2016-2017 Season Preview: Tottenham Hotspur

Image by Amil Delic via Flickr

Aside from the reigning champions of England, Tottenham Hotspur ought to be far and away the least neurotic team within English football’s oligarchy. They exceeded expectations in every reasonable respect by finishing a comfortable third in the Premier League last season, qualifying them for the group stages of this year’s Champions League. Their manager has a distinct, exciting style that fits his young, immensely talented squad hand-in-glove.

Things look healthy financially, too, having brought in depth at central midfield and center forward without doing too much of a number on the balance sheets. Though they’re loading on debt with the construction of a new stadium to open in less than two years, they’ve made the best of it, having struck a sweetheart deal for the use of Wembley Stadium for Champions League matches this season and all matches next season. This season, Spurs will be saying goodbye to one of the great names in the game in White Hart Lane, only to move next door to a club box-studded behemoth that is un unfortunate best case scenario in modern soccer.

I should be thrilled for their season to begin at Everton this Saturday, and be looking forward to them taking steps that will firmly ensconce them among Europe’s elite clubs, but for a team that has it this good on paper, a relative disaster in the 2016-2017 campaign looks shockingly plausible.

It could just be the bitter taste left from last May. Bitter seems too kind, actually. The end of what was a fine 2015-2016 Premier League campaign had distinct notes of highly-acidic sewage. Going into their final four games, Spurs were a single Leicester slip-up from taking over the league lead. They took one point from a possible 12, a run that ended with a pathetic 5-1 capitulation to relegated Newcastle that meant a finish behind archrival Arsenal for a 20th consecutive year.

The Newcastle game was proof of a team that checked out for the summer after an emotional and historic run at a title race quickly shred to tatters. Even that would be understandable if it weren’t also proof that manager Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t have complete control over his players, which was a disconcerting feeling after a season in which the Argentine towered over nearly all of his peers in coaching his players into a well-oiled result machine.

If any of the title race hangover lingers into this month, Spurs could find themselves well adrift of their rivals. That’s nothing to do with their opening fixtures, and all to do with well-earned high hopes of the old guard of the Champions League places. Manchester United may have finally spent enough money on attacking players to spackle over the substantial cracks in their foundation, and Jose Mourinho is the guy to rejigger that defense into something serviceable.

Liverpool is the most direct threat to Tottenham, and with their money spent wisely in midfield in this transfer window, Spurs fans can only hope Jürgen Klopp is unable to pull everything together into a cohesive whole or escape more prolonged injury trouble. Given Liverpool’s recent history, that’s not a terrible bet. Leicester might fall significantly from their title form, but the feeling that they will is based on little more than the smug assumptions of their doubters last season.

Then there’s Chelsea. After the Brawl at the Bridge, the gleaming centerpiece of Spurs’ spring collapse, there is nothing more enticing to Spurs fans than the prospect of another season of gross underachievement in West London. Between a manager that suits the club and the talented players he’s likely to bring back into the side, I envision a long slog to a comfortable fourth for the Blues.

So what kind of reasonable success can I expect for Tottenham this year as a fan? After years of 4th place domestically being the end-all be-all of my club, let’s throw out the numbers for this campaign. I can envision being more satisfied with being outside the Champions League places, and given the Champions League group draw that could include multiple titans, also failing to qualify for the knockout stages of that competition. Instead of dry numerical goals, I want moments from my Spurs this year.

Last year was about re-establishing cool-minded efficiency at a club that has become a byword for collapse and squandered opportunity. 2015-2016 also left me aching for something more, especially against the big teams not named Manchester City. Instead of what felt like an endless string of 1-1 draws with top teams away from home, I want to see Dele Alli and Hueng-Min Son grow as players by burying the 80th minute chances they scuffed in these games last year. I’d gladly sacrifice some of Tottenham’s clinical clean sheet wins over the bottom quarter of the league that made the bulk of the difference in their points total as compared to previous seasons.

I want them to make the most of Champions League matches that, if ticket sales are to be believed, will be played before a 85,000-strong sea of white at Wembley. For years, Spurs fans have spent January and February arguing as to whether to deprioritize European competition to (supposedly) ease the squad’s path to a high Premier League finish. Eventually, the Spurs manager has acquiesced to those asking for a weakened side in the Europa League, and it has never made the fans, by-and-large, satisfied. Instead, we’re left to wonder what special moments might have come our way if we’d been less judicious.

So this year, in which Spurs can improve and miss fourth place in England, let’s treat the Champions League the way we should: a reward, a chance to allow our young talent to show the continent that they can stand with anyone, and most of all an experience that shouldn’t be overshadowed with worry about our tenuous place in the world. I hope after so much of last season we can leave some of the anxiety behind. Realistically, Spurs being Spurs, it will take just a while longer.

What the neutral should watch for

Dele

Of course, last year wasn’t entirely devoid of the moments I’m craving. After all, our lightning bolt of a teenage attacking midfielder did this:

At this time last year, I struggled to remember Dele Alli’s name or where we’d gotten him from (answer: perennial Football League punchline MK Dons). I was caught up in the other big questions it’s hard to believe I asked myself then (Is Harry Kane a fluke? Who will we get to play defensive midfield?) when Dele started doing things that earned him earnest comparison to Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard at age 19. That’s just not the kind of player Tottenham Hotspur is supposed to have.

Dele Alli is also the kind of guy who sucker punches a defender who got on his nerves in a crucial game in the title race and no one is terribly surprised. Dele’s ban from the final three matches of the last campaign certainly did not lose them a title, and given how bad the team was, may not have made a difference at all to their finish, but it’s a tremendously concerning sign. His predisposition to lash out is nothing new during his time at Tottenham, and as much as I’d like to chalk it up to his age, that seems highly unlikely. Much more likely is that Dele Alli becomes a hate figure and a target for every central defender in the Premier League for the next decade. How Dele and Mauricio Pochettino find a way to manage this is central to Spurs’ fortunes.

Erik Lamela

In August of 2015, there was no bigger cheerleader for the sale of Argentine right-sided midfielder Erik “Coco” Lamela than me. Lamela was the platonic ideal of a flair-only player, committing so many dumb fouls and specializing in heavy touches and timid passes in crucial situations. His yearly moment of magic could not possibly be justified any longer.

In the second game of the season, at home to Stoke City and up a goal late, Mauricio Pochettino replaced Harry Kane with Lamela, and the same old happened: Lamela’s inability to hold up the ball in the place of a traditional center-forward was absolutely the reason Spurs blew the lead. It was the kind of dropped points that were perceived as a Tottenham specialty, and the manager’s faith in Lamela seemed among the biggest liabilities to moving past that perception.

A few weeks later, Lamela was instrumental in a page-turning 4-1 home win over Manchester City, and Coco’s performance was the single most shocking part. Not only has his old form not returned, he has become a leader, the lone scorer in the fiasco at Newcastle and the only player who looked interested in playing a game of football for his club that day.

Pochettino’s faith in his countryman Lamela under tremendous strain is the element of his tenure for which I have the very most respect. I expect Lamela, with his pace, creativity, and striking to be even more important this year to the Spurs attack. It’s something all neutral soccer fans should be watching.

I’ve talked myself into being excited for this year. Roll on Saturday at Goodison, and Come on You Spurs.

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