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Tottenham’s narrative flipping path to top four

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Late winners have made a big difference. Wolves and Everton have helped out too.

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Two unlikely themes explain how Tottenham Hotspur, after two consecutive windows of not signing any players and struggling with major injury issues for most of their key players, are now highly likely to finish in the top four for the fourth consecutive season under manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Spurs have had several late winners.

For the sixth time this season, Spurs picked up a win on Tuesday from a game where they were losing or tied at the 70 minute mark. In three of those wins, Tottenham got the match winner in the 88th minute or later. In December Christian Eriksen scored a stoppage time winner against Burnley at Wembley. Then in January Harry Winks scored the winner on the last kick of the game (off an assist from Georges-Kevin N’Koudou!) in a 2-1 win at Craven Cottage. And now, of course, we have yesterday’s 88th minute winner, again scored by Eriksen.

We shouldn’t overstate this point—of our 11 losses this season, five have come in games where we were leading or tied at the 70 minute mark. Those include late defeats to Watford, Wolves, and Burnley. So we have dropped some games late as well. Even so, we have picked up six points in the final two minutes plus stoppage time and as we head into the final three fixtures of the season those six points are the difference between Champions League football and Europa League football next season. Grinding out late results against teams determined to park the bus is not a vintage Tottenham characteristic, and yet on several occasions this season that is precisely what Spurs have done.

Tottenham beats the teams they are supposed to beat.

It’s perhaps especially worth noting what has happened since early March when Spurs went on a severe slump and opened the door for the other three Champions League contenders to overtake them in the quest for a place in Europe’s greatest competition.

After the March 9 defeat to Southampton, Spurs had taken one point from 12. After a defeat to Liverpool the following week, that record became one point from 15. The door to the Champions League was wide open for all three of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United. And, of course, we were all ready for a steady stream of “Spursy” jokes.

But then something weird happened. Since March 10, three of the four challengers have been Spursy. The one exception? Tottenham. Though Spurs have dropped two fixtures in that time, those were both one goal defeats to Liverpool and City, neither of which are games where Spurs were expected to win—or even necessarily get a result from—anyway. What have the other sides done?

Chelsea could have taken control of their own destiny, trailing Spurs by five points with two games in hand after the Spurs defeat to Southampton. Instead, in seven fixtures since then Chelsea have gone 3-2-2, dropping 10 points during that time with draws to Wolves and Burnley and losses against Everton and Liverpool.

Arsenal, likewise, have had many opportunities to overtake Spurs after Tottenham’s March swoon. They’ve gone 3-0-2 in that time, dropping points against Everton and Crystal Palace.

Manchester United, meanwhile, has had the sharpest fall. They’ve gone 2-0-3 since March 10 with defeats to Arsenal, Wolves, and Everton. (If someone wants to send thank you notes to Molineux and Goodison Park for helping save Tottenham’s season it would not be inappropriate.)

Part of this, no doubt, is that this is the best midtable the Premier League has had in years. Everton, Wolves, Watford, and Leicester all are genuinely good teams that can play with all four of the non-title chasing Champions League contenders. Even so, they are midtable teams for a reason. They’re challenging, but teams with genuine European ambitions should still win those fixtures. And this is where Tottenham have been a cut above their rivals. If you compare the record of the four teams in games against non-Champions League caliber opposition, Spurs are the best of the lot.

Spurs have taken 63 points from these fixtures in 25 games. Arsenal have taken 54 in 24 fixtures. Chelsea have taken 56 in 26 fixtures. United have won 58 points in 26 fixtures. Though Tottenham have disappointed in their league matches with their European rivals this season, Pochettino’s men have gotten results in games where they were favored. Their rivals often have not. And that may well be the difference between who qualifies for next year’s Champions League and who is playing on Thursday nights.

Conclusion

If you want to know why Spurs currently have a 95% probability of qualifying for next year’s Champions League, those two stories tell the tale. The team has picked up some unlikely late wins and they’ve won the games they are supposed to win. Certainly, you can argue that Tottenham should have loftier ambitions. We did not beat Arsenal, Liverpool, or City in the league this year. If this team is going to take the next step and become title challengers, we need to close the gap between Spurs and Liverpool and City.

But given how dumb this season has been, this is probably the best outcome we could plausibly have hoped for in the pre-season. Indeed, this season has been, by any reasonable standard, Mauricio Pochettino’s best performance as a manager.