By all statistical measures, this is the best Tottenham team of the Pochettino era. Yes, Spurs got closer to winning the title in 2016 and 2017, but the 2018 squad is better, despite our post-Chelsea malaise. It is the first Pochettino-led team to make it to the Champions League knockouts and frankly should have gone to the quarters. This team beat Madrid at home and tied Madrid at the Bernabeu. Spurs beat both Champions League finalists. They went to Dortmund and won, and beat every team in the league this season save 100 pt Manchester City. According to 538, Spurs are the 8th best team in the world, in a group with Juventus and Atletico, just below Liverpool, City, and the continental giants.
And yet, Spurs have much more obvious holes this year than they did in 2017. The fullback position was an obvious weakness in the squad this year after being an obvious strength in 2017. Kyle Walker is gone and Danny Rose is injured or out of the manager’s favor. Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies are good at what they’re good at (incisive passing in the final third mostly) and just too athletically limited to handle their defensive responsibilities. Serge Aurier has very real talents, has improved over the course of the season, and seems to lose his brain a few times a match in incredibly dangerous ways. Toby Alderweireld only played 1000 minutes in the league, and Mousa Dembele only played 2000 minutes and was a bit more up and down rather than his consistently imperious self in the league.
How did Spurs get better despite this? Well, Spurs got better because their best players got better. Harry Kane went from .73 xG+xA per 90 to .95. Sonny went from .54 to an absolutely monster .73 (It may have gotten lost just how good Son has been this season).
Spurs bench also got better. Davinson Sanchez stepping right in was monstrous. When he was alive, Harry Winks provided a lot more depth in the midfield when he was alive. Moussa Sissoko was better this year. And finally, Lamela and Wanyama came back to provide meaningful minutes after struggling with injury for a long time. To the extent soccer is a weak link sport, the links got much less weak this year.
With all that said, we limped to the finish. Fans are pessimistic as Spurs supposedly almost blew the Top Four race. My sense is that people expect Spurs to take a step back next year and have been pessimistic since the FA Cup. Perhaps that is just the natural state of Spurs fandom, and my natural optimism is ill-suited to the team. Still, Toby, Danny, and Moose are seemingly off, meaning we will lose, perhaps, our most talented centerback, fullback, and midfielder. And yet, I look at the state of things and find myself optimistic about next season.
First, having identifiable weaknesses is a good thing if you’re trying to improve your squad! It is a bit like being a baseball player with a really large platoon split: if you can do one thing really well that’s better for your team than if you can do everything just ok. They can find ways to work you in strategically. Improving a team with good but not great players at every position is hard, you have to go out and get great players to replace good ones, and finding truly elite talent is hard.
Spurs already have great talents who seem like they will be around next year. Kane, Eriksen, Dele, Son, and Jan are already great, the sorts of players that are the best players on the best teams in the world. Finding good players to replace average or below average players is much easier. Upgrading at left back shouldn’t be hard and Spurs seem intent on doing so. Upgrading at right back might just require Aurier to have more time with Pochettino. In terms of projections, it’s easier to see where Spurs will get better than it is to see where, say, City will get better because City are so good everywhere.
Second, Spurs have a great age profile. At each position, almost everybody is at or below the peak age for their position (see this article from resident evil numbers wizard Michael Caley). Perhaps Jan and Hugo are starting to get to the age where you worry about but don’t expect a decline and Sissoko and Trippier in the “older than you’d think” camp. Sanchez and Dele on the other hand are at the age where you might think they can still go up a level. Compare that to Manchester City (who will be fine because they have so much talent and money that it likely won’t matter) where Fernandinho, Silva, Aguero, Otamendi, and even our old friend Kyle Walker are past or near past their peak ages at their position.
Third, Spurs were not particularly lucky to get their results this season. By expected points, Spurs were third in the league this season, and much closer to City than the table presents. (Expected points are created by simulating each game by their expected goals and summing up the points a team would have expected to win in each of those matches.)
In fact, 2018 was the first season under Pochettino where Spurs didn’t exceed their xG on both ends of the pitch. Last season, Kane, Eriksen, Dele, and Son (DESK) absolutely demolished their xG totals leading Spurs to 86 goals on 70 expected (and new data from Statsbomb suggest maybe it’s explicable). This season, their finishing has come back to Earth, perhaps more than we’d have expected given their established conversion success. Similarly, Hugo was the best shot stopping keeper in the league last year, and while I have not seen the data I am skeptical that he has been that good this year. Regardless, there are no warning signs that Spurs are likely to regress (United though, yiiiikes).
Fourth, and similar to xG, Spurs were not particularly lucky with respect to health this year. Toby (for some of his missed time), Wanyama, Kane, Rose, and Dembele all missed time with injuries. In 2017, Chelsea were remarkably lucky with respect to injury and won the league. This year, they have not been so lucky, and lo and behold, have struggled. There is no reason to expect Spurs to regress next year with respect to injury. I haven’t seen wages lost to injury for 2017/2018 yet, but Spurs lost real quality to injury in a way that their top flight competitors did not.
Relatedly, and this is the key point that I see some missing in their pessimism: Spurs are losing three of their most talented players this off-season if Toby, Dembele, and Rose all go, but they aren’t losing that talent from this years squad per se. Dembele has played 2000 league minutes, Rose 600, and Toby 1000. The three have combined, essentially, for one healthy season. Even if Spurs sell the three and only are able to buy 80% of the talent back, they will have improved on the health-adjusted quality of next year’s roster.
And while Spurs scouting, analytics, and recruitment departments have left quite a bit to be desired, in general Daniel Levy has been quite successful at getting bang for his buck in the transfer market (I cannot hear your shouts of But Sissoko and Janssen over the sound of my cackles at Toby, Wanyama, Dele, Sanchez, Sonny, Lucas, and Eriksen.) If Spurs sell those three and sign, say, Jonathan Tah, Amadou Diawara, and Kieran Tierney to replace them and do not much else this summer, you’d expect to have more available talent next year than this year even though the potential talent might be lower.
Spurs certainly have downsides for next year. Hugo Lloris could fall off a cliff. Christian Eriksen has not been injured in four seasons (although with Lucas and Lamela healthy Spurs are more inoculated from such an eventuality than they have been in ages). Jan Vertonghen was imperious this year and is getting old enough we should be concerned he will be consistently healthy. Harry Kane might be doing damage to his ankle right now as his block-headed pursuit of GOALS leads him astray.
But looking at Spurs top end talent, its fantastic coach, its relatively neutral luck profile, and the increased health next years’ recruits may bring in to replace our departed faves, I see more upside than downside. Of course, that isn’t enough to guarantee a trophy: City are still City. Liverpool look to be combining lots of money with top end scouting and recruitment and a great coach. United have more money than God, a great if flawed manager, and incredible top end talent. Chelsea have similarly obvious flaws to Spurs (just replace Cesc with a great young midfielder who can pass and you’re a lot better). Arsenal seem pretty flawed and bloated but still.
There’s a lot of competition at the upper echelon of the Premier League, but I don’t see any evidence that Spurs are set to regress among that top. Spurs have firmly cemented themselves in the top 10 teams in the world and should be disappointed to not reach the Champions League quarterfinals in a given year. While knockout tournaments have caused some problems, we should also expect a trophy from this crew at some point. The new stadium awaits the best Spurs team in recent history, and with it, a chance to move beyond moral victories to trophies and European glory.