What makes a truly great sporting team? How do the current era of Premier League teams compare to the greatness of previous sporting spectacles in and outside of football?
90MAAT’s Chris Wyles takes a look at Tottenham Hotspur’s sustained success in the previous two Premier League seasons, and how Pochettino’s squad compares to England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winners as well as the team that oversaw Manchester United’s historic treble under Sir Alex Ferguson.
The Rugby World Cup final dawns, 22nd November 2003, England vs Australia: 17-17 with 30 seconds left on the clock. England have driven the ball forward through a series of pick and go’s into the Australian 22. Johnny Wilkinson sits deep in the pocket, everything this England team has worked for over the last 6 years has culminated in this next precise second, one moment that will define a team in history.
4 years earlier, at the cloud piercing Camp Nou in Barcelona, Manchester United are a goal down against Bayern Munich in injury time. Peter Schmeichel has ventured all the way into the Bayern box. David Beckham, the poster boy of English football, stands at the corner flag ready to deliver a trademark in-swinger.
This is the class of ‘92s moment in time, their chance to write their names within the pantheon of the greats. “You can’t win anything with kids” Alan Hansen had once famously remarked. Well, that same team had a treble on the line, and Bayern were fools for daring to believe they could stand in their way.
As we know, Johnny Wilkinson slotted that drop goal to make England the first Northern Hemisphere team to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. At the Camp Nou, Manchester United scored 2 goals in injury time to clinch the Champions league title and claim an unprecedented treble. How did these teams achieve this? What is the formula for success? And where does this current Tottenham Hotspur side fit on the rarely trodden path to greatness? For the game is about glory, and to dare is to do.
When Clive Woodward arrived in the England Rugby set up he inherited a team that was woefully underperforming. In 6 years he would make them world champions.
That all seemed unlikely when in 1999 his job was questioned after losing to South Africa in the quarter finals. At United, Alex Ferguson saved his job by winning an unlikely FA cup three years into his job. It might seem odd to say, but there are similarities at Spurs.
Pochettino has unquestionably transformed Tottenham from eternal nearly boys into might actually make it one day boys. But the list of failures and disappointments is long. Carling cup final defeat to Chelsea in Poch’s first year. The implosion at the ‘Battle of Stamford Bridge’ which led to somehow finishing third behind Arsenal in 16/17. The abysmal Champions league display. Semi-final defeat to Chelsea in this years’ FA cup.
In isolation it’s a long list of failure in 3 years, but it’s one shared on the path to greatness by England rugby and Manchester United. In 1998 England endured the ‘tour from hell’ losing 77-0 to Australia, while United under Ferguson had 2 and half barren years of inconsistency and disgruntled fans.
These failures are clearly not the sole domain of great teams, but the difference between great teams and the rest is their ability to learn from failure, understanding it is a part of a development process which is intrinsic to acquiring something you can’t buy: leadership and character.
Have Spurs improved since last season? Undoubtedly, yes.
77 points with three games to go would suggest that, however mistakes are still being made. Playing Heung-Min Son at wing back was an abysmal decision from Pochettino, tt was naïve to try something untested before in competition in your biggest game of the season, arguably costing Spurs the game.
However, Pochettino has undoubtedly learned from that experience in the same way the team as a whole have learned and grown from last years’ implosion at Stamford Bridge. Just look at how are Pochettino has got this Spurs team peaking right at the business end of the season. A period of learning has unquestionably occurred, and in tandem Spurs’ mental strength has increased too.
In 2003, England had a core of players who had learned from failure, the Johnsons, Dallaglios and Wilkinsons were equivalent to the Keane’s, Schmeichel’s and Stam’s at United. These players form leadership groups: fundamental parts of any great team. Players who demand success and excellence, and drive you to victory even when the odds are stacked against you. Spurs are developing a similar group.
The likes of Lloris, Vertonghen and Dembele have been at Spurs long enough to see the team progress through plenty of lows and are now elder statesman in a young team, they provide cool heads and sharp minds with a deep desire for success. Coming through is also Harry Kane – destined for the captain’s armband – whose passion for the game and the club is inspiring and unparalleled.
In the pre-match build up to last week-ends North London Derby we saw Thierry Henry interviewing Kane. Kane’s response to Henry’s question about ambition was resounding. “I think about winning something every day […] if in a few years I hadn’t won something, I’d be extremely disappointed”.
The contrast between the trajectories of Arsenal and Spurs can be summed up by when Kane and Vertonghen said in the post-match interview that they simply wanted to win more than Arsenal. It’s sometimes hard for us average Joe’s to understand how some elite players desire success more than others. But the truth is, there is a difference between wanting to win, and doing everything possible to win.
Roy Keane and Martin Johnson are infamous for their infallible desire to succeed by any means necessary. In the book “will it make the boat go faster”, about Team GB’s Olympic Gold winning Rowing Men’s eights in Sydney 2000, we see how a great teams mind-set is solely focused on achieving greatness. Every single thing that they did, they asked themselves the question, will it make the boat go faster?
We can see this attitude both on and off the pitch at Spurs. From Pochettino’s relentless training programme, both physically and mentally, to the player’s obvious desire to keep running to the very last minute.
This is a team that has the right mindset, the leadership group and the lessons from failure to go on and achieve. Not only that, but from a purely footballing perspective Spurs have one of the best academies in Europe developing quality players that are filling the ranks of teams all over the country, as well as bolstering the ranks of Spurs themselves.
They play a style of football that is as effective as it is attractive. There is still work to be done, learning how to close out big games, playing effectively on the counter attack and adapting their style on bigger pitches among others, but all the ingredients are in the pot, and it’s starting to simmer.
Last season Leicester’s title win was written in the stars. This year is Chelsea’s, Kane’s last grasp attempt seemingly being halted before the line, after creeping under Courtois, by the football God’s seemed to confirm that. Tottenham fans are often mocked for saying “this is our year”. It’s not yet, but if they can maintain their momentum, their squad and their self-belief it may soon be. It’s all building towards one defining moment in this team’s history, Tottenham’s own Wilkinson drop goal, their own Soljskaer’s winner. ‘To Dare Is To Do’, do Spurs dare to be great?
To conclude, let me make it clear. Spurs are no where near the finished article and need to take strides to firstly catch Chelsea, and then maybe go further. But what they do have is a striking resemblance to early foundations of other great teams. They’ve got the eco-system, the structure and the mindset. And that’s just enough to make us wonder, just how far can this Spurs team go?
Written by Chris Wyles.