The season is over. It’s done and dusted, with Tottenham Hotspur ending the campaign in a more than respectable third place position in the table. Spurs did this while playing all 38 of their games away from Tottenham in north London while construction crews finish their new stadium, set to open in time for next season.
There have been some exquisite highs this year, but also some lows. It’s worth taking a step back to examine how the season went as a whole. To whit, members of the Carty Free masthead were asked to boil down the season as a whole and assign a letter grade. Here are the results.
One of the advantages of being managing editor is that I got to read all of the responses below before writing my own grade. This means that everybody below me is going to say things a lot better than I would, and I won’t repeat them.
Expectations are a tricky thing. Spurs seem to have straddled that line between the expectation to build on last season’s second place finish and the reality that a season at Wembley plus the reality of a resurgent Liverpool, United, and City would prove extraordinarily difficult. And yet Spurs still managed to put together a phenomenal Champions League run, finished third despite a Harry Kane injury and a string of anemic performances, and a second straight FA Cup semifinal match. Kane scored 30 league goals and became arguably the best #9 in the world, Eriksen and Son both are better than they were last season, and Dele is a better all-around player than last season, even if he scored less. It feels disappointing only because the expectations were arguably too high.
Y’all, this was a really, really good Tottenham Hotspur team, even if the they didn’t achieve everything that they wanted. We are in the good times.
There’s two ways you could look at this season: One is that it was an unambiguous success. We reached the semis of the FA Cup, finished third--the best finish amongst London teams--and came very close to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. We also beat Real Madrid and Dortmund in the group stage and beat every team in the league except for the champions Manchester City. We also probably inflicted the worst result on this year’s Liverpool side in that 4-1 win at Wembley. On top of all that, Harry Kane made The Leap and established himself as a serious candidate for the title of “best striker in the world,” Dele Alli quietly had a very good year, Christian Eriksen was outstanding, and Davinson Sanchez was arguably the best signing in the Premier League not named Mo Salah.
All that being said, there is clearly a shelf life for a manager like Mauricio Pochettino. The charismatic tactical genius with the personality of a cult leader does not often stay at one club for long--and if he does, he often endures a rough season or two while the club finds itself after peaking early in his regime. The former happened to Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund who, in his final season in Germany, spent much of the year in the relegation zone, though their actual performance was better than their results. The latter has happened with Diego Simeone at Atletico. Though they have continued to produce strong results in recent years and may well win the Europa League this season, one can’t help feeling that they’ve never quite hit the level of that title-winning side that nearly won the Champions League. The final two months of this campaign has me genuinely wondering if we are soon headed for a similar period under Pochettino. After the first leg draw in Turin, Spurs had a very good shot at cracking the quarterfinals in Europe and were also looking very strong contenders for the FA Cup and a top four finish in the league. But with the exception of the vital home win against Chelsea, everything has been mostly down hill since that second half capitulation to Juventus at Wembley. The team had a horror show against United in the FA Cup, struggled mightily down the stretch in the league, and never quite seemed to recover the confidence they enjoyed for much of the first 3/4 of the season.
It is possible, of course, that the team just needs a couple new faces. With the likely departures of Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose, and Mousa Dembele this summer the club should have funds to spend, though how much will be left after contract extensions are handed to a number of other key players remains an open question. That said, one suspects that a summer that sees the club add Ryan Sessegnon, Amadou Diawara, and one other Champions League-caliber squad player (Anthony Martial?) would be sufficient to banish the dark mood that has marked the end of the season. Of course, signing those three players will likely cost upwards of £100m at least and Spurs may not be the top contender for the signature of any of those three players. If the summer goes poorly, as it may well, then it is actually quite easy to imagine the sour mood that marked the final portion of this season lingering into the next. Given that Chelsea figures to be stronger next season and Liverpool absolutely will be stronger with the signing of Naby Keita and possible signing of Nabil Fekir, it’s vital that Spurs avoid the sudden collapse that often comes under managers like Pochettino. Prior to the last two months, I would not have imagined such a thing happening so soon at Tottenham. But the end of this season has me feeling very nervous as we head into the new stadium next fall.
What went right: Lots of things! We finished third, which considering our financial situation is ridiculous. We blitzed our way through our Champions League group after everyone told us we’d get destroyed. We had a deep cup run. We did all of that while playing at Wembley. This is probably our second or third most successful season in the Premier League era! I had a lot of fun watching Spurs this year, which is the point of being a fan.
What went wrong: We’re knocking on the door, but we can’t get through it. A friend of mine (who supports Arsenal, so really more of an acquaintance...) said he had a feeling we’ll be remembered like the Newcastle sides of the mid-90s who came so close twice, then hung around the top four for a few more years, but never actually won any silverware. I laughed when he said that, but that is entirely possible.
There’s a good chance that by the end of the summer half of the starting lineup that finished second just a year ago will be gone and we have a *mixed* record in the transfer market recently. We still have the bones of an extremely good side, but everyone is now a year older (a lot of players are reaching end of prime/post-prime ages) and another year without a trophy could hurt our ability to keep some of our younger players.
We’re still really, really good, so I don’t want to sound too doom and gloomy. There are 16 or 17 Premier League teams that would kill to have had the season we just did. We came into this season with sky-high expectations. We hit some of our goals, fell just short of others. Now we’re in for an extremely interesting summer.
People sometimes forget just how new all of this is to Tottenham Hotspur. Next season will only be their fourth time ever in the Champions League. Spurs have gone from outsiders constantly looking in on the Top 4, to Top 4 constants. They have effectively solidified themselves as a Champions League team for the first time in their history. That’s a major goal accomplished. Mauricio Pochettino’s side didn’t collect any silverware, but Spurs’ progress is too obvious to ignore in favor of a tired “yeah but they didn’t win anything” argument.
