While Tottenham’s recent 4-1 thrashing of league leaders Manchester City may have been the club’s standout fixture so far this season, it is the recent consistency in the defensive side of their game that could prove most important in the campaign ahead.
With a draw away to Swansea in the last league fixture before the international break, Tottenham set a new club record for an undefeated run of Premier League games: seven since the opening day defeat at Old Trafford – a close game decided by a single Kyle Walker own goal.
Since then, Spurs have conceded more than a single goal in a game on only two occasions – the first time, one of the two was scored from the penalty spot; the second time, by a Tottenham player, with Harry Kane’s own goal against Swansea. And while draws in four of the opening eight matches have seen the club enter the international break in just eighth place, better reading is found farther along the standings, where goals against sits at a very un-Tottenham-like seven, joint-best in the league. Farther along still, at the business end, the points total reads just three fewer than second-place Arsenal.
There are numerous reasons for Spurs’ new-look solidity, though the role of two players in particular stand out, as much for their impact on the XI as their individual performances. At centre-back, summer signing Toby Alderweireld has pushed his fellow Belgian international and former Ajax teammate Jan Vertonghen to regain his form of a few seasons back, after a distinctly shaky past 12 months.
The importance of a strong pairing in central defence can not be overstated; not only does it present a challenge to opposition attackers, but also instils a confidence in the players around them, enabling their teammates to push up the pitch in line with Pochettino’s favoured pressing game. Combining in front of the ceaselessly amazing Hugo Lloris, the pair have given the Tottenham defence a new lease of life – and certainly made the lives of watching supporters more comfortable than in recent times – and the inclusion of the former Athletico Madrid man has undoubtedly been a huge influence on this.
But perhaps the most striking example of Tottenham’s new solidity is found in the middle of the park, where youngster Eric Dier has excelled in his new role as a defensive mid. English-born, but having come through the academy at Sporting Lisbon, Dier has shown himself to be comfortable in a range of positions, performing well throughout much of last season at right-back, having been moved from his principal position of centre-back. This adaptability is credited to Sporting’s onus on training players to play in multiple positions, but is augmented by an awareness that is incredible from a player aged just 21. Throughout games, Dier can be seen shifting position intuitively, dropping back almost to become a third centre-back when required to allow more attack-minded midfielders to play slightly higher up the pitch, or racing forward when safe to collect any stray clearances.
Indeed, Dier has already been among the goals, notching twice in eight games. And such is the level of both sides of his game that, while the injury to £22m signing Heung-Min Son is undoubtedly a blow to Mauricio Pochettino, the loss of Dier to suspension for the upcoming Liverpool game – he received his fifth caution of the season in south Wales – may well be a greater concern.
In any case, if Pochettino can get Spurs’ attack to click over the autumn months – and the speed of Son, eagerness of Alli and return to form of Christian Eriksen all point to this – while retaining solidity at the back, then the club could be in for an exciting time. Even more so, if Kane remembers how to score (in the opponent’s goal). Add to that the staggering collapse of Chelsea, managerial upheaval at Liverpool and a reduction in squad playing time thanks to an early exit from the League Cup, and who knows, sneaking into the Top Four might even be on the cards.
Of course, it is far too early to speak with any certainty of Top Four finishes, but what is certain is that with a defence as strong as what we have seen this season as a base, Spurs face as good a chance of achieving this now as they have in any of the years since a certain Welsh midfielder left for Spain.