Tottenham wrestle with key new question set to define strange season

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Tottenham return to Premier League action at Wolves on Saturday with a new question increasingly likely to define their strange season: would a top-four finish alone make the campaign a success?

The dismal but all-too-familiar defeat to Sheffield United in the FA Cup fifth round promises to extend the club's trophy drought into a 15th season.

Antonio Conte's side are still in the Champions League, and host AC Milan on Wednesday in the last-16 decider, trailing 1-0 from the first leg, but little about their performances in the competition so far suggest they are capable of replicating the run to Madrid in 2018-19.

But Spurs have rediscovered their rhythm and resilience in four wins from five League games, leaving them in a position of strength for consecutive fourth-place finishes ahead of the final 13 fixtures.

Assuming overachieving Fulham, Brighton and Brentford do not have the depth to last the distance, Newcastle and Liverpool are the only realistic challenges to Spurs, and the Magpies have won one of their last seven League fixtures, while Jurgen Klopp's inconsistent side have a six-point gap to make up.

Abject: Tottenham slumped to a miserable FA Cup defeat by Sheffield United at Bramall Lane (Getty Images)
Abject: Tottenham slumped to a miserable FA Cup defeat by Sheffield United at Bramall Lane (Getty Images)

Considering Spurs' consistently underwhelming performances, injuries to key players and unexpected setbacks (namely the sad loss of coach Gian Piero Ventrone and Conte's health issues), another top-four finish would arguably be an impressive achievement - even taking into account the struggles of Liverpool and Chelsea.

There is also the question of whether Spurs are currently in the midst of an arduous rebuild, as Conte has claimed. If this period does, in time, prove to be a spell of flux between Mauricio Pochettino's tenure and another stint of challenging for titles and trophies (under Conte or someone else), then consecutive top-four finishes should not be underestimated.

Arsenal went without Champions League football for six straight years, including consecutive eighth-place finishes during their early rebuild under Mikel Arteta, while Liverpool managed one top-four finish between 2009-10 and 2015-16.

Considering Spurs’ consistently underwhelming performances, another top-four finish would arguably be an impressive achievement

For Spurs to finish fourth again - and therefore to have missed out on Champions League football just twice in four seasons since Pochettino's sacking - would be an impressive show of consistency at a time of transition, the equivalent of refuelling the jet at 50,000 feet.

That said, to herald finishing fourth this season as a victory depends on when you start setting expectations. At the end of last term, it was Spurs, rather than Arsenal, who appeared primed to kick on after finishing above their rivals again, while the summer signings of Ivan Perisic - an experienced winner - and £60million Richarlison suggested the club was preparing to challenge for honours immediately.

Back in August, most people would have regarded Spurs retaining fourth place as an underachievement, regardless of what Conte has said about unrealistic pre-season expectations.

To compete for trophies immediately was also the whole point of hiring a manager like Conte in November 2019, so it would be generous to suggest that two top-four finishes (in seasons when other members of the 'big six' have fallen short) should be considered a success, particularly when Spurs have been beaten by Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Chelsea in the domestic cups under the Italian.

Ultimately, supporters should be the ones to decide what constitutes a good season and perhaps the bottom line is that finishing in the top four no longer feels enough for most Spurs fans.

The club's average finishing position over the last 13 seasons is 4.5 and they have enjoyed six Champions League campaigns in that time; to the club's credit, a top-four finish is no longer a novelty but winning a trophy clearly would be. For Spurs, the bar has been raised - or at least moved - when it comes to success, and the club, Conte and the players should be judged accordingly.