Manchester City have set a new standard for the Premier League this season, but it’s not a huge leap from the heights Tottenham were hitting towards the end of last season. From mid-December onwards, Mauricio Pochettino’s men were imperious, winning 17 of their final 21 matches, prevailing by two clear goals in 13 cases, three clear goals in nine and four clear goals in six.
When Spurs hit their stride, they put away the also-rans with consummate ease. Home or away, handicaps are cleared in routine fashion, to such an extent that the overwhelming emotion in the aftermath is one of regret that their stride hadn’t been hit sooner. In each of their three seasons under Pochettino, they’ve been better after Christmas than they were before.
Whether that’s down to a lack of intuition in the first instance or the cumulative benefits of their methods in the latter, it’s hard to escape the impression that the pattern is somehow down to the personality of the manager. Sadly, teething troubles at Wembley have ensured that any flourish between now and May will be insufficient to deliver the title once again.
Having recorded totals of 31, 35 and 39 points from the first 19 matches in those last three campaigns, 34 this time around must be considered a disappointment. But there’s a clear indication that the tide has fully turned since a crushing 4-1 defeat by City over a month ago. In the last five matches, Tottenham have taken 13 points and scored 15 goals.
Without wishing to perpetuate the lazy stereotypes of the past two years, it might not be coincidence that things have fallen into place now that all title talk has been extinguished once and for all. Either way, there’s enough encouragement when reading between the lines to believe Spurs can be the most formidable member of the chasing pack from hereon in.
It’s a tantalising prospect because United, Liverpool and Arsenal will be their next three opponents in the Premier League ahead of a Champions League double-header with Juventus. But first, Pochettino will want to dispose of his former club in much the same way as he did in the reverse fixture (5-2) at Wembley a little over three weeks ago.
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Last season, Spurs were 4-1 winners at St Mary’s and we should no longer be harbouring any illusions that the Hampshire club are the top-half entity now that they were then. Saints have turned full circle and the feel-good factor that followed back-to-back promotions has been extinguished by a leaning towards defensive tactics in the wake of key player sales.
Whether it was necessary for Claude Puel to be so cautious last term remains a moot point on the south coast. But matters have hardly been resolved by the club merely employing a kindred spirit when they turned to Mauricio Pellegrino as his replacement in the summer. The fans aren’t happy and the team often seems ill at ease with what they’re being asked to do.
There was a brief rekindling of happier times last weekend when Saints came out on the front foot at Watford and marched into a two-goal interval lead, courtesy of a brace from James Ward-Prowse. But then the Hornets introduced Troy Deeney, went more direct, and the visitors retreated to the edge of their 18-yard box, much to the general dismay of the travelling contingent.
Pellegrino had every reason to be upset with the officials, who failed to spot a handball that led to Abdoulaye Doucoure’s last-gasp leveller, but it was pressure that Southampton had invited. The view from inside the camp appears to be that Pellegrino got his tactics right and the players let him down with their execution, namely their inability to keep possession.
Either way, both arguments are a cause for worry, as is the assertion from Steven Davis this week that performances are being affected by their position. Just a point above the drop zone, Southampton aren’t used to looking over their shoulders in this way and it’s a mental fragility that the resurgent visitors should expose to the full.
Tottenham -1.0 on the Asian handicap at 6/5