Postecoglou has Spurs firing, but can they challenge for the Premier League?

  • Mark Ogden, Senior Writer, ESPN FCOct 27, 2023, 05:15 AM ET

Tottenham Hotspur are the runaway leaders of the Premier League. It’s a sentence you don’t hear too often, if ever, but a victory for Ange Postecoglou’s team at Crystal Palace on Friday will take Spurs five points clear of the chasing pack, for one day at least, and raise the prospect of the club “doing a Leicester” this season.

No title winners will ever be more unexpected than Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City who, after narrowly avoiding relegation in the 2014-15 season, defied preseason odds of 5000-1 to win the Premier League in 2015-16. It was a story for the ages and no outsiders have come close to the title since, with Manchester City (5), Chelsea (1), and Liverpool (1) emerging as champions in the following seven seasons.

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Arsenal gave it a good shot last season before Mikel Arteta’s young team faded in the final weeks and ultimately finished five points behind treble-winning Manchester City, but while the Gunners exceeded expectations by even challenging for the title, they at least went into the season with the stability of an established coach and a settled squad.

Tottenham, by contrast, were in turmoil. Postecoglou had been appointed manager following the club’s failure to tempt Julian Nagelsmann, Arne Slot, Roberto De Zerbi, Vincent Kompany and Mauricio Pochettino to succeed Antonio Conte, and record goal scorer Harry Kane had made it clear that he wanted to leave for Bayern Munich.

The Spurs supporters began a new campaign to drive out Daniel Levy, the Premier League’s longest-serving club chairman, and after missing out on European qualification by finishing in eighth position, a season of decline without Kane’s goals seemed inevitable.

Yet two months into the season, Spurs are top, unbeaten and Postecoglou’s pragmatic positivity has united the fanbase and made Kane a distant memory. But at what point does a good start become a signpost for the season ahead and should Spurs now be considered genuine contenders for the title?

At the same stage last season, Arsenal had set a blistering pace by winning eight and losing one of their first nine games and were the team to catch; Spurs are only one point short of Arsenal’s tally after the same number of games and they are still unbeaten.

The loss of Kane has not yet made a difference to Tottenham’s goal output. After nine games last season, they had scored 20 goals and have registered the same this time around. A year ago, Kane accounted for eight of the 20 goals, but now Son Heung-Min is leading the way with seven, just three short of his total output in the league last season. The flipside, however, is that Spurs also started well last season.

After nine games, they were third with 20 points — just three fewer than their present haul — so it would be premature to suggest that Postecoglou has overseen a dramatic transformation. Yet things are different. Tottenham’s positive start last season was punctuated by four Premier League defeats before early November and each of those losses came against sides that finished above them in the table — Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle, and Liverpool.

Their next three league defeats followed a similar pattern, losing against Aston Villa, City, and Arsenal again — all sides who finished the season in the European positions. But Spurs have already emerged unbeaten from their first big test this time around, collecting four points from back-to-back league games against Arsenal and Liverpool.

They have also beaten Manchester United. Spurs have found a way to take points from their rivals at the top end of the table, but they are also backing it up with wins against teams below them, which is a positive recipe for success. The change of mood brought about by Postecoglou’s unifying presence, as opposed to the constant sense of conflict with Conte, is making a difference on and off the pitch, but Spurs are ultimately winning because of their players.

And despite the loss of Kane, who scored 30 goals in 38 Premier League games last season, Spurs now look like a more rounded team thanks to Postecoglou coaxing extra from the likes of Son, Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski, but also because the former Celtic manager has been bold enough to make big calls by dropping established players such as Eric Dier, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Hugo Lloris, with the goalkeeper told to find a new club.

In place of Lloris and Dier, who were equally unimpressive last season, Postecoglou has turned to summer signings Guglielmo Vicario and Micky van de Ven and both have been outstanding in goal and at centre-half respectively.

Postecoglou has put his faith in the talent of midfielder Pape Matar Sarr ahead of Højbjerg, with the Senegal international starting eight out of nine Premier League games — having done so only two times under Conte last season.

Full-backs Destiny Udogie and Pedro Porro have impressed while James Maddison — with three goals, five assists and a Premier League Player of the Month award under his arm — has been instrumental in the team’s success.

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Whether Tottenham possess the squad depth to sustain their impressive start is a question they must answer, but Leicester also had a small squad in 2015-16 and they still managed to go all the way.

Spurs were one of the closest challengers in that 2015-16 season, yet Leicester eventually won the league by 10 points. Leicester continually overcame the doubters and met every challenge successfully. Spurs must do that now — Palace is a tough away game, followed by fixtures against Chelsea, Villa and City in three of their next four games.

But they have already come through the acid test of facing Arsenal and Liverpool and they remain top and unbeaten, so it’s time to take Tottenham seriously.