Leicester City is attempting to become the littlest engine that ever could, as even those who've never bet a nickel can tell you that the Foxes began the season with 5000/1 odds of winning the Premier League title, a heartwarming Cinderella story overshadowing the exciting dark horse at White Hart Lane.
Prior to opening day, Chelsea was listed at 13/8 to win this year’s title, Man City was 5/2, Arsenal was 4/1, Manchester United was 5/1, Liverpool was 28/1 with Tottenham a distant sixth, at 100/1 (the exact preseason title odds owned by "the miracle Mets,” dubbed such for winning the 1969 World Series).
Perhaps Spurs standing is taken for granted, Tottenham has the look and the feel of a big club. London-based, qualifying almost annually for the Europa League and it recently sold Gareth Bale for the biggest transfer fee in soccer history, but not only have Spurs not won a league title since Diego Maradona was in diapers, they’ve never once finished higher than fourth in the Premier League.
If Tottenham does claim the trophy, it will do so with the Premier League’s youngest team, as its starting 11 averages just 24 years and 303 days, surely a good thing considering the effort its coach commands.
The taskmaster. Mauricio Pochettino played the majority of his career in Spain; he also had 20 caps for Argentina, including three at the 2002 World Cup. Hired in May of 2014 after helping Southampton equal its best ever finish, the 43-year-old former defender’s pressing tactics place a premium on exertion, with Tottenham players covering the second most ground in the league, and the results have not gone unnoticed.
“It would be the best managerial performance in Premier League history if Tottenham go on and win the league,” Jamie Redknapp said on Sky Sports this week.
“This is my third season at Tottenham, and at the beginning it was really hard for me. But Pochettino has improved everything. He is so demanding during the week and we train so hard. I'm still surprised by the intensity he demands during the training sessions. I have accepted that I don't play all the games -- it's actually impossible to play every game," Erik Lamela said before Thursday’s 3-0 Europa League win over Fiorentina, which knocked out Italy’s third-place team. "Honestly, I think I'm having the best season of my career."
“We mentioned at halftime how much they run for each other and how much they fight for each other. They want to win the league and you can see it,” Thierry Henry said last week after a statement win over Man City gave Spurs five league wins in a row, and devastated City’s title chances.
But asked on Thursday what was the turning point of the season, Pochettino stayed true to form, pointing to practice.
“What was the turning point of our season? It’s not a single game or a moment. The month before the season was brilliant and perfect for us, and we used every day to build what we have today,” Pochettino told the Evening Standard. “It’s important to enjoy the present but also be careful for the future, to try to improve and learn every day to achieve what we want.”
The novelty of an English champion. English players represented just 33.2 percent players in starting lineups during opening weekend this season (players capable of representing England internationally), compared to 69 percent in 1992-93, the Premier League's inaugural season.
Domestic starters by league during 2014-15: Spain 58%, France 56%, Germany 43%, Italy 43% and England 35%.
With the richest league in the world capable of drawing players from anywhere, while paying the highest salaries, it's not surprising that England’s best teams tend to have the fewest English players. The last two Premier League winners saw just three English players start at least half of their league games, combined. Two for Chelsea last year and Joe Hart was the only one for Man City the season before. (Arsenal’s last title team, in 2004, had just two such players).
Tottenham has five such English players, and the club could become the first Premier League champion with five English players starting half its games since Man United in 2007-08, and they all have English national team ties, with three looming large in the Three Lions’ future. Tottenham’s homegrown Harry Kane, the 22-year-old striker who looks like the heir to an English title, will likely be battling Leicester’s slightly less couth Jamie Vardy for starting duties at Euro 2016. Eric Dier, also 22, is a defensive midfielder that’s had a terrific season.
Dele Alli has exploded this season, now tabbed by more than a few as England’s best young talent. Alli is second in league goals and assists for Tottenham, heavily favored to take home the PFA Young Player of the Year award Kane hoisted last year, he’s already scored the Premier League goal of the season --- and he’s still just 19 years old.
The sum of its parts. Spurs success isn't due to just one player, or just a few, there isn’t a superstar among them, but talent is everywhere, molded by their demanding coach, the players are rewarded for their collective effort.
Team captain Hugo Lloris, who may be Spurs best player this season, is ranked second among Premier League goalkeepers in percentage of goals conceded per shot on target. Left back Danny Rose is third at defending dangerous opposition attacks. Toby Alderweireld, one of the league's best, is ranked first in the Premier League among central defenders for building his team’s attacks, with Dele Alli seventh in chances created per game (stats per Sportsmatrix).
Kane's 16 league goals are tied with Romelu Lukau for second behind Vardy, who has 19. Danish international Christian Eriksen’s eight assists are tied for fourth in the Premier League. Midfielder Mousa Dembele will be out over the next two weeks, which include critical games against West Ham and Arsenal, with the Belgian having perhaps his best season as a professional, his absence will be felt.
After 26 games, the proof is in the pudding.
Tottenham has allowed just 20 goals, three fewer than any other team in the Premier League, it has scored 47, just one off the league best, and Tottenham’s goal differential of +27 is easily the best in England (Man City is next best, at +20).
So, having waited 55 years since its last league title, only two points off the lead with 12 games left to play -- why not Tottenham?
Besides, if Pochetinno gets in a jam, he can always rely on soccer advice from Tottenham’s resident football coach. (Is it really any coincidence that this long-awaited title charge comes