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Tottenham Is Perfect So Far, But Is It Really A Contender?

It’s still extremely early in the 2021-22 Premier League season, but Tottenham Hotspur finds itself at the top of the table after Matchweek 3, having won each of its first three matches, including a somewhat unexpected opening-day victory against defending champions Manchester City. City had the lion’s share of the ball in the match and was the more dangerous team for long stretches, but Spurs defended narrow and tight and remained a constant threat on the counter attack, hallmarks of its approach under previous manager José Mourinho1 as well as current manager Nuno Espírito Santo.2 

Eventually, the North Londoners got a goal through forward Son Heung-min, who curled a low shot with his left foot from the right corner of the box into the left corner of the net to finish off a devastating counter attack. The one goal — scored in a style that has become prototypically Spursian in recent years — was all Tottenham needed in the end. The Lilywhites followed that early upset with a pair of 1-0 wins over Wolves and Watford, which means they’ve taken the maximum amount of points available so far despite having scored just one goal in each of their matches, and just 1.25 expected goals per 90 minutes

The sample size is obviously very small, but Tottenham’s expected goal differential per 90 is in the red so far at -0.05, placing it squarely in the middle of the pack. When teams win matches that they should lose or draw, it’s usually a pretty good indicator that they’re a serious contender — take Liverpool in 2019-20, for example — but at some point, Spurs will have to figure out how to do the most important thing in soccer (score goals) with much more regularity if they hope to be in the title race beyond the first month or so. 

Keeping Harry Kane employed should help. Tottenham’s vice-captain and best player flirted with the idea of moving to the northwest to play for City earlier this summer (it was a whole dramatic thing, and it may not be over yet), but ultimately he stayed put in London. A long soccer-filled summer at Euro 2020 and a lack of fitness kept Kane out of the match against City — his absence intensified the speculation that he’d be moving before the transfer window slammed shut — but he made appearances in each of the next two games, including a start against Watford. 

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Kane hasn’t scored yet, but history suggests the goals will come: He’s netted more than 20 in five of his seven full seasons at Tottenham and has never scored fewer than 17. And while a consistent goal threat is certainly a nice attribute, it’s not the only thing Kane brings to the table:  He’s morphed into an elite playmaker in recent seasons (especially last season), and a big part of that is his partnership with Son, which has been dangerous for several seasons but blossomed into the most potent one-two punch in the league. The duo even set a record for most combined goals scored in a season in league history. 

An interesting subplot to both the Kane drama and all the Kane-Son dynamism is the apparent reemergence of Dele Alli, who had seemed to be frozen out by Mourinho.3Earlier in his career, Alli was widely considered one of the brightest young talents in England, and it’s easy to see why: He contributed 63 goals plus assists in his first 106 matches for Tottenham. Injuries interrupted his development in 2018-19, but he was just 23 years old — about to enter his prime — when Mourinho took over in November 2019. Though Alli featured prominently enough at first, he made just two starts between Matchweek 1 and Matchweek 32 of Mourinho’s second season — and Mourinho was sacked after Matchweek 32. All told, Alli played a grand total of 239 minutes of soccer under Mourinho in 2020-21 despite remaining mostly healthy. At one point, it appeared as though Tottenham — and even the English national team — might be built around Alli. But then he became the subject of another one of Mourinho’s grudges, and suddenly his career looked in danger of going off the rails. 

Again, it’s still (extremely) early, but so far under Nuno, Alli has started every match and played three full 90s. Before Kane returned to the starting lineup, Alli took up space on the left side of a midfield three, a position he’s familiar with but that is not necessarily his best. But when Kane was slotted back into the starting lineup against Watford, Alli played behind him in his favored role as a number 10. It’s difficult to quantify just how good Alli was between 2015-16 and 2018-19 because he played in so many different positions, and it’s even more difficult to predict if he’ll ever regain his exceptional early form — but if he does, and if Kane and Son remain healthy, the rest of the league could be in a lot of trouble if they all start firing at the same time. 

Of course, those potential offensive fireworks might not matter if Tottenham can’t figure out how to limit its opponent’s ability to create shots. Spurs have allowed 28 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes so far this season, the third most in the division. (Hugo Lloris is arguably the best shot-stopper in England — he’s led the league in post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed per 90 in two of the past three seasons — but he can only do so much.) Nuno’s Wolves teams were always extremely stingy, ranking sixth, fourth and 10th in shot-creating actions against per 90 during his three seasons at the helm in the Premier League, so there’s hope his version of Spurs will figure it out eventually. 

Even if they do, other question marks remain. Will Nuno bring Tanguy Ndombele back into the fold? Nuno’s style of counter attacking is heavily reliant on good dribblers, and Ndombele is among the best dribblers in the world. Is Tottenham’s center back group — which includes Eric Dier, Davinson Sánchez, Joe Rodon, Japhet Tanganga and new signing Cristian Romero — solid enough on the defensive side of the ball to support a style of soccer that cedes the bulk of possession and, based on early evidence, allows the opposition loads and loads of shot-creating actions? Will Steven Bergwijn progress into the kind of player Spurs hope he’ll become, or will he continue to be sometimes spectacular but mostly underwhelming? And perhaps the biggest: Will Kane be playing in Manchester come January? Spurs are off to a perfect start, but as always, a lot remains up in the air.

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  1. Mourinho was sacked in April, and former Spurs player Ryan Mason acted as interim manager at Tottenham for the rest of the 2020-21 season.

  2. Nuno previously coached Wolves and was hired by Tottenham this past summer after a long search.

  3. Mourinho loves to freeze players out. Just ask Paul Pogba.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.