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Turbulence and turmoil: taking stock of the start of Spurs’ season

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So far, so-so.

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

After this weekend’s 2-1 win at Brighton, the Tottenham ship is finally righted, if only for a second. We started the season with three comfortable wins, including a 3-0 dismantling of Manchester United. Then a wobble verging on a tumble, with three consecutive 2-1 defeats to Watford, Liverpool, and Inter. Then, at Brighton, a fairly simple win over a recently-promoted team. Such abrupt ups and downs are familiar to Spurs supporters, but that hasn’t stopped a sense of panic from setting in or the shouts (tweets) of “Poch out” from starting up again.

There are two ways to interpret these first seven results: Either Tottenham temporarily wobbled (as all teams do) but we are still getting closer to becoming a title-winning team; or our early struggles are evidence of deeper concerns that are holding us back and limiting our potential this season. To learn more, let’s revisit some very basic stats from past seasons—I am not a Moneyball guy, so no xG or any other mysterious acronyms, sorry.

The basics

For those of you who have lost track, Poch’s first season at Spurs was 2014-15, making this his fifth year in charge of Tottenham. In our four seasons under him, we finished fifth, third, second, and third. Of those finishes, our most comfortable was in 2016-17, when we finished eight points ahead of third-place Man City, while 2015-16 featured the tightest margins: just five points separated second-place Arsenal from fifth-place Man U. We finished third that season, a point behind Arsenal. Last season, 2017-18, we finished third again, and although our league performances were slightly worse than the season before, we excelled in the Champions League group stages before narrowly being eliminated by Juventus in the round of 16.

Tottenham’s last four seasons

Season Premier League finish PL points PL goals scored PL goals conceded PL goal differential Highest European finish
Season Premier League finish PL points PL goals scored PL goals conceded PL goal differential Highest European finish
2014-15 5 64 58 53 5 Europa League round of 32 (eliminated by Fiorentina)
2015-16 3 70 69 35 34 Europa League round of 16 (eliminated by Borussia Dortmund)
2016-17 2 86 86 26 60 Champions League group stage (finished 3rd behind Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen, ahead of CSKA Moskow )
2017-18 3 77 74 36 38 Champions League round of 16 (eliminated by Juventus)

We grew steadily better by every metric over our first three seasons under Poch: we scored more goals, conceded fewer, accumulated more Premier League points, and finished better in European competition. Last season, we had the opportunity to continue that progress, but began to stagnate a bit at crucial moments. For that reason, this season matters a lot, because a strong season could return us to the ascending trend of previous years, but a weak season could set up a feeling of having already maxed out our potential. What do the first six Premier League games tell us about how our season has started?

Spurs in the Premier League after the first 6 games

Season Position Points Goals scored Goals conceded Goal differential W D L First six fixtures:
Season Position Points Goals scored Goals conceded Goal differential W D L First six fixtures:
2014-15 8 8 8 7 1 2 2 2 whu, QPR, LIV, sun, WBA, ars
2015-16 9 9 5 4 1 2 3 1 mun, STK, lei, EVE, sun, CRY
2016-17 2 14 10 3 7 4 2 0 eve, CRY, LIV, stk, SUN, mid
2017-18 4 11 10 5 5 3 2 1 new, CHE, BUR, eve, SWA, whu
2018-19 5 12 12 7 5 4 0 2 new, FUL, mun, wat, LIV, bha

By my crude estimations, each season’s first six fixtures have been of fairly comparable difficulty: one or two top-tier teams, mostly middle-of-the-table teams, and a couple of teams that fought to avoid relegation. Our points and record after the first six games suggests something about the rest of the season: the number of points we had after the first six games in each season reflects the outcome of that season relative to others. We had the most points—and fewest losses—in 2016-17, the season of our highest finish. The season when we had the fewest points and worst record after six games was our first, which was our worst finish under Poch. Obviously, preliminary results don’t mean too much, but they do suggest trends.

So far this year, we have set ourselves up for another almost-good-enough season: we’ve shown the quality that we’re capable of, but we’ve also shown how we can still choke in the big moments (defending a 1-0 lead at Inter) and the small moments (defending a 1-0 lead at Watford). Consistency in the next few Premier League games (Huddersfield, Cardiff, and West Ham) will be crucial for the team to establish that they are capable of doing the job each week, while elite performances in our big matches (Barca and PSV in the Champions League, Man City in the Prem at the end of October) are going to be necessary if we want to stand a chance of winning anything this season or surpassing past season’s expectations. If we can’t transcend our early stumbles, we might have reached the limit of our current abilities, and without an increase in transfer spending and ambition, prepare for more of the same.