Through seven rounds of the Premier League season, we've feted Chelsea's mightiness and fussed over City's flightiness. Manchester United has been dissected, while Arsenal's showing has been expected. Southampton has been a surprise, while Everton's expectations might need a revise. But at the expense of rhyming some more, there's been one team ignored in the discussion for the top four ... and that's way different than a year ago, that's for sure.
Yes, things are pretty quiet – for now, anyway – in the white and navy section of north London, where Tottenham has spent the early part of Year 2 A.G. (After Gareth) quietly piecing together performances more point-worthy than noteworthy. And that's OK for now, as some time out of the spotlight as Spurs settle in with their third manager of the post-Bale era is helping position them more realistically for a Champions League push than anytime during last season's overhype and drama.
It's never easy to lose a player of Bale's caliber (see: Liverpool and Luis Suarez this season), but Tottenham did very well to extract a huge price from Real Madrid. Spurs ultimately used the cash from him and Luca Modric's earlier sale to the same club to completely overhaul its roster. As detailed in a transfer deadline column last season – see section 3 in the top – over a year and change, Tottenham added 14 new pieces to the roster, 12 of which cost at least $8 million. It was a staggering alteration for almost no net transfer spend, which looked great on paper but raised significant immediate issues in its implementation.
It seemed somewhat unrealistic at the time given all the changes, including a number of players that were new to the league, but media pressure immediately was heaped on Spurs to gel under then new manager Andre Villas-Boas and make the charge that Liverpool ultimately did into league contention and the Champions League places. Things were compounded by Spurs' curious collective choices that led to a redundant load-up in various spots in the midfield while relative weakness at striker and in defense helped undermine them.
Anyway, the proposed challenge never came off. Villas-Boas was dismissed during the season, and caretaker manager Tim Sherwood uneasily steered the club to a limp sixth-place finish. Another season of Europa League "Spursdays" was at hand.
The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton, though, has provided Spurs with some managerial quality and, so far, stability, and the Argentine's preferred tactics have helped unlock some of the ability that was on ice last season, especially from the more modest-cost acquisitions the club made.
Yes, after what was a completely lost season thanks to injury and adjustment to the league, $40 million man Erik Lamela is showing some of the form that earned him that price tag, but look at the other big-money guys who were added. Roberto Soldado, Paulinho and Mousa Dembele are all basically squad players at this point, having made just two Premier League starts between them (both Dembele).
Instead, it's been the next tier of players that's been unlocked by Pochettino's pressing preferences, and on the occasions where things have come together for Spurs so far this season, it's hinted that there's much more of this to come.
Christian Eriksen was a heist at the time he was acquired for "just" $18 million or so, and still at just 22 years of age, the attacking midfielder is flashing some of his significant promise this season.
Combining with other young talents like winger Nacer Chadli, Spurs already have found some slick goals this campaign buried within their halting overall progress.
There was Eriksen robbing possession ahead of Lamela feeding Chadli to finish in the draw at Arsenal:
And then Chadli returned the favor, teeing up Eriksen for the only goal in last weekend's win over Southampton:
Helping Pochettino indulge in offensive options has been the emergence of robust defensive midfielder Etienne Capoue, whose combination of screening for a still-solidifying back four and long-range passing has really helped.
According to this WhoScored.com breakdown, Capoue is pacing the league in accurate long balls, a skill that is helping Spurs unlock the wings with their fullbacks as their front four more often look to come inside. Overall, Capoue is completing more passes than practically anyone else in the league, despite a rotating cast of partners next to him in the defensive midfield.
Throw in standout goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, mercurial and aging (but still moderately effective) striker Emmanuel Adebayor, and even a guy like Gylfi Sigurdsson, who never fully emerged at Spurs but has been terrific in his move back to Swansea this season, and Tottenham's overall haul from the Bale Sale actually was pretty good. They might have made a couple of high-cost whiffs, but this always was going to take some time for it to come together, regardless of the individual players emerging.
Neither Spurs nor their manager(s) were afforded that luxury last season, but some tempered expectations in this one seem to be a plus. Tottenham is nowhere near the finished product it should be under Pochettino, but the club (through a 5-year deal) has given its manager the standing to tamp down any early grumbling about his preferences.
This remains a good team, and more notably, a promising one. And in a season where no one is a sure thing beyond the top two, there's room for Spurs to make a run. It would be a year later than many expected, perhaps, but it would be no less notable – or important to the club – to crack the top four, which their long-frustrated fans certainly would adore.