wrong, but for once the mood of optimism at White Hart Lane may not be illusory.