The league table doesn't lie. But its evidence might not always stand up in court. Right now, it says that Leicester City are the best team in the country – in fact, it’s the side clinging to their coat-tails who that honour surely belongs to.
Claudio Ranieri’s history-makers have gathered the most points since the season began, but it’s Spurs who have scored the most goals, conceded the fewest and more recently adopted the more convincing look of steely-eyed champions next to the happy-go-lucky freewheelers of the East Midlands. Of course, simply looking like title winners, even at this stage, is not enough to make it a reality – but it is something that the current standings fail to transmit.
If Spurs do indeed come up short and are left clutching runners-up medals come May, there is much comfort to be taken from a staggeringly good campaign. And one thing is surely certain: the future belongs to Tottenham.
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There's still a slim chance that the present could yet belong to Tottenham, too. Certainly their players will take things to the wire. Jamie Vardy’s Roy Race routine may be the individual story of the season, but White Hart Lane has been the home to the country’s best striker in Harry Kane, the first Englishman since Shearer to hit 20 goals in consecutive campaigns and provider of both the goal and moment of the season with his bullet-speed boomerang against Arsenal.
While the Player of the Year shortlist was understandably dominated by King Power operatives, there's a strong case that the season’s most impressive performer was a defender who wasn’t even nominated – and not Wes Morgan or Robert Huth. Toby Alderweireld hasn’t missed a minute of league football so far, has gone about his duties with the perfect blend of the unfussy and the urbane, and his spent the season defending his territory like a warlord.
Toby Alderweireld celebrates his goal
Image credit: Reuters
While Leicester’s capacity to surf a tidal wave of high-spirits and exuberance has been truly astonishing - almost inexplicable - the machinations behind Spurs’ rise are clear as day: sound recruitment, hard work and meticulous preparation. You’d probably need to look back an entire decade, to the Chelsea of Jose Mourinho’s first reign, to find a team that functions as one unit as impressively as the current Spurs side. Their sweeper-keeper, exactingly high defensive line, compact midfield and hard-pressing attack are all cogs that have spent the best part of six months whirring in noiseless cohesion.
Leicester might have put together the most unlikely, most gloriously motley title-challenging squad in modern history, but Pochettino has kept pace via a triumph of coaching, creating a team bristling with pace and ferocity. He has responded to Leicester's Cinderella story with his own perfectly crafted page-turner.
All this is doubly impressive given the club in question. In the space of two years, Pochettino has reformed a rotten core. Until the Argentine took the reins, Spurs were football’s Fredo Corleone: forever eyeing the upper echelons, but unmasked as meek and deferential when push came to shove - and always put out of their misery in the end.
Formerly a byword for capitulation, Tottenham's defining features are now grit, defiance and tenacity. The “Lads, it’s Spurs” team-talk may once have settled the nerves; now it triggers them.
Pochettino has somehow constructed a team which fulfils three quite remarkable criteria: it is full of brilliant individuals, it amasses to more than the sum of its parts, and it contains no superstars. It is, in short, a manager’s dream – although Pochettino’s presidential office hours leave little time for any dreaming of his own.
It is probably the last of those criteria that could prove the most important. Until this season, all Spurs’ standout sides of recent years had been spearheaded by one glistening A-lister – be it Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric or Gareth Bale – whose form inevitably had Europe’s sharks scenting blood. Further back, the names of Teddy Sheringham and Sol Campbell, even Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne, are testament to how success at Spurs has always come with a flipside.
The joy of this team is that it is a truly collective enterprise. There is no one player dragging the rest to glory. And while the likes of Kane and Dele Alli might catch the eyes of bigger fish,they’re unlikely to do so this summer.
Besides, the food chain that used to routinely devour Spurs’ stars is no longer as clear-cut as it once was. If “big fish” is defined as a club based in the capital, who own a vast stadium, with sound finances, Champions League football and an elite-level, up-and-coming manager, then Spurs are the only ones in the country who can make such a claim. Once upon a time Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool could take their pick from Spurs’ squad, and often did. Now, any player with the same option on the table would need to have a long, hard think.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino with Harry Kane at the end of the game
Image credit: Reuters
And Pochettino’s record of improving players might just be the deciding factor. The transformation of Kane, from perennial loanee to England’s golden boy, has received the most airtime, along with that of Erik Lamela, but similar makeovers have taken effect across the team. It wasn’t long ago that Moussa Dembele, so imposing this term, was a languid stroller whose role in games was more bemused bystander than participant. Nor was it long ago that Jan Vertonghen looked stroppy, sloppy and uninterested. Danny Rose’s progress had stalled badly when the Argentine took over, while Kyle Walker was, in his own words, looking like “an average player”. Eric Dier, a likely starter in England’s midfield for the Euros, was a second-choice right-back.
That they are now all protagonists in a title charge is not just testament to Pochettino’s status as a man who very much knows what he’s doing, but a firm rebuttal to the transfer-obsessed short-termism that too often reigns supreme, and a nice reminder that players can be improved as well as replaced. And for those who complain of modern squads jettisoning their club's local identity, overlooking English talent and not giving youth a chance, well, Pochettino's done wonders there, too.
The league table doesn’t lie. But quite often, the truth – the whole truth – isn’t on show. Right now, for Spurs to sit in second seems harsh, even if it is, ultimately, fair.
Ranieri finally said what we are all thinking on Friday, when he claimed it was a matter of “now or never” for his Leicester players. He’s right of course. For Spurs, though, things are just getting started.
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