Tottenham return to action seeking to pick up where they left off before the international break and regain the momentum that brought them four successive victories.
However, they are now entering the stage of the season where they have historically tailed off under Mauricio Pochettino. In both 2014/15 and 2015/16, Spurs only managed to win four of their final 10 Premier League matches.
Last term’s decline was particularly dramatic as Spurs lost a 1-0 lead against West Bromwich Albion, then a 2-0 lead at Chelsea and ended up suffering defeats in their final two games against Southampton and already-relegated Newcastle.
In the process their title dream ended and Arsenal were able to steal in and pip their arch-rivals to second place.
Now, just like last season, the Lilywhites are lying second with 10 games left. The question is whether they can last the distance this time and maintain their form down the final straight.
There is reason to believe they can. Tottenham are five points better off than they were at the same stage last season, after 28 games, and nine points ahead of where they were in 2015. They have been steadily improving year on year.
There remains a theory that the intensity Pochettino demands from his players catches up with them in the final weeks of the season – but the manager has little time for that suggestion
“No, no. When we analyse last season it wasn’t a physical problem,” he said. “It was a mental problem that the team gave up in the last two or three games. Now the challenge is to keep fighting until the end.
“I think if you see the game against Southampton [at the end of last season], or the second half against Chelsea , it was the same as the second half against West Bromwich . We started to show we were tired but [in the head] and we started thinking too much about the summer, the Euros, and we lost a little bit of focus.
“We spoke a lot with the players, we talked a lot and now the challenge is to keep fighting.
“In terms of the physical condition, all the team are at the same level. The difference you can make is [in the head] now because it’s only one month and a half and if you’re not ready in your mind to compete, it’s impossible to give your best.”
The lack of an upcoming summer tournament, along with the painful memories of last season’s dénouement, should help Tottenham’s players to retain their focus this time, and they have a good run of fixtures ahead – their next five league opponents are all in the bottom half of the table.
However, having won each of their last four games on home turf at White Hart Lane , Spurs now face tricky trips to Burnley and Swansea in the next five days.
Indeed, Burnley have the sixth-best home form in the top flight this season – better than both of the Manchester clubs – and no side in Premier League history has won a higher proportion of their games (83%) or total points (78%) at home.
For Pochettino, it is a chance for his side to show their battling qualities as well as their skill.
“Football is a holistic thing and the Premier League is completely different to other leagues,” he said. “I think Tottenham was always a team that played exciting football, tiki-taka, but in the Premier League sometimes you must fight to win.
“I think I have tried to convince [the players] that football is not only when you have the ball. When you don’t have the ball, it is football too – to fight, to press, to challenge with your opponent, not wait and be passive.
“We need to be aggressive and proactive and try to challenge the opponent. That is how we are in the training sessions. Every single exercise or drill is about playing football but fighting too, when you don’t have the ball.”
Pochettino is so keen to ensure training sessions have the necessary edge that he tries to add some of the physicality himself – not always with the desired outcome.
Harry Winks revealed a couple of months ago that the manager hurt himself after challenging Cameron Carter-Vickers for a high ball – and the Argentinian admitted it happened again this week.
“I challenged with Cameron and my hand was… it happened again,” he said. “He crushes everything, everyone, in the boxes.
“You know, I like to fight with them to show I am stronger than them, mentally and physically. Sometimes physically I lose the challenge because they are physically stronger, but I am more strong here [in the head].”
Pochettino will certainly be unimpressed if his players shirk a challenge at Turf Moor on Saturday, but he knows it would be equally dangerous for them to get drawn into a battle – as they did in the bruising, goalless draw at Sunderland in January – and fail to use their creative talents.
“It is one part of the game to fight but for us the most important thing for Saturday is to have the possession as much as possible and to try to avoid giving them the ball and playing in the way they want to play,” he said.
“ Burnley play very well on the counter-attack and with long balls, and if you are not ready to fight in every challenge and action then it will be tough for us.
“But if we are ready and recover the ball and play in our way, it will be good and we will put them in a very difficult situation.”
Mousa Dembele will be a key man in that respect – a player blessed with an unusual blend of strength and skill; someone who can repeatedly go shoulder to shoulder with an opponent, emerge with the ball and get Spurs moving forward.
There is a feeling in some quarters that he could and should be even better than he is, given his range of qualities, especially in the final third – and he seems to need more rest than some of his team-mates, regularly being substituted in the second half.
However, statistics emerged this week that underline Dembele’s value and importance. The Belgian has the highest dribble completion rate of any Premier League midfielder this season with 86% – better than Eden Hazard – and he is also top of the list for pass completion, both overall (91%) and in the opposition half (92%).
It is strange to think that, in the summer of 2015, it was unclear whether he had a future at Tottenham.
“Mousa Dembele is completely different to two and a half years ago when we arrived here,” said Pochettino. “Remember, he didn’t play too much in the first season. He always had problems – physical problems.
“I must give all credit to the sports science guys, all the medical staff, for creating now a Mousa Dembele that is strong and can play every week. He has worked very hard. We provide individual plans to every player and I think we are very happy.
“I always joke with him and say ‘in my book, you will be one of the genius players that I have been lucky to meet’.
“One was of course Maradona, and there is Ronaldinho, [Jay-Jay] Okocha, [Ivan] De La Pena – and Mousa Dembele.
“We always told him ‘if we had taken you at 18 or 19 years old, you would probably have become one of the best players in the world’. I would like to have managed him when he was 18.”
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