To win a Premier League title, particularly in the age of super clubs like Manchester City, it is not enough to be very good, to amass wins against lower-table teams, defeat the big six, or weather injury bouts. Each of these will help a club’s chances, but the margins are so tight that to take the title, teams must do it all and more. At the top of the table, wins aren’t the desired outcome, they’re the price of entry, and the best teams are ordered by how many points they drop, not how many they earn. Spurs’ best recent opportunity to lift the trophy was in 2015-16, when all of the usual frontrunners suffered poor seasons at the same time. Yet it was Leicester, not Tottenham, who had the consistency necessary to clinch the title. The hope—and disappointment—from that season have lingered, and since then, Spurs supporters have judged each season on how close to the trophy the team finishes.
This year, until recently, Spurs were hanging on by a thread, neither genuine contenders nor wholly out of the race. Week after week, their title chances lagged until only one result seemed likely: third place. They led the teams behind them by a comfortable margin and were just barely clinging to the breakneck pace set by Manchester City and Liverpool. Think back to the week of 23 February. Spurs, in third on 60 points, were hot on the heels of Manchester City, in second with 62 points, while Liverpool kept hold of first with 65. With twelve matches still to play, it was inevitable that one of the three would drop points, and the team to do so would most likely be Spurs, whose shallow squad was already weakened by injury. City was probably safest, given their stupefying depth and quality. Which teams slipped up and which teams capitalized as the final third of the title race began would set the stage for the late-season theatrics.
Three matchdays over that week, beginning with Spurs-Burnley on February 23, changed the course of the title race. From nine possible points each, City took all nine (thanks to complex schedules, they had already won their first of the three matches on February 10), Liverpool took five, and Spurs took a meager one. There are a lot of ways to make sense of these results, but to do so, one first has to understand their impact on the title race. With Liverpool drawing twice, if Spurs had matched City’s three wins, the top of the table would be spectacularly tight: City, 71; Liverpool, 70, Tottenham, 69. This was an opportunity for Spurs to finally become the title threat that they had hinted at all season, and in spectacular fashion, given that they played both Arsenal and Chelsea. Instead, Spurs succumbed not once, but twice, first to Burnley, then to Chelsea, before eking out a draw against Arsenal, thus tumbling from comfortably pressing City and Liverpool to fighting for their place in the top four.
After that week, Spurs’ season was at a turning point, and being fairly beaten by Southampton yesterday suggests that the worst may not yet be over. There are two ways to think of this. On one hand, Spurs are falling into a top-four battle in a season where they seemed likely to lock down third, and in doing so, are fulfilling the prophecy of late-season tottering that has regretfully become part of the club’s reputation. The conversation around Spurs’ potential has changed drastically since mid-February, when the question was whether they could keep up the form necessary to punish Manchester City and Liverpool if either slipped, and now fans are reciting the same old stories about the club’s inconsistency and lack of quality. On the other hand, the team are still in a favorable, if uncertain, position to secure a top-four finish and Champions League for next year, and for what was always going to be a strange season, what with the uncertainty around the stadium and the lack of transfer spending, that would not be a result to complain about. As happens so often with this club, the standard of judgement all comes down to how large one imagines the club to be. Spurs are bottling another season where they should be doing better, or they are over-performing so much that top-four seems insufficient, despite being by far the smallest club contesting it.
Most frustrating is that this turn of poor form has come after the team successfully weathered bouts of injury to their star players. One can blame Kyle Walker-Peters for Saturday’s night’s defeat, but Spurs’ beloved attackers weren’t able to offset his liabilities by scoring more than once, and while the team worked hard in the first half, fatigue seems to be slowly creeping in. That said, some wobbling might make sense. Due to injuries and absences, the Dele-Eriksen-Son-Kane attack force hasn’t started a game together since January 13, and perhaps a disconnect is growing between them. Add to the mix uncertainty around the futures of several of Spurs’ most influential players, the stadium opening mess, and Pochettino’s absence from the touchline on Saturday, and this run of poor results is easy, though unpleasant, to explain.
The club now has three weeks off before Liverpool on 31 March, and how Poch and the players react to these losses is key. For me, third place remains the target, and a strong Spurs performance between now and the season’s end should be enough to clinch it. However, qualifying for the Champions League is absolutely essential. Having Champions League for the first season in the new stadium would set a positive tone for Spurs’ aspirations, and without the baseline appeal of being able to play in Europe’s highest competition, the club would have a hard time of convincing players of an appropriate caliber to join, as well as ensuring that current players do not leave. The Liverpool game will be difficult, but results aside, the team must assert a renewed vigor on the pitch in order to set the tone for a massively important final run of matches.