Liverpool find themselves in the Champions League final, but that could have just as easily been Tottenham. Spurs did incredibly well in the group stage despite being handed the toughest draw of any English team. They were just minutes away from advancing to the quarterfinals, but were only pegged back by an experienced Juventus team that they were unlucky to draw after winning Group H. Where would Spurs have ended up had they been fortuitous enough to receive a draw like Liverpool’s? Tottenham were closer to Champions League glory than one might think. And still, beating Madrid and Dortmund was quite glorious in itself. “Even failure will have in it an echo of glory”...those are Bill Nicholson’s words from like 40 years ago and they still ring true. If it’s good enough for Bill Nick, it should be good enough for us too!
But Spurs didn’t win the Champions League, or the FA Cup, or the Premier League, or even the League Cup. The performance in the FA Cup semifinal stands out as the failure of the season. Even if Poch doesn’t really value that competition, the fans do. Relinquishing a lead and going out to United will hurt for a bit. Still, it’s not enough for me to overrule the other successes of this campaign. Tottenham played away from home for the entire season. Over the summer that looked to be a daunting task as the media went on and on about Spurs’ struggles at Wembley, but the squad genuinely turned Wembley into their home away from home. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen all improved. Davinson Sanchez slotted in effortlessly despite being only 21-years-old. Son Heung-min had more than his fair share of moments. Jan Vertonghen once again showed himself to be one of the best defenders on the planet.
This was a transitional year for Spurs off the pitch, but they never let it look transitional on the pitch as well. They finished third (ahead of rivals Arsenal and Chelsea) and drastically improved on their Champions League performance from the previous year. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and there’s still a lot of work to be done ahead of next season. But considering the entire context of this year, it was a success. Sissoko wasn’t even that terrible.
Clearly, Tottenham accomplished a few things throughout the course of the 2017-18 season. The biggest highlight will be topping a Champions League group with reigning champions Real Madrid and German giants Borussia Dortmund, in addition to APOEL Nicosia. Additionally, a well-earned third straight finish in the Top 4 is no small achievement, given the tough competition around them and that it has hardly been a habit for the club to be in the Champions League. Yet, there might be a small feeling that there was a chance to do more.
The biggest reason for that is the team’s FA Cup run, which ended in a disappointing semifinal defeat to Manchester United. That particular defeat did not see the best of Spurs, especially because it was a tournament the team had the ability to win. It was also one match in a stretch of many inconsistent performances to close out the season, one that matched a similar run in the league much earlier in the season. Though the argument can be made Tottenham’s status as a club might not have increased with that FA Cup, the combination of that plus a run in the Champions League that ended in the Round of 16 to Juventus has left many longing for more.
It leaves Tottenham with a very important summer to figure out what exactly the plan is from here. Clearly, with the current squad and manager in place, finishing in the Top 4 and making deep runs in domestic cups can become an expectation. However, there is the potential to take a big step and challenge for greater prizes, such as deeper runs in the Champions League or trophies. Many of the things the team needs to improve on are relatively easy to identify. To name only one example, the team was overly reliant on Harry Kane, one of the greatest forwards in the sport currently, a natural reaction to having that kind of talent at your disposal but one that can sometimes be to one’s detriment.
It is that potential that will make the 2017-18 season, overall, a strong one for Tottenham, at least while it remains very fresh in our memories.
I drafted and re-drafted this a few times, but on reflection I think I can boil my thoughts down to this: Pochettino brought Spurs some fantastic individual results and a good final league position this year, but I think his handling of the squad (beginning with his treatment of Kyle Walker going into last summer and continuing with his decisions on how to use Rose, Toby, Lucas and Kane) also stopped us from going further. I’m worried about him leaving but I’m also worried about this becoming the defining theme of his tenure.
On balance I’ll grade this season a B- and try not to think too hard about where we could be if Ben Davies and Serge Aurier hadn’t been our starting fullbacks.
So as to not repeat what so many others have in recounting our season highlights/low points, I’ll be brief. This season is categorically a success. It was a season of consolidation, not unlike a promoted team who is looking to establish itself at a higher level of competition. We have successfully moved ourselves into the new stadium not just as a Champions League participant, but as an established side that will be talked about as a contender to advance deep into next season’s competition. Is it disappointing not to have won a trophy? Of course. But “the project” has been about something more grand than one trophy, it’s about changing the course of the club for years and generations of the future. And to that end, it’s been a roaring success. We are ahead of schedule. Now, the project changes. Going forward, trophies will be of the highest priority.
Going into the season having watched all of the Sky Six strengthen (as well as Everton, but loltoffees) I think we were all in agreement that if Spurs managed a third straight Top Four finish, we’d be happy with that. Having Champions League football next season at the new stadium is fantastic, and while we limped over the finish line, it doesn’t matter how we got there. Finishing in third above all the other London clubs is a hell of an achievement. We’ll also be the only London club in Champions League! Suck on that, everyone else in London.
The Champions League run is so bittersweet. This team was handed a group of death, gobbled it up and asked for more. They should have beaten Juventus and at least hit the quarterfinal, but that’s football. Sometimes stupid things happen and you give up two goals in quick succession. Either way, I’ll forever remember the night we handed Real Madrid their asses on a plate at Wembley.
All in all, even without a trophy, this season went well. There were plenty of high spots and low spots to enjoy and bicker about, but the fact remains that this team continues to improve and I feel like we’re on the precipice of taking that final step to glory.