One way of telling the story of Tottenham Hotspur in 2019 is that the team finished in the top four for the fourth straight season, survived the worst injury crisis and squad depth issues of the Pochettino era, and, oh, by the way, went to the Champions League final. Then they opened the next season and made a respectable start to the year despite persistent injury issues and a grueling opening schedule.
Another way of telling the story is that Spurs farted their way to fourth purely because Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal were somehow just as bad as Spurs down the stretch. Then they opened the next season with a run that included a home loss to Steve Bruce’s Newcastle, blowing a 2-0 lead at the Emirates in the first North London Derby of the season, blowing a 2-0 Champions League lead to Olympiakos, and falling 2-1 at Leicester City.
So... which is it?
Let’s start by looking at some stats. I’ve compiled expected goal data via Understat for the 2019 calendar year in the Premier League. Is that arbitrary? Sure. But you need a cutoff somewhere and there is non-arbitrary cutoff point other than the start of a new season. But much of Spurs’ struggles really began to surface in 2019 after a stronger start to the 2018-19 campaign. So I’m running the numbers for Premier League games played in 2019. I’ve sorted the table by expected goals difference:
Premier League Expected Goals in 2019
At first glance, this table tells a pretty ugly story about Spurs. Expected goal differential is hanging out at 2.49. Stretched out over a full season, that’s the kind of performance you’d expected from a midtable side with an outside shot at the final Europa League spot.
But when you zoom out a bit, the picture becomes more complicated.
Manchester United looks stronger, but the opening months of 2019 were the early Solskjaer bump that came against an absurdly easy run of fixtures. Since that run ended, United has been poor—and it’s not as if their open to this season should have their fans feeling any better than Tottenham supporters. Arsenal, meanwhile, has even worse xG numbers in 2019 than Spurs. So if you assume that the top four is fairly set in terms of coming from four out of six possible teams, then there’s good reason to think Spurs could, once again, drunkenly stumble into fourth simply by virtue of being the least catastrophic of the bad Sky Six teams.
What about the rest of the table? Leicester, Wolves, and Everton are all ahead of Spurs in xGD. But Wolves have had a rough start to this season. Everton is breaking in a new midfield after the departure of Idrissa Gueye and just lost yesterday to promoted Sheffield United. Leicester is the best of the lot but, again, is breaking in a brand new defensive pairing after the departure of Harry Maguire.
So in all three cases, there are major question marks, which gives good reason to think that Spurs should overtake each of those teams provided Tottenham plays nearer to its peak over the remainder of the season.
Can we expect that though?
It’s hard to say, but there is a credible case for optimism. Even if we grant that Kane may be diminished from past years—though he had an excellent game against Leicester, it’s worth noting—Spurs still have not figured out their first-team midfield this season. If Tanguy Ndombele, Dele Alli, and Giovani Lo Celso can all become fit and play consistent minutes this season, then those three alongside Christian Eriksen would make a formidable midfield.
Given the key absences for Spurs so far this season, it’s too soon to panic. 2019 has been a disastrous year for the club in domestic play, but there is a way of accounting for the disaster that leaves a great deal of room for hopefulness once more of the likely first XI are fit.