There’s a party line at Tottenham: the first-team squad are currently in America and, starved of real talking points, the attending journalists have focussed on the club’s lack of recruitment.
“Not a problem” insists any player interviewed, “our club is different”.
Even if it does reek of orchestrated PR, it’s not without cause. Over the past three years, Spurs – collectively and individually – have improved a great deal and with each passing year they do seem to become stronger without investing heavily.
The complication now, though, is that it’s hard to imagine ways in which the current group of players could actually get better – at least in a dramatic enough way to negate the £100m+ that has been spent by every other rival. Both Manchester clubs have thrown their financial weight behind their recruitment this summer, Chelsea have obviously done the same, and even Liverpool and Arsenal have made significant additions.
It’s not impossible for Spurs to keep pace, but it would take something unforeseen for that to happen.
Unforeseen, but not unimaginable.
Harry Kane, for instance, continues on a path of year-to-year evolution and even if his goal tally doesn’t improve in 2017/18, it’s likely that the value of his all-round contribution will increase. Similarly, Dele Alli is a special player rapidly acquiring extra degrees of menace and so the smart money would also be on his influence increasing. It’s worth remembering also that, perhaps drained by his Euro 2016 experience, Alli started last season quite slowly. With a quicker start and a level of performance which doesn’t waiver quite as much, he could be a great source of gain.
Defensively, there are issues. Kyle Walker has been sold and Danny Rose’s return to fitness is still only on a vague timescale, so Mauricio Pochettino has his options halved. Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier may have performed to an admirable standard last season, but there was a value in the squad’s depth at that position which must be replicated. Spurs should play upwards of 50 first-team games next season and asking the same full-back tandem to appear in all of them – and perform to the same intensity – is unrealistic. Academy graduate Kyle Walker-Peters is capable of playing on both sides of the field, but will need to be rapidly emboldened and educated if he is to become a viable option.
In the midfield, there’s little room for development. Victor Wanyama certainly became more than just a destroying player by the end of his first year and Pochettino could certainly extract some mileage from his increasingly penetrative work on the other side of the halfway line, but Moussa Dembele is approaching his career’s twilight and Eric Dier, if kept away from Jose Mourinho and Manchester United, also has an already defined role, albeit one which is quite broad.
In Harry Winks though, there might be a variable. Winks suffered a serious ankle injury at Burnley in April and so he may not return at quite the same level. Over time though, he’s a fascinating option. Although primarily used in a deeper or more central midfield role, his passing ability and determination to alter the shape of games could make him a candidate to play further forward. He may be more of a continuity player than an outright game-changer but, with Tottenham’s formation placing such emphasis on the middle of the field, his attributes could work in all sorts of different positions and in combination with all of the incumbent players. He’s expressive and uninhibited, even when playing in his own half, and those are the kind of bold traits which typically help to create attacking production.
Either from outside or within the club, Spurs certainly need to buttress Christian Eriksen’s position and, although admittedly a stretch at the moment, Winks could provide both that support and a slightly more forceful alternative. Eriksen may work far harder than he’s often given credit for, but he remains quite a languid, ethereal player. In contrast, Winks bubbles with life whenever he’s on the field. He’s not Eriksen’s equal, not even close, but the Dane has only missed five Premier League games over the past three seasons and, with him now having played over 400 senior games in his career (at just 25), Tottenham should be looking to lessen his physical burden.
Pochettino’s biggest strength a year ago was his ability to bend and flex his team around different challenges. Tottenham were able to field plenty of good players in 2016/17, of course, but the variety with which they were used – sometimes within the same game – was a vital detail behind their success. In a way, though, that second-place finish might have created a rod for his own back: he was able to achieve so much with so little that the necessity of summer improvement has been diluted. Kane’s emergence from the academy seems to have also convinced some that it can be relied upon to provide a regular stream of Premier League-ready players; perhaps that’s reasonable, outsiders aren’t really in a position to judge, but even the Class Of ’92 were supplemented from beyond Old Trafford.
It’s a risk. A big one.
There are now less than three weeks to go until the season begins and with little transfer activity being reported, it’s right to assume that come opening day Spurs will have no new faces in their squad. If that is to be the case and if their rate of progress is to continue unchecked, more marginal gains than ever before will have to be exploited.
Pochettino has had to be creative to get this far. If he and his side are to continue moving forward, he will need to wring every drop of potential from his small squad and produce, unquestionably, the season of his career. So will his players, all of whom will need to reach a new peak if their string of Champions League qualifications isn’t to be interrupted.