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While Tottenham fans want to see their team lifting trophies – and will ultimately judge Mauricio Pochettino on that basis – in the modern Premier League era, finishing in the top four is almost as important as winning silverware.
Not only does it confirm a team’s place among the elite, but it also provides a ticket to Champions League competition and the potential glory and financial windfall associated with taking on Europe’s best.
Technically, Tottenham are still involved in the Premier League title race.
They are also looking good in the Champions League, having secured a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their tough fixture against Juventus, and are strong favourites to win the return leg and progress to the quarter-finals. FA Cup glory could yet come their way, though they have been made to work hard by League One Rochdale in the fifth round.
However, while it is mathematically possible that Spurs could overhaul Manchester City and win the Premier League, it is not particularly likely. Even if City were to stumble dramatically in the closing weeks, there are three other teams – Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool – to overcome, and all three are ahead of Tottenham in the table.
Realistically, the focus in the Premier League this season is to secure that coveted top-four spot and Champions League qualification. If they were to win this year’s Champions League, of course, then they would automatically qualify for next year’s tournament, but a top-four finish isn’t just about Europe.
Retaining a place in the leading quartet would demonstrate that Tottenham were maintaining their position among the elite. After finishing fifth, third and second in the last three seasons, Spurs fans would expect nothing less.
At the time that Tottenham were playing their fifth-round FA Cup game, they were fifth, a point behind Chelsea in fourth and seven points ahead of Arsenal in sixth. They were only four points behind second-placed Manchester United, yet a hefty 20 points off the pace set by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
The reason for the gap is not hard to find. A streak of three defeats in the space of five games last autumn left them struggling to keep up with their title rivals, and though they have clawed their way back into contention for the top four, City have not faltered, having lost only once all season.
Those defeats last year – against Manchester United, Arsenal and Leicester – were hard for Spurs fans to take, but arguably their main problem has been dropping points against lesser sides, particularly at home. Swansea, Burnley, West Brom and West Ham have all left Wembley with a point, which has further harmed their Premier League chances.
Talk of a Wembley curse is probably wide of the mark. There has been no apparent drop in standards in their home games, and in fact Pochettino has done a good job of tweaking the team’s high-pressing style to cope with the wider Wembley pitch.
The main problems appear to be a degree of inconsistency, and above all an inability to close down games when they are on top, at home and away. This is partly down to the style of football that Tottenham play.
Their main approach is to press hard, compress play, and deny their opponents time and space, but to make it work, this tactic requires tremendous concentration right to the final whistle. While teams that are built around retaining possession have the option of keeping the ball and playing out time when they have the game won, Tottenham have to keep chasing and harrying to the last, and sometimes they are caught out.
It would be unwise for Spurs to abandon their style of play entirely, but they may need to find a way to close out games a little more effectively to ensure that they collect the full haul of points that their dominance deserves in the final weeks of the season.
In their favour is their strong overall record against fellow top-six sides this season.
From eight of these games, they’ve picked up ten points, which is the same total as Liverpool, though inferior to Manchester City. They’ve also just come through a potentially season-ending run of fixtures in style, beating Manchester United and Arsenal and earning a solid point against in-form and free-scoring Liverpool, to stay in the hunt for the top four.
With crucial games against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Manchester City at Wembley to come, Tottenham’s finishing position is still in their hands, and second, third and fourth place are all in play.
Pochettino’s men have the experience and the talent to return to the top four, and with a little luck, they should be able to secure their place.
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