Tottenham, counting the cost of Mousa Dembele’s absence, cannot afford slow start to continue

Greg Lea looks at how costly a slow start was to Tottenham last season, and why they need to get going this campaign if they are to challenge for the title.
Tottenham celebrate their equalising goal against Liverpool, but for large parts of the game, they were outplayed. Julian Finney / Getty Images
Tottenham celebrate their equalising goal against Liverpool, but for large parts of the game, they were outplayed. Julian Finney / Getty Images

Between the start of September and the end of April last season, Tottenham Hotspur won 19 and drew nine of their 31 Premier League matches, giving them a points-per-game ratio of 2.13.

Had Mauricio Pochettino’s men been running at the same rate across all 38 matches, they would have finished the campaign on 81 points — or, in other words, the same amount as champions Leicester City. Tottenham’s collapse in the season’s final four games was well documented, but their substandard start was just as significant to their failed title bid as their frustrating finish.

It should be noted at this stage that Tottenham exceeded expectations in 2015/16; even the most optimistic of supporters would not have been anticipating a championship challenge before a ball had been kicked.

Nevertheless, the fact that Spurs came closer to winning the league than at any point since the late 1960s, yet still finished some way behind first-placed Leicester, had to be taken as a disappointment in context of the sides — both Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool — they finished ahead of so comfortably.

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Fast forward 12 months and Tottenham have again failed to set pulses racing in the opening weeks of the new season.

Five points have been obtained from their opening three fixtures — two more than were claimed in their first four matches last year — and although that represents a respectable tally given the opposition faced, Tottenham’s displays have been rather flat thus far.

Everton were the better team on the opening day, dominating for the first hour before allowing Tottenham back into the game in the closing stages.

Crystal Palace were then narrowly beaten in North London thanks to a late goal from a set-piece, before Spurs were outplayed by Liverpool before the international break and were fortunate to earn a draw.

Tottenham have finished strongly in each of their three matches up to now, but they have not yet come close to matching the level of performance they frequently reached last season.

The absence of midfielder Mousa Dembele through suspension cannot be underestimated when seeking an explanation.

The Belgium international is arguably Tottenham’s most important player, with his ability to regain possession and then dribble past opponents in the centre of the park vital to the way his team play.

Saturday’s clash with Stoke City is the last Dembele, 29, will miss from the six-game ban — picked up at the end of last season for violent conduct after appearing to eye-gouge Chelsea’s Diego Costa — and it would not be at all surprising if his return to the fold coincided with a collective upturn in fortunes.

As his manager joked two weeks ago, “without Mousa Dembele, we do not exist.”

There is also the issue of Tottenham’s style. Pochettino demands his team plays high-tempo football which involves hassling and harrying opponents out of possession; it can be difficult to successfully execute such an approach immediately after the summer break, when match fitness and game rhythm are still being built up.

Pochettino’s comments after the 1-1 draw with Everton seemed to suggest he was wary of this problem developing, with the Argentine criticising the “bosses [who] manage football” for failing to give Premier League players a longer break after Euro 2016.

While the English top flight looks set to be much more competitive this year, Tottenham will still be in the running for the Uefa Champions League places at the very least.

The summer signings of Victor Wanyama, Vincent Janssen, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, and Moussa Sissoko have bolstered the squad’s strength in depth, and the experience of 2015/16 will also help Pochettino and his players to improve.

A convincing performance and positive result against Stoke on Saturday might be all that is needed to set them on their way.

It may still be early days, but Tottenham know just how costly a poor start to the season can be.

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Published: September 8, 2016 04:00 AM

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