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Spurs fully deserved their fourth place finish

Despite losses at Burnley and home losses to Southampton and Wolves, Tottenham were deserving of the all-important fourth spot.

Norwich City v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

With the 2021-22 Premier League season officially over, Tottenham Hotspur have to feel good about what they’ve built under Antonio Conte since he arrived in November. Considering just how things started this season, the fact that Conte and his staff guided a thin squad to a Champions League place finish is nothing short of remarkable. From the Harry Kane saga, to players being unfit and disconnected, to the appointment of Nuno Espírito Santo, to the rebuild that Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici embarked on last summer and everything in between — this was a season of highs, lows, and a lot of drama.

There were worries of bottling the season finale at last-placed and already-relegated Norwich, but a simple 0-5 victory guided Spurs back to a place in the Champions League for the first time in three seasons. And just like that, Spurs — after years of mediocrity and tension between the club and its fans — are in its best position in years. They have the feel of a club that is pushing in the right direction and ready to do something even more remarkable next season with Conte in charge.

When the Italian took over in November, Spurs looked lost and soulless. At that point, Spurs had just 15 points from ten matches and were struggling in the UEFA Conference League. However, the deeper concern was the underlying data during Nuno’s tenure. At that point, Spurs were covering the least distance out of any team in the league, they were ranked 19th in shots per game and were conceding just over 1.5 expected goals (xG) per game. Not only were the results embarrassing, including 3-0 losses to Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Manchester United as well as a 3-1 defeat to Arsenal and a 1-0 defeat to West Ham, but Spurs were all over the place. Harry Kane wasn’t firing, the club seemed to have no identity, the football was extremely dull. And at that point, it looked like the club was not going to finish in the top ten, let alone in the league’s European places.

Conte joined the club on November 2, just days after Nuno had been booed endlessly by Spurs supporters for the Lucas Moura-Steven Bergwijn substitute against United, and the groundwork was laid almost immediately. It should be mentioned here that Conte had never entered a job where he did not have a full summer in charge to instill his patterns of play and tactics as well as get the players suited to his required level of fitness. Under Nuno, the players, in particular the elite ones in the squad, had an excuse for why they were not capable of playing at the level they wanted to. That changed immediately when Conte came in.

The results and turnaround happened quite quickly as Conte’s Spurs took 21 points in its first ten matches, with six wins, three draws and one loss. A COVID outbreak saw the club forced out of their UEFA Conference League campaign, but it did give Conte more time on the training ground to assess his squad and make decisions needed for the final stretch of the season.

In January, Conte’s brutal honesty in his press conferences as well as his relationship with Paratici pushed the club into a rare midseason investment in the transfer window, bringing in two vital pieces in Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski. In the same window, Spurs shipped out a number of players out on loan or by permanent sale that Conte deemed as redundant to the squad and/or not needed.

Not coincidentally, the duo of Kane and Son Heung-min also started firing again. Whereas under Mourinho Spurs were heavily focused on defending and counter-attacking its opponents, Conte’s driven patterns of play were so engrained into this squad that they not only felt dangerous when going forward, but also had a strong base and platform in the back. That defensive solidity is in large part due to the steady back three of Ben Davies, Eric Dier and Cristian Romero, all the more remarkable considering Davies and Dier were players many wanted out of the squad.

With 71 points and a fourth place finish, Tottenham were anything but “Spursy” down the stretch. It does feel odd that the fourth place team in England had losses to 18th-placed Burnley and 15th-placed Southampton, along with narrow and dull 1-0 victories against 19th-placed Watford. But Spurs also took eight out of a possible 12 points against arguably the two best teams in the world in Manchester City and Liverpool. In fact, since Conte arrived, only City and Liverpool had more points than Spurs. Below is a table of the points return in the league since November 2, a total of 28 league games.

  1. Manchester City - 73 points
  2. Liverpool - 70 points
  3. Tottenham - 56 points
  4. Arsenal - 52 points
  5. Chelsea - 49 points
  6. Newcastle - 45 points
  7. Manchester United - 41 points

71 points is Spurs’ best points total since the 2018-19 season. Generally speaking, 70 points — just under two points a game — is enough in most seasons to finish in the top four and secure Champions League football. That’s precisely the pace Spurs set under Conte — 56 points in 28 matches is exactly two points per match. That this was all done despite the fact that the Italian did not have a full summer in charge and the squad has been going through a continuous rebuild for years is even more remarkable. 71 points would have been good enough for third in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

And Spurs’ metrics improved dramatically as well. Under Nuno, Spurs averaged an xG/90 of 1.02, pretty anemic. That figure doubled under Conte (1.96). Similarly, Tottenham’s defense also improved — going from an xGA/90 of 1.30 under Nuno to just 0.93 under Conte. If you extrapolate the data and leave in some room for further improvement under Conte (along with some added depth and upgrades at key positions), Tottenham has plenty of room to grow next season.

A huge summer looms for Spurs as Conte and Paratici look to move this project forward, but Conte has set the standard for Tottenham’s future path and now the club’s ownership has publicly announced its intention fully invest in the project. Capturing a place in the Champions League has given Daniel Levy assurance and belief that the Italian truly is the manager and club figurehead he was looking for when Mourinho was originally brought in. After years of Spurs supporters looking for a figure to stand up to the board and flex their muscles, few, if any, can do it in the way Conte can and the Italian has shown that investing in him can tick this club up another level.

Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.