With a couple of wins on the spin, it appears that Tottenham Hotspur are moving in the right direction as the club and the rest of the league prepares for the business end of the season. Just a few weeks ago, Spurs put together their best performance of the season by beating Man City at home but quickly took a step back six days later when they went to the King Power and were thrashed 4-1 by Leicester. Days later, Spurs followed up the Leicester result with a horrid 1-0 defeat at San Siro against Milan in the Champions League.
At the time, the injury to Hugo Lloris as well as questions across the back-line cast shadows over any possibility of a quality finish to the season. But two somewhat easy and manageable performances en route to home wins against London rivals West Ham and Chelsea have put Spurs in a position where they have it all to play for and a top four finish is still well within reach.
It has been such a weird season for Spurs — when is it not? Despite being in the conversation for a Champions League place all season, inconsistent performances paired with rivals Arsenal pushing for a title, as well as the everlasting question over Antonio Conte’s long-term commitment, have really made things feel worse than they are. For as inconsistent as they have been, we saw just last season how this squad and this managerial staff can be a tough out for any team in the league when they are in good form.
After the loss against Milan, Spurs came back home against West Ham and decided to tinker with the lineups a bit. Richarlison came in for Heung-Min Son and Oliver Skipp took the place of injured Rodrigo Bentancur in midfield. Interestingly, Spurs also decided to try out a new wingback partnership in Ben Davies and Emerson Royal. The decision to do so against a side like West Ham — who were more than happy to sit compactly inside and make things tough on Spurs’ attacking threat — was certainly a curious one. After all, in Conte and his staff’s time at Spurs, Davies has predominantly been a left-sided centerback.
Pushing Davies to wingback may have just been a case of giving veteran Ivan Perišić some rest after starting in the Champions League match in midweek, but Spurs seemed to have found something here which has also coincided with the recent run of great form from Emerson on the right. It has not just been the addition of Pedro Porro in the squad which has led to the Brazilian’s good run of form — Emerson’s performances in recent matches have improved since the Man City away fixture more than a month ago when he scored at the Etihad.
Seen as a much more defensive wingback pairing in comparison to players like Perišić and Porro, Spurs have gotten great performances from both Emerson and Davies in the last two matches. Against West Ham, the duo even connected for a goal thanks to a splendid “hockey assist” from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg which really caught the West Ham three-man back-line by surprise as Davies and Emerson dashed in behind.
Both Davies and Emerson have attributes that complement each other well. Davies has never been the most athletic or powerful individual on the pitch, however he is a good passer on the ball and reads space going forward extremely well. With his positioning in the back paired with his centerback tutelage in more-recent seasons at Spurs, he has also shown the ability to tuck in inside and make things easier for Clément Lenglet.
You may have noticed Emerson’s impact and presence in the final third has gone down just a little bit. Whereas earlier in the season the opposition was giving him space and allowing him to (attempt to) make key impacts in the final third, lately he is being utilized much more now in build-up play acting almost as a third midfielder, giving space for Skipp to sit deeper and be in a position where he can be closer to anchor in front of the last line of defense. The small changes in setup have led to Emerson growing in confidence and looking extremely relaxed and comfortable when in defense.
Spurs’ defense has been leaky all season. No side in the Top 10 in the league has conceded more goals than Spurs. However, the inclusions of Davies and Emerson have basically brought two more plus-defensive players into the team, which has contributed to clean sheets in back-to-back matches and, perhaps more importantly, helped ease the transition from the injured Hugo Lloris to Fraser Forster. And while there may not be as much attacking threat from the duo as there would be from either Perišić or Porro, Spurs have been fine on the attacking end and have put together ample scoring opportunities compared to earlier in the season.
Last season, it took awhile for Spurs to figure things out and get comfortable with one another as well as with Conte’s tactics and automations. But once things started to click, the backline was not leaking goals and the front three of Son, Harry Kane and Dejan Kulusevski were in great form — which led to Spurs’ outstanding late form and a push on for a top four finish.
I wonder if similar things could be in store for Conte, Cristian Stellini and the squad. Almost out of nowhere, Cristian Romero looks to be playing at the best level he has played at during his time with club — which is saying a lot considering how good he has been most of the time for Spurs. Additionally, Eric Dier has put together back-to-back good performances after really being exploited by Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho. Another note is that Skipp has hit the ground running since taking Bentancur’s spot in the starting lineup.
As ever, this is Spurs we are talking about so all optimism could be out the window in the blink of eye. But remember, this is a much stronger squad than it has been in years past. While the squad is still dealing with key injuries, it also seems to be coming together with in-form performances across the squad from key, impactful players. While it may not be the prettiest combination, Emerson and Davies are offering something extremely important at least in the short-term for Spurs.
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