It’s the 85th minute and Tottenham Hotspur are down a goal in Wales to a bunkered opponent. Hands up: how many of you honestly thought that Spurs were going to pull off their dramatic come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Swansea City on Wednesday evening?
If your hand is still down, you’re certainly not alone. Full disclosure? Mine is down too. Tottenham Hotspur has been a club that has always been irrevocably tied to the idea of sporting glory, but it’s the execution that has seemed to elude them time and again. You can call the Spurs teams of the past five or so seasons many things, but “mentally strong” has rarely been one of them. This was one of those kinds of matches that seems to happen to Spurs teams at least once a season, and usually more. Players switch off, mistakes are made. Watch out for that banana peel.
We saw this phenomenon as recent as last Spring as Spurs needed only to beat already-relegated Newcastle to secure second place behind Leicester and a finish above Arsenal for the first time in nearly two decades. And, well. Let’s not talk about it. It’s still too soon.
There’s even a word coined for Spurs propensity for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory: Spursy. Wind back the clock two years and this Swansea match ends up a deeply stupid 1-0 loss. Perhaps a draw if you’re feeling generous.
Never a win. Certainly not a 3-1 win with all three goals scored within a six minute stretch starting in the 88th minute.
But this match, and this team, is different. The players have learned. They’ve grown. They are focused, determined in a way that we only caught glimpses of last season. But mental fortitude is like muscle memory: it takes time and training to get it right and to build it up.
It also takes a charismatic and strong leader, which they have in Mauricio Pochettino. From day one, Poch has talked again and again about determination, belief, and being ready to compete. Talent is important, yes, but equally so is developing a culture of tenacity and perseverance. It’s taken a while to get to this point. Poch’s pride in his team were clear in his post-Swansea press conference comments.
“It happened because we believed and never gave up. We just kept trying. It was a very difficult win and we started very well. The first 5-10 minutes we created many chances to score...
“We tried to change the formation and decisions on the pitch many times to find another way to create chances. We controlled it and then we fully deserved the victory.
“I think the last 15-20 minutes we pushed harder. For me the most important thing is we showed threat, belief and we never gave up. The players deserve big credit for their victory...
“Today was another example that football is a collective matter. The spirit of the team is fantastic and that is most important. Sometimes when you have problems you can fix them because you are ready to compete.”
It’s important to note here that Pochettino is not talking about stopping mistakes. Swansea’s goal came from a combination of Ben Davies falling asleep at the switch, and Toby Alderweireld allowing Wayne Routledge to get on the wrong side of him, both hugely frustrating incidents that combined to lead to a goal. Mistakes happen.
But what’s different about this team this season is that those mistakes are no longer allowed to define the match, or the club. Spurs have morphed from a team that makes occasional mistakes and loses to a team that makes occasional mistakes, fixes them, and finds a way to win anyway.
Personnel wise, there isn’t a dramatic difference between last year’s Spurs squad and this year’s. The difference is in how they react to adversity under pressure, and it’s borne out by the number of points Spurs have won from a losing position since Pochettino took over.
53 - Since M.Pochettino was appointed as boss, Spurs have won 53 points from losing positions in the PL; 13 more than any other side. Battle— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 5, 2017
I’m not saying that Spurs are never going to gaffe away a lead again, or lay an egg in a match they should win. Invariably they will, and fans will most likely respond with something along the lines of “We’ve got our Spurs back!” It takes a while to change a club culture. It’s not something that happens overnight, even after a big win.
But something feels different after Wednesday’s match. It feels like the team has proven something, like they’ve reached the top of some metaphorical hill or started fording some imaginary Rubicon.
They’ve started to believe in themselves. Really believe. And once you start to instill that culture of belief, it becomes very hard to tamp it back down again. I can’t prove it yet, but I think that Wednesday’s win over Swansea is the result of a new culture of mental toughness at Tottenham Hotspur, one that can finally banish the Spursiness of the past to the dustbin of history.