A year ago there weren’t many unhappier Premier League clubs than Spurs, but all that has changed, and now they’re looking up rather than down.
No other Premier League club has changed quite as much over the last 12 months as Spurs. This time last year, the club seemed mired in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour. A new manager had eventually been found, but only after a search that had felt excruciating rather than exacting, while the team’s most-prized asset didn’t seem far from chaining himself to the gates of the training ground in protest at not getting the transfer that he wanted.
Three straight wins at the start of the Premier League season – including an opening-day win against Manchester City, of all people – papered over these cracks in such an ineffectual way that they were still clearly visible, and by November the ill-fitting manager had gone, along with the team in ninth place in the table and any early-season optimism already having completely drained away. Classic Spurs.
Much of what has happened since then has been most un-Spurs-like. The arrival of Antonio Conte as the replacement for Nuno Espirito Santo always felt as though it could go in one of two ways, and there were occasional signs that Spursiness can’t simply be wished away from the DNA of the club.
Getting eliminated from the group stages of the Europa Conference League after failing to fulfil their last fixture because of a Covid outbreak and getting knocked out of the FA Cup by a Championship club seemed to confirm that. There were points at which Conte’s frustration at seeing what he’d let himself in for suggested that he might not last until the end of the season.
But when push came to shove, Conte delivered. Spurs only dropped seven points from their last 11 matches of the season, and as Arsenal faltered above them, a thorough win in a postponed north London derby that became both clubs’ penultimate match of the season left a return to the Champions League little more than a formality, tied up with a resounding win at Norwich on the last day of the season.
Son Heung Min ended the season tying for the Golden Boot with Mo Salah, having scored 23 of the 40 Premier League goals that he and Harry Kane managed between them. There has been no serious talk of either of them leaving the club this summer, which in itself speaks volumes for the club’s transformation over the last 12 months.
Spurs’ summer has been marked by brisk and efficient transfer business. Fraser Forster arrived as back-up goalkeeper to Hugo Lloris, an upgrade on his predecessor Pierluigi Gollini who also helps towards the club meeting its homegrown player quota. More eye-catching were the arrivals of Ivan Perisic from Inter, a highly accomplished wide player with a wealth of experience, Richarlison from Everton, Yves Bissouma from Brighton, and Djed Spence from Middlesbrough.
The arrival of Richarlison is the clearest sign of this increase in ambition. It’s tempting to think that the club with the most effective attacking partnership in the division didn’t need strengthening in that area, but Spurs have to balance the Premier League with a Champions League campaign this season, and Richarlison is an attacker who looks like a good fit for a squad game.
He’s versatile enough to play anywhere in a forward position and is heading into the prime years of his career as an established forward in the Brazil national team.
The club’s other arrivals are moves towards rebalancing a first-team squad that had felt imbalanced for some time. Yves Bissouma is highly rated and ready to make that step up. Djed Spence showed bags of potential on loan to Nottingham Forest from Middlesbrough last season. Clement Lenglet had a pretty disastrous spell at Barcelona, but had shown plenty of signs of his potential at Sevilla and is young enough to start growing again as a player.
New arrivals aren’t the only reason for Spurs supporters to feel uncharacteristically positive ahead of the start of the new season.
Son is now pretty much a complete forward. Harry Kane’s 17 Premier League goals last season were the joint-fewest that he’s scored in a season since becoming a first-team regular eight years ago, and he should be due a better return, this time around. Dejan Kulusevski was one of the surprise hits of the January transfer window, with the best minutes-per-goal involvement for players aged 21 or under in the division, and Cristian Romero added some much-needed stability to their back line.
It seems likely that the charge for Champions League places is going to be as tight as it was last season, and Spurs seem well-placed to protect their position. Arsenal have made key changes and look dangerous, but neither Chelsea nor Manchester United have had exceptional summers in the transfer market with significant rebuilding work to be done, and both have had a 2022 that they’d likely rather forget, while Newcastle United, for all that Saudi money, still look a year or two from a serious challenge near the top of the table.
But the transformation of Spurs didn’t begin at the start of the summer, as it did at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford; the work started with the appointment of Antonio Conte last year, and although there were clear and obvious stutters throughout the first few months of his time there, it was also clear by the closing weeks of the season that a plan was starting to come together.
Stealing a march on their rivals in this way – even if the decision to change manager in the first place was more likely fuelled by a feeling of panic at how last season was starting to unravel under Nuno Espirito Santo – may turn out to be a bigger advantage than was realised at the time.
There remain points of potential weakness for the club, as the new season gets underway. Conte remains a combustible character, and the suspicion that he could just completely lose his rag and walk out suddenly remains real, if not quite as likely as a few months ago.
The winter World Cup throws a spanner in the works of the preparations of all Premier League clubs this season, an unprecedented variable that might easily have unforeseen effects on just about any club. The Spurs midfield looked like a creativity desert at points last season, and it might even be considered reasonable to argue that they were over-dependent on Son and Kane for goals.
The 21-point gap between Spurs and Liverpool last season is almost certainly too big a gap to make up over one season, so third place is almost certainly the height of anybody’s ambitions for this season apart from Liverpool or Manchester City. But Spurs are well-placed to continue the clear progress that they made during the second half of last season, and that they’re in serious consideration to finish third speaks volumes about what Conte has already achieved, and the scope for further growth.
It may well be uncharacteristic for Spurs to be heading into a new season with such optimism and there will be plenty keeping an eye open for the ways in which they could revert to their mean, but the atmosphere around the club couldn’t be much more different to this time last year, and that in itself is considerable progress.
The trick this time around is to turn that pre-season sanguinity into something concrete, and to continue building. There are no guarantees, but Spurs seem better placed to do this than they have for several years.
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