Though Spurs supporters are loath to admit it, one of the uncomfortable facts about last season’s improbable Champions League run is that it came built on conditions that are almost certainly not repeatable: Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea all had objectively bad seasons. Liverpool had an average season by their recent standards, although they showed considerable improvement under new manager Jurgen Klopp and could be primed to make a year two leap not dissimilar to the one Spurs made last season under Mauricio Pochettino.
Given those conditions, Tottenham’s Champions League run makes much more sense, although that shouldn’t take anything away from the quality the team showed at times last season.
However, as we get ready for the 2016-17 Premier League campaign, we have to ask a new (and less fun) question. City, United, and Chelsea have all brought in new managers that should dramatically improve their respective squads. In addition to that, each team has brought in some excellent new players. City have already added Ilkay Gundogan and Nolito. United have added Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Chelsea have added Michy Batshuayi and N’Golo Kante.
In all likelihood at least two of those three teams are locks for the top four. Manchester City certainly is, and Chelsea probably is too based on Antonio Conte’s track record as a manager. (Chelsea will also be helped by the lack of European football of any kind.) Even Manchester United seems likely, although much will depend on how aging veterans like Ibrahimovic and Rooney perform. United will also need strong seasons from a number of gifted players with a penchant for inconsistency, such as Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, Chris Smalling, and Mkhitaryan himself, who never looked like he was worth the record fee Dortmund paid for him until Thomas Tuchel arrived at the Westfalenstadion.
Realistically, then, we’re probably looking at two teams who seem like locks for the top four in Chelsea and City with four or five teams battling for third and fourth and, potentially, making a title challenge: Arsenal, Spurs, United, Liverpool, and (maybe) Leicester City. (West Ham could also be in the picture if they give up their habit of collecting center forwards and try to actually get a real midfield.) So this begs the question: What would constitute “success” for Tottenham in the 2016-17 season?
Ultimately, a reasonable answer to this question is probably one that Spurs fans would rather not hear: If the team can finish fifth, meaning they’ll be ahead of at least one of United, Liverpool, or Arsenal, that may not be a bad season, depending on how the squad looks week-to-week and how the team looks on some advanced metrics like expected goals. Though it’s easy to forget after last season’s remarkable run, this is still a team very firmly embedded in its own little sub-section of the English Premier League money table, well behind fifth-placed Liverpool and well ahead of seventh-placed Everton. If Spurs finish higher than sixth, we’re punching above our weight financially.
Moreover, we’re currently in a stadium building project, which means our financial muscle on the transfer market is even less than what it would normally be as the sixth largest team in England. To be sure, the added TV money helps us, as does the fact that we’re in London. But the former fact helps all the Premier League sides and the latter probably only helps us against Liverpool, as it won’t mean as much against the Manchester behemoths and doesn’t help us at all against Chelsea and Arsenal which can, after all, offer the same thing.
The bad news, of course, is that missing out on the Champions League could make it difficult to hold onto key players. That said, I suspect one theme we’ll see at the club if Pochettino stays long-term is a willingness to be relatively heartless and sell players in their late 20s and early 30s who no longer have the physical ability required to play Pochettino’s frantic pressing style, and replacing them with academy grads or younger signings who perform better than expected thanks to Pochettino’s ability to develop players.
What we should be hoping for this season, then, is continued improvement in the team’s style, stability at all levels of the club, and a real run at fourth in the Premier League. Anything above that should go down as a far greater success than anything achieved last season. A fifth place finish, meanwhile, would be a disappointment but would not necessarily be a failure depending on how the team performs and how the top four ends up. Obviously this isn’t the sort of thing fans want to think about this time of year, but given the improvements at our far richer rivals, it’s a hard conclusion to avoid.