Three days from now, Tottenham Hotspur will face off against Manchester United on match day 30 of the 2019-2020 campaign. It still feels weird to say that out loud to myself, but pandemic be damned, the EPL is hellbent on finishing out this season.
In case you’ve forgotten (lord knows I did), Spurs currently sit eighth on the table. They are seven points out of fourth place, but with Manchester City currently appealing a two-year European Competition ban, fifth place seems more attainable and could vault Spurs back into the Champions League next season, whenever that actually happens:
When the season was paused, Spurs were at a pretty low point. RB Leipzig had just finished thrashing them in the knockout stage of the Champions League and had been pretty lackluster in the previous five matches. Of course, injuries played a massive part in the loss of form. We don’t need to list every single one, but given that most of the club’s attackers were hobbled and possibly out for the season didn’t give us as supporters much hope. When your roster less resembles a football club and more like a M*A*S*H unit, that’s a problem.
The elephant in the room is what’s been on my mind for the last couple of weeks as everyone trains to get back to match fitness: Spurs could possibly be the biggest beneficiaries of the stoppage of play.
Let me get the obvious statement out there: I hate that it’s been made possible by a deadly pandemic and I think it’s safe to say we all feel that way. Our opinions as to whether or not this is the correct thing to do are, ultimately, meaningless. We didn’t get a say in this other than online forums and social media which the people who run the Premier League don’t really care about. The decision makers have determined they can do this, even though there are still clubs out there with positive test results, so here we are.
So with the uncomfortable part of this conversation out of the way, why should we feel optimistic about the final nine matches? I think we can break that down into a few points.
First, to hammer home my earlier point: Spurs are healthy. They’ve been dealing with injuries going back to September when new signing Giovani Lo Celso was injured on international duty. It just seemed to be one after another until most of our attacking band was out. Dele Alli was gassed by the time Spurs made the trip to Leipzig, but there was no one else to play. He had to play. It hurts that he’ll miss this crucial match due to suspension, but now that there are bodies available to fill in, Jose Mourinho can fill out the squad without concern.
Next, we’re going to find out if Harry Kane is still Harry Kane. Each of his ankle injuries have come with scrutiny about whether or not he was rushed back too soon (Spoiler: He absolutely was) because he wanted to play. We were all worried that he was going to do the same thing this season and try to bust his ass to get back and keep his spot for the Euros this summer. Instead, he was able to rehab properly and will be out to prove he is the best striker in the world.
Kane’s numbers over the past few seasons have taken a hit due to his fight with injuries. Going back to the 2016-17 season, he had an insane 1.21 xG+A/90 in the Premier League alone. That number balanced out to 1.15 xG+A/90 when including club competitions, but scoring 35 goals across all competitions for the club is obviously a heck of a return. In 2017/18, he still performed at 1.03 xG+A/90 and scored 41 goals in 48 appearances, up from 38 appearances.
Things get weird from here.
Last season we saw a noticeable decline in his shot numbers. While his overall xG+A was still 0.81/90, his xG dropped from 26.4 to 16.7. His shot creation wasn’t as good and he simply wasn’t generating as many chances. He still banged home 24 goals in 40 appearances but had to deal with another injury. His shot totals in the past three seasons ultimately tell the tale:
Harry Kane shooting statistics (Credit: FB REF)
That last set of numbers is obviously incomplete as we have nine matches to play. Harry has only managed 25 appearances because of his hamstring injury, so that has to be taken into consideration. We’ve asked ourselves on this site time and again: Is Harry still Harry? Is he actually healthy or just playing through pain? This long layoff will actually allow us to answer those questions, so long as we can believe that a nine game stretch is enough of a sample.
Lastly, Jose Mourinho has had ample time to study what the hell has gone wrong. If we still think that Mourinho is one of the best managers in the world, then this time should have provided him ample time to watch film and figure out where the disconnects have been. Again, I think some of it can be attributed to injuries and players just being gassed. But there is no doubt that Tottenham’s run of form was pretty putrid.
Manchester United were the exact opposite of Spurs when the season stopped. The Red Devils hadn’t lost a match since their awful performance against Burnley back on January 22. Since that loss, United have gone 7-3-0, including taking maximum points against Chelsea and Manchester City. They were on a tear, but with the season paused that’s all out the window.
It feels a bit peculiar to say that the season may come down to this match on Friday, even after the three month hiatus. City’s hearing with the Court of Arbitration for Sport has been heard and the reports are that the verdict will be given in early July. Most pundits in the world of football believe that City’s not going to fully escape, even if CAS knocks a year off of their punishment but stranger things have happened. City could also still appeal to the Swiss courts but that may not be worth it.
If we take all of this as gospel, fifth place is Spurs best chance to salvage the season and get back to the Champions League next year. It’s not going to be easy, given that Wolves, Sheffield United and Arsenal are all within striking distance, and Spurs still have matches against the latter two in this now heavily congested fixture list. Spurs can’t focus on those matches for now, though. United will be visiting on Friday and it will not be an easy task. They’ll have to figure out a way to slow down Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes. If they can get over the hump on Friday and get all three points, the final eight matches can set Spurs up to make some noise. Lose, and Spurs may not only miss out on Champions League, but Europa may even be a tough ask.