Mauricio Pochettino’s quietly promising debut season at Tottenham Hotspur may have been rendered relatively forgettable by what has taken place at White Hart Lane in the meantime, but there is something from that 2014-15 campaign that has been burned onto the memory of everyone who heard it, and has helped drive almost everything since then.
“Just wait until next year,” the Argentine kept telling people at the time, “something big will happen here”.
It happened, and hasn’t really stopped. It has instead only accelerated, especially in the last jet-fuelled few weeks. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Spurs have accumulated more Premier League points - at 141 in 70 games - than anyone else in the Premier League.
The high-profile managerial changes at other clubs of course have to be considered, but it still means Pochettino’s side have been the most highly consistent team over the course of two years. That is no mean feat given their notorious history of fickleness, but also raises a big question for the present, and effectively renders Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley a referendum on the teams’ quality as much as a chance to play in the final: are Spurs actually a better team than Premier League leaders Chelsea?
The added twist and motivation is that winning this match could greatly tilt the title race itself given the potential psychological effect, just as Manchester United’s momentous win over Arsenal did at the same stage of their 1998-99 treble.
Remarkably, that famous epic is the only other time since the second world war that the first-and second-placed teams in the league have met in the FA Cup semi-final, making Saturday a very rare type of fixture. It is arguably an even more consequential fixture than when such sides have met in the final itself, because it comes right in the heat of the title race and can direct the destination of two trophies rather than one.
Talk about whether one team is actually the best in the country because of points over a set period of time rather than the 38 games of a league season is much less rare, and comes up on every occasion stats for a “calendar year” are produced. Players from sides as far back as Leeds United 1968-75 have claimed they were really the finest of their era because they had the best average finishing positions, despite only actually winning the title twice. They were always there or thereabouts.
One highly pertinent response to all of that is that part of proving you are the best is to be able to do it at the decisive stages of the season. Points over long periods mean little if you don’t actually get them when they really matter.
It still feels different with this Tottenham, though, not least because of how young they still are and how they have the chance to do just that.
The irony is that this argument has actually been inverted ahead of this FA Cup semi-final. The question is not being asked because of Spurs’ highly-reliable long-term results, but because of their impressively rampant and rousing run of the last few weeks, in contrast to how Chelsea are doggedly holding onto a lead they have held for months.
Yet, for all Pochettino’s recent spin that everyone wanted to “kill” Tottenham last season, it shouldn’t be forgotten that a similar question was being asked then. The debate that kept coming up as Spurs sparked into form in March and April 2016 was whether they were actually a better team than eventual champions Leicester City.
A further irony is that was probably completely true then, at least in the sense there was more sustainability to Spurs, that their idea of football was superior and they just had more to grow. Indeed, the blow-ups at Chelsea and Newcastle United that ultimately cost them second place to Arsenal probably proved how much they could sill grow, still mature. Leicester may have been the best team across the 38 games of 2015-16, but Spurs were the much better prospect to challenge again. They were the coming thing to invest in.
There is even an argument they could actually have been on course to retain the title this season, had it not been for two freak situations: Leicester’s 5,000-1 campaign and Chelsea’s 13-match winning streak that has put Antonio Conte’s side in such a strong position. That argument might be a stretch, but it will be someway stress-tested on Saturday.
Whatever happens, Pochettino does deserve immense praise for that intimidating consistency over two campaigns. It really can’t be overstated. It was the sort of thing many thought beyond his club. One story from that 2014-15 season for example has it that, on facing Spurs, an experienced opposing manager had told his team to just stay in the game because they would inevitably fade and buckle late on as they always do. That was the perception. It was a perception upended when Pochettino’s players began to fly past them in the last half-hour, powered by the new manager’s training principles, and mentality.
That was the root of what we see now, where Spurs aren’t just beating teams in this run-in but absolutely battering them. They are also overwhelming sides, though, because Pochettino is getting this squad to drastically over-perform - also a huge transformation from their history of underwhelming flakiness. That really can’t be understated either.
Because of the resources available to the club and the obvious youth of the side, Pochettino is himself drastically out-performing every other manager in the league. It isn’t even close to a debate. He has actually embarrassed many of them, really. Spurs simply shouldn’t be second against all these bigger clubs and bigger managerial names, let alone challenging for the title. He has made the best pound-for-pound team in the league. Put simply, they are maximising their current quality, pushing it to the limit.
The best management and best pound-for-pound team doesn’t translate to the best team outright, though. They are different things.
Chelsea can still just be a better team and, given the relative youth of players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli, they do have more international stars closer to their prime. That fosters the feeling that Conte’s squad currently - a key word here - have a higher level to hit right now, too. Chelsea may well have hit that level in October, especially when they themselves blew away teams like Everton and Manchester United. That was just as impressive as what Spurs are doing now, and this less bombastic period may merely represent the inevitable consolidation period that all champions must perfect if they are not at their best; the do-enough-without-playing-well stage.
It would also be a danger to confuse temporary lulls in performance, as Chelsea may be suffering right now, with fundamental team flaws. Many made precisely that mistake when Tottenham were going through their own troubles in October. They could barely win a game or even score, and many people couldn’t therefore see this.
Another perspective on that is Pochettino got his own timing wrong, and must learn to stay closer to leaders earlier in the season. There remains the possibility Spurs have again just given themselves too much to do, especially when you consider last season as well as Chelsea’s more forgiving run-in.
That is the enticing, energising beauty of this semi-final, though. It has a significance way beyond what feels an even more important FA Cup than normal, because of how it will test much of this, and influence the rest.
Consider the stakes for either side, and potential consequences.
Chelsea must win to respond to recent results and doubts, to re-assert they are the best side, and also avoid two successive seismic defeats. Conte must also respond to the tactical reverse against Jose Mourinho, to show he can’t be out-thought when it matters. If Chelsea do win, it will immediately get them back on track and embolden the squad with the prospect of a double having enjoyed the double benefit of defusing Tottenham just before they were set to explode while also deflating their players. The run-in would again look forgiving, rather than potentially fatal.
Tottenham must meanwhile win to prove they really are a side deserving of all this praise, and not just one that performs to a point and no more. They must break a barrier, push their limits. If they do, it will not just give them the chance of a trophy that acts as a tangible signpost for their immense improvement, but blow open the title race. Chelsea will have faced another belief-crushing setback at a crucial point, furthering doubt about whether they are only so high because of a freak run. Their run-in would look much more fraught.
It would certainly go a long way to saying who is the best right now, given that it could also go a long way to deciding the league - the true arbiter.
That is why Saturday is so scintillating. It is so rare a knock-out game like this brings together so many elements, so many angles, and must be decided on the day.
Something big is going to happen, and something has to give.