Perhaps the most startling aspect of Tottenham’s victory over Arsenal last Sunday was how routine it felt. This was the win that guaranteed that Tottenham would finish above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years, and yet there was no sense of an epic struggle about it, no feeling that Tottenham was grappling with history. Arsenal simply wasn’t good enough: it was outplayed in almost all departments and had it not been for the excellence of Petr Cech, who made a number of fine saves, the margin of victory could have been embarrassing.
Arsene Wenger had said before the game that one season could not stand alongside 20 years of dominance, but that is slightly to miss the point. The balance in north London has been shifting for a decade. Tottenham has been closing and closing. But for a late collapse once its title challenge had ended, it would have finished above Arsenal last season. This has been coming for some time, and, frankly, there’s no immediate prospect of the pendulum swinging back.
But, as Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said in the build-up to the game, Spurs' ambitions now are bigger than finishing above Arsenal. It seems improbable that it will catch Chelsea now–although a win over West Ham on Friday would take it provisionally within a point–but it has in each of the last two seasons provided the closest challenge to the champions. Spurs have taken 16 more points than anybody else over the past two seasons. They are noticeably big, at least compared to Arsenal, and on Sunday ran as a team over six miles further than their north London rivals. But their advantages aren’t merely physical. There is an intelligence to them, and a tactical flexibility that allows them to switch between a back three and a back four.
And yet, oddly, their success in itself seems to have drawn criticism. Pochettino is 45, the critics note, and is yet to win a trophy. A manager of that age should, they say, have won silverware. But that is to ignore the clubs at which Pochettino has been in charge. People simply don’t win trophies with Espanyol or Southampton. This is his third season with Tottenham. So he has, in a technical sense, failed to win six domestic trophies. But then, he has reached a final and a semifinal. Plenty of managers have failed to win silverware with Spurs. Does that make him a failure? Of course not.
For one thing, it’s slightly baffling to recall that his predecessor was Tim Sherwood. Those days seem a long time ago now. Tottenham has improved under Pochettino and is getting better. This is still a young side–which of course is a further knife to Arsenal hearts given the development of young talent was once what Wenger was supposed to be good at–and, if allowed to, should develop further.
Besides that, there is a simple matter of finance. Tottenham has the sixth-largest budget in the Premier League. Under Pochettino, it has finished fifth and third and will probably finish second again. Any manager who outperforms his budget is fairly obviously doing a good job. So long as the upward trend continues, the idea that he is somehow still unproven, that he has a desperate need to win something, is absurd. There are very few fans making that argument, and those who are represent a ludicrously entitled fringe. Journalists who make it, perhaps, are merely expressing this industry’s hatred of stability.
After White Hart Lane: Tottenham's new stadium
Are their doubts and flaws? Of course there are. Far more significant than the failure to win a cup has been the under-performance in Europe. Last season, in pursuing the league title, Pochettino rested a number of key players for the Europa League tie against Borussia Dortmund, but there can be not similar excuse this time. Spurs were deservedly eliminated from the Champions League, finishing behind Monaco and, less forgivably, a Bayer Leverkusen side that has had a horrible season. It wasn’t much better in the Europa League knockout stage, as it went out to Gent.
Playing at Wembley, perhaps, made a difference. The pitch there is bigger than at White Hart Lane, which perhaps cost Spurs some home advantage. And players get used to playing at one ground: Thierry Henry said that at Highbury he knew exactly where he was on the pitch because of the way shadows fell, or where advertising boardings were. Whether that is sufficient to explain away the performances is another matter.
Perhaps there was just a subconscious focus on the league, which would be understandable. And that suggests an issue with the size of the squad. Last summer’s transfer business did not work as Pochettino would surely have liked. Although Victor Wanyama has been excellent, neither Mousa Sissoko nor Vincent Janssen has worked out. Janssen might, but it’s hard to see Sissoko ever fitting into that midfield.
Improving strength in depth, adapting to playing games at Wembley next season, keeping this squad together in the face of lucrative offers from elsewhere–there are plenty of challenges ahead for Pochettino. But while such obvious progress is being made, his lack of silverware really shouldn’t be an issue.