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Spurs: how the Lilywhites maintained their charge with the unbeaten

Despite a turbulent beginning to the 2018/19 season with some frankly below-par performances and a couple of “bottled” matches in intercontinental competitions, Tottenham Hotspur remain firmly in the top four and perhaps surprisingly only five points off first place.

All three teams above them have remained unbeaten up to this point in the league, whereas Spurs have lost three (Man City, Liverpool, Watford). Crucially though, they have won all of their other nine games, securing an impressive 27 points as we reach a third of the way through the season.

Fine margins is certainly a word many would use to describe Tottenham’s matches so far – winning or losing all but one of them by no more than two goals. Even though the Lilywhites haven’t played to their usual standard in the last couple of seasons, they’ve scraped out wins and racked up an impressive number of points, keeping them just a few points behind the rest of the pack.

The best teams can win when they’re not playing well, or so they say, but what kind of method has Mauricio Pochettino employed in order to keep up with the unbeaten?

Although Spurs have begun recent seasons with greater attacking returns as well as a tighter defence, points wise this is their best start to a Premier League campaign for seven years.  So far, taking each game as it comes has been a common theme for Tottenham, and the team have been able to produce some influential performances when it matters.

There’s no doubt that Pochettino still prefers an attacking style of play, but it has been a little more conservative this season. Defenders are confident enough to play out from the back (perhaps leaving fans slightly unnerved at times) and the team employ a pass and move strategy, favouring passes between adjacent players and building up to an ideal position to pull the trigger.

Spurs have had 151 shots this season – only ten teams have had less – and have completed 6,464 passes, the fifth most in the league. In two of the three Premier League campaigns prior to this one, they had more shots on goal than anyone else in the league. Despite this year’s figure not being a stat to revel over, it does indicate a shift in mentality towards a more indirect approach to attacking the opposition.

When you look at the players within the team, a pass and move outlook does not seem like a bad idea at all. The midfield positions hold a large array of technically gifted players, all with their individual strengths, and it surely makes sense to try and distribute the ball around as many of these players as possible. Eriksen’s vision allows him to play the important cross balls in the attacking half, while Alli looks for the inventive forward passes. Wide players like Lamela, Lucas and Son dart forward on runs and look for the overlap from the full-backs.

Something Spurs have been criticised on over the past few years is a lack of depth in the squad – the core players managed to make a lot of progress without any real need for a great deal of backup. However, Tottenham have slowly built up an artillery of young players that are more than capable of filling the boots of those in the first team. Players like Winks, Foyth and Gazzaniga are being granted a decent amount of playing time and are flourishing on the pitch. Moussa Sissoko, probably Spurs’ most criticised player over the past couple of years, has also displayed some reinvigorating performances of late.

Yes, Tottenham are picking up the points and yes, their squad is stronger than it has been in a long time, but there is still a lot of uncertainty as to whether they can keep on picking up slender wins and whether they can remain comfortably within the top four for long. How is it that Spurs have lost the ruthlessness that they’ve displayed in recent years?

Well, the significant reduction in their number of shots has ultimately come from a cutback in the number of shots that Harry Kane is having. Last season, the Englishman averaged around 4.8 shots per game, whereas this season he is hovering around 3.3 every match, meaning that every two games, Kane is having three fewer shots on goal than he was having last year. As one of Europe’s finest strikers, these extra shots can have a huge difference on the number of goals a team racks up in a season.

The switch in the playing style is probably what has caused this, but Kane is still able to score when it really matters for both club and country. He scored two goals in the last 15 minutes to keep Spurs’ Champions League hopes alive, as well as grabbing the winner to send England to the Nations League final. Therefore, Kane is still a vital part of the Tottenham team, and keeping him fit and in form gives the squad a huge boost.

Following the international break, we may see Spurs start to regain the attacking prowess of last season’s campaign. It seems fairly unreasonable to consider them as title challengers, with the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all causing a storm above them. Yet as long as they manage to continue to keep up with the rest of the pack, then a top-four finish looks more than likely for Tottenham once again.

Harry Mahon

90maat's team correspondent for Tottenham Hotspur and a student at Loughborough University.

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