Just as Leicester’s 3-1 win at Manchester City nine days ago made everyone stand up and take note of their status as a credible potential Premier League title winner, the same can be said of Tottenham’s triumph at Etihad Stadium on Sunday night.
For this was a performance of considerable character and craft, especially after Kelechi Iheanacho had drawn Manchester City level on 74 minutes. It’s often said you learn more from defeats than victories, but Mauricio Pochettino must be beaming at another tick in the box for his emerging side, who, in truth, probably aren’t that emerging anymore.
We can probably put away the “Soft Spurs” cliches because the Argentine has transformed them into something that is approaching the antithesis of that jibe. Recording a club record 12 away games unbeaten is only further testament to that.
Central has to be a defensive unit which has progressed from being ranked 60th across Europe’s top five leagues last season in terms of goals conceded, to the seventh best on the continent this term.
That’s also been achieved with largely minimal recruitment. Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier have come in, but only the Belgian has been a regular, with the latter making just four league starts.
Granted, Alderweireld has been especially good, and should make the Premier League team of the season, but this kind of defensive surge has to be a systematic change. After 26 games last season, a Tottenham defence mainly consisting of Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen, Federico Fazio and Danny Ross had conceded 36, this term it’s 20 with the only consistent alteration being Alderweireld for Fazio.
The displays of Kevin Wimmer in replacing the injured Vertonghen only seek to highlight the sea change as the Austrian, who hadn’t played in the Premier League before a 15-minute cameo against Crystal Palace on January 23 has slotted in seamlessly.
Wimmer has misplaced just eight per cent of the passes he has attempted, displaying an inert composure, and against City on Sunday kept Aguero relatively quiet. Such has been his impact, the resonance from Vertonghen’s absence has been barely noticed.
This isn’t by accident. Wimmer wasn’t exactly earmarked as one of the Bundesliga’s very-best centrebacks when Spurs signed him from Cologne, but there is a mentality and understanding of the framework Pochettino has laid out that is ensuring total clarity on the field.
It, of course, helps when you have a goalkeeper of the gravitas of Hugo Lloris behind you. An immensely calming, influential and experienced goalkeeper who’s also some shot-stopper.
This certainly bodes well, as fans are allowing themselves to dream of a first league title since 1961 – of the last 15 Premier League champions, nine finished the season with the division’s best defensive record.
Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are the closest this largely star-less Spurs team comes to headline individuals but their unsung heroes at the back are emblematic of their campaign.
They have, up to now, flown under the radar. The focus on Leicester’s fairy tale, whether Arsenal can finally get over the line and the strange case that is Manchester City pre-Pep Guardiola.
This result will likely change that and how this young group of players react to the additional pressure and expectation will be intriguing to watch.
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