“In England, things are changing. We now must consider Tottenham one of the best teams.”
Chelsea coach Antonio Conte may have been stating the blindingly obvious in his post match interview on Sunday, but having witnessed their side win at Stamford Bridge for the first time in 28 years, Spurs supporters must finally believe, after decades of waiting, that London is theirs.
On Sunday they not only ended a lengthy hoodoo but demonstrated their superiority over another local rival. They’ve long since established their dominance against Arsenal – finishing above the Gunners last season and relegating them to the Europa League – but stomping their foot on the throat of last season’s champions and consigning them to a similar faith felt all the more significant.
Tottenham’s 3-1 victory all but confirmed that they will finish as London’s top club in the Premier League. The last time they achieved that Robson and Jerome topped the UK singles chart with their cover of Unchained Melody, back when Jerome Flynn was more synonymous with pop music than Game of Thrones.
Spurs have now finished ahead of Chelsea in two of the last three seasons and Arsenal in consecutive campaigns. They are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the third year in a row, a feat only currently matched by Manchester City in England. Spurs may still climb to second or third, or maybe they’ll stay in fourth. Considering they have the sixth highest wage bill by a distance (the most accurate barometer of where a club should finish) though, it’s truly admirable what they are doing.
The chief architect behind their steady rise from lagging behind to competing with the elite is obviously the manager Mauricio Pochettino. This is the house that the he built and the team is carved in his imagine. They press tigerishly, attack intelligently and are clearly drilled to accentuate the strengths of each composing part.
Sunday’s third goal was the prime example of this; Eric Dier received the ball and refrained from launching the ball to the onrushing Heung-Min Son on the right, instead passing to Christian Eriksen’s feet, who had found space behind Cesc Fabregas near the edge of Chelsea’s box. The Dane swiftly turned and immediately knew Son was free, playing the Korean in – a move that eventually ended with a Tottenham goal. It was evidently a product of training ground work which had become automated.
It’s not just a tactical or technical improvement, Pochettino has also lowered the age profile of the squad and brought through young English talent. On Sunday, they won with Harry Kane on the bench for three quarters of the 90 minutes and without Toby Alderweirald – the latter expected to depart in the summer. As they’ve illustrated with Kyle Walker though, they always seem to find a way of coping with losses and finding a way to replace them.
Tottenham’s progress is part of a greater, more holistic approach led by Daniel Levy. The club’s chairman is notoriously frugal in the transfer market and has a reputation as the toughest negotiator in the Premier League, often leaving deals until the final moments of the window. However, his smart strategy and vision has brought the club’s new stadium to fruition and should ensure that they move into it in rude health. Year-by-year, they make marginal gains and rectify previous mistakes.
“Now we are ready to compete against them and we must maintain that, because Tottenham have to stay at this level at least.” Hugo Lloris said afterwards. “Obviously, with the new stadium, something big is waiting for us.”
The contrast with Chelsea couldn’t be greater right now. Much has been made of Conte’s mutiny with the club’s hierarchy over transfers, but there are deeper issues at play. With Roman Abramovich seemingly disinterested and unwilling to spend big anymore, the club are now self sufficient but cannot compete in the same financial ball park as the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United or Paris Saint Germain.
The days of breaking transfer records are seemingly over, which is all well and good if you have a smarter plan of how to run operations. Instead, Chelsea’s model is creaking. The idea appears to be selling on players for profit and reinvesting that in younger replacements, but they’ve got little to no value from Alvaro Morata or Tiemoue Bakayoko and expect second rate players like Danny Drinkwater or Ross Barkley to succeed. It’s the equivalent of shopping at Primark while trying to replace an Armani suit.
Chelsea’s structure is also designed to be in place regardless of who the manager is, but in reality that just makes the manager instantly dispensable and disrupts any semblance of long-term planning. They appease the man in charge by giving him a couple of his own toys to sweeten the fact that he has little control, then the next coach has to deal with players he wouldn’t necessarily want. And while they have changed the age profile of signings, there is still no pathway for graduates from the best academy in the country to the first team because that would require time, which is never granted to managers.
At this point, some will probably be mentioning the fact that Chelsea have won two of the last four titles, but increasingly that looks like it happened in spite of their strategy rather than because of it. In the modern Premier League environment, where four of the best coaches in the world are trusted implicitly to build teams, there isn’t a place for Chelsea’s scattergun approach. Meanwhile, Spurs continue to soar.