5 Reasons to Believe Tottenham Hotspur Can Last the Course in Title Race
Tottenham Hotspur's UEFA Europa League experience for 2015-16 came to an end against a backdrop and soundtrack of a mini-Westfalenstadion on Thursday, with Borussia Dortmund winning 2-1 at White Hart Lane—5-1 on aggregate—in the second leg of the round-of-16 meeting.
The repetitive choreography of the yellow-and-black clad visiting supporters was an apt accompaniment for Thomas Tuchel's side in full-flow. The Germans were well-drilled but not so regimented they were unable to offer memorable creative flourishes (not much more was needed given the first-leg advantage).
Outclassed though Tottenham were by the Bundesliga outfit, the resumption of their participation in an enthralling Premier League title race is a considerable consolation. Additionally, despite the humbling aggregate scoreline, there were elements of this European defeat to support the belief they can last the course.
"I think now we have eight games to play in the Premier League and we need to try to win every game," head coach Mauricio Pochettino said in his post-match press conference.
"We need to start Sunday [against Bournemouth]. We are in a position that we can fight for everything and we need to try."
Via Thursday's game against Dortmund, and looking back over the season as a whole thus far, here are five reasons to back second-place Spurs in their ongoing attempts to overhaul league leaders Leicester City.
Neither of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals on Thursday were great adverts for Tottenham’s defensive solidity. Borussia Dortmund’s quick advances on both occasions caught them out of shape before the striker blasted unstoppable shots past Hugo Lloris.
Despite struggling to contain the visitors at times, Spurs were not overwhelmed in the same way they were in Germany. That was partly a product of a slightly more efficient attacking display, but it was also testament to the talents who have contributed to what is still the Premier League’s stingiest defence—just 24 goals conceded and a division-best goal difference of plus 29.
Chief among them on Thursday—and in general latterly—was Toby Alderweireld.
Ideally, Spurs would not have required his goal-denying tackles on Aubameyang and then Henrikh Mkhitaryan. But they did, and their desperation no less typified the Belgian’s timing and awareness as a more organised intervention would have—his turn as he dribbled out of danger eye-pleasingly augmented the former incident.
Alderweireld is as fitting a defensive presence as Spurs could hope to have for a run-in requiring the stifling of some formidable attacking opposition. Even so, the impending return of injured compatriot Jan Vertonghen should alleviate some of the responsibility he has carried marshalling the back four.
The comparatively inexperienced Kevin Wimmer has done an admirable job deputising for Vertonghen. Spurs’ squadron of full-backs and captain Hugo Lloris have been solid enough, too.
But the reuniting of a first-choice centre-back pair upon whom Spurs’ title challenge was built is a big boost.
Room for Manoeuvre
Vertonghen’s comeback is also set to be accompanied by another—attacker Clinton Njie has almost recovered from a similar knee injury.
The strengthening of Spurs’ options at either end of the pitch is a timely lift in Pochettino’s attempts to manage an already hard-run squad through the last couple of months.
"The Premier League is tough," he conceded on Thursday as he discussed his team’s condition and readiness for Bournemouth’s visit. "For that we need to arrive fresh to compete and try to take the three points."
Thursday’s game served to highlight selection and strategic choices he has been and will continue to be able to make, even without the aforementioned two.
Heung-Min Son was stopped repeatedly by a Dortmund defence emboldened by their first-leg advantage. He missed one first-half opening when he misjudged his shooting angle, but he eventually grabbed a goal via the gift of Neven Subotic’s underhit back-pass.
Son’s first proper go leading the line in months was a reminder Spurs do have an alternative to Harry Kane up front even without Njie. His use as an outlet pass past the last man and as a quick-footed exchange point in closer-confine combinations can almost certainly find more traction in less daunting upcoming assignments than this (admittedly part self-induced) Dortmund test.
Elsewhere, Ryan Mason—deputising for Mousa Dembele—struggled to affect proceedings creatively but as always did not shirk from the midfield battle. Ben Davies’ night ended early but fellow full-back Kieran Trippier’s opportune forward forays frequently relieved his team from spells of Dortmund pressure.
There have been more successful examples of how Spurs’ relative depth has helped them. But in the context of a title challenge simultaneously winding down and intensifying, these Thursday showings were valuable reminders Pochettino has some room for manoeuvre.
Although it was too late in the context of Tottenham's hopes of progressing in the Europa League, Pochettino should be credited for implementing a more appropriate second-leg game-plan against Tuchel's side.
Eric Dier in the starting XI instilled a sturdier presence than in the first leg, after the blunder of resting both him and Dembele against the smooth and calculating Dortmund midfield.
Further forward, the Germans were given more to think about defensively by the use of Son as the attack’s focal point. His greater mobility was better for stretching and engaging them than the nominal frontman Nacer Chadli had been able to a week earlier.
Dele Alli’s return from suspension admittedly boosted these alterations, with the teenager offering a more combative and energetic riposte to Dortmund’s dynamism. But of those decisions Pochettino had been in control of throughout the round of 16, he sensibly pinpointed and corrected prior mistakes.
That understanding and perceptiveness will need to be even sharper in the run-in. The way he and his coaching staff have largely overseen their resources up to now—from decisions like Dembele’s mid-autumn restoration to central midfield, to opposition specific adjustments like bolstering the defence away at Watford—suggests they will be more than capable.
In situations like Tottenham are in now, the next big game is just the next game they play—in this case Bournemouth.
"We have eight finals left to play—and we'll try to win every one of them," Erik Lamela told Spurs' official website, repeating that popular football motivation point.
Yet amid these "eight finals," there are some particularly noteworthy fixtures.
Their third-last game is away at capital rivals Chelsea. The north Londoners have not won at Stamford Bridge since February 1990.
If the Dortmund defeat and the recent derby loss away at West Ham United cast doubts over Spurs’ big-occasion mentality, the draw against Arsenal in between was more in keeping with their general readiness in such fixtures this year.
Frustrated though they were in parts of the game, the general spirit and lack of fear was the same we have seen displayed at previous defining points of the season (notably the two wins over fellow title-hopefuls Manchester City).
Tottenham have earned their status as title contenders. Making the jump to win the thing will demand even more of them, but they only have to look back over their efforts to see they have every right to believe.
Alli and Kane
At a point when Tottenham were two-nil down on the night and five behind overall, Alli attempted a run through the Borussia Dortmund defence.
After beating a couple of challenges he was stopped (not for the first time). Yet the youthful fearlessness informing this endeavour was the same we have so often seen Spurs invigorated by in 2015-16.
He and Kane—who Alli set up for both his goals in last week’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa—are the two players who have consistently lifted this team. They've done so in games like the aforementioned Villa victory, the January win over Crystal Palace or combining for Kane’s lead-taking goal against Arsenal. Individually, they've provided moments of magic in so many other games, too.
As discussed throughout this article, so many throughout the Tottenham squad will be needed if they are to win a first championship in 55 years.
Yet Alli and Kane are the proven difference-makers that are so valuable to any champions. Players, who like Eden Hazard for Chelsea last season or Sergio Aguero for Manchester City in 2012, have that extra bit of magic that can just propel a side over the necessary final few yards.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.