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Marginal improvements are delivering consistent form at Tottenham Hotspur

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Tottenham love to leave it late, but this season, they’re always ahead at the full-time whistle.

West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League - The Hawthorns Photo by Laurence Griffiths/PA Images via Getty Images

With the exception of their 6-1 rout of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur’s results this season have fallen mostly into familiar patterns: abandoned early leads, last-second wins, and a lingering uncertainty about whether the team will secure three points from a given match. Yet this time, something is different. Though the scores may not show it, fans know that Tottenham are playing their best football in a year or more. For those of you keen on metrics, consider the team’s expected goals for and against in the Premier League, smoothed by a 4-match moving average, below.

Data: FBRef.com

Our expected goal history shows that our present defense is far more consistent than it was in the second half of last season, a period in which we once went nine matches without conceding fewer than 1.5 xG. Fans have likely picked up on that welcome improvement, but equally important—and less visible to my eye, at least—is the fact that the team is creating an increasingly compelling offensive threat, logging at least 1.0 xG in every game but one since the beginning of the current season. Despite the need for a few late winners, Spurs have not only racked up goals against Southampton and Manchester United, they have developed a regular attacking potential that can be relied on week-to-week. For the first time since Pochettino’s ambitious, high-pressing style reigned at the club, Tottenham are playing with a coherent tactical vision: concede rarely and depend on a group of world-class forwards to score at least one goal per game, if not two.

To enable that coherence and the form that it promotes, a few things have changed since last season. First, the team had a summer vacation which gave the players more time to adjust to Mourinho’s ideas than they were afforded when he took over mid-season. The impact of a summer of training is clear: Spurs’ center backs have found a rhythm in recent weeks, with Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld beginning to establish themselves as the first-choice partnership and Dier particularly impressive as he develops into a nailed-on role at the back, while Harry Kane’s embrace of the deeper position at which he has shone on occasion in past seasons is symbolic of—and crucial to—a more flexible and unpredictable offense.

Second, a wave of new signings has not only improved the depth and quality of the squad, it has changed the tactics available to Mourinho, particularly in the center of the pitch. At times last season, Spurs lacked bite in midfield, both attacking and defending, such that the defense was exposed to constant pressure and the forwards were left without a retreating pass to reset the attack. A few new signings have changed that: Hojbjerg is both a compelling defensive midfielder, doggedly harrying opposition attackers and occasionally winning back possession, and a valuable nexus for Tottenham when on the attack, providing a link from defense to offense in the Tottenham half and a fall-back option in the opposition half. Kane’s new, deeper role is made possible by the presences of Sergio Reguilon, Gareth Bale, and Tanguy Ndombele (who, though not a new signing, is seeing his first prolonged involvement since joining the club), each of whom provides a different way forward for Spurs which together reduce the need for Kane to linger constantly in the opposition penalty area. All told, Tottenham have a greater impact in the middle of the pitch than they did in prior seasons, and it is making all the difference.

Tottenham’s present quality is no shock. Pochettino first showed what a skilled Tottenham side can do, and even as his side lost form and Mourinho took over, nobody doubted that Spurs were capable of greatness. To achieve the present run of positive results, Mourinho has simply introduced his own strategic approach and, over time, made marginal improvements on the qualities that are necessary for it to succeed: defensive solidity and attacking reliability. Tottenham have reduced their defensive lapses from a peak of over two expected goals conceded per game mid-last season to around one per game in recent weeks, but more importantly, they are creating plentiful attacking opportunities, scoring two or more goals in half of their games this season and only failing to score altogether once, in their opening fixture against Everton. “Concede rarely; score often” is the simple principle at the heart of all winning approaches, and though Mourinho teams are often criticized for their prioritization of the first half of the phrase, Tottenham are winning games by dependably scoring goals.

What matters now is whether the new-and-improved look will stick. Tottenham experienced a similar run of good form right after Mourinho joined the club, and even in the twilight of Pochettino’s reign mustered enough quality to win a place in the Champions League final. When a squad is as gifted as Tottenham’s is now, good form is likely. The challenge is to preserve it over a grueling season. Recent results should not be treated as high points, but rather as the benchmark against which the team is evaluated for the remainder of the season. Spurs have shown us what they’re capable of. They just need to keep it up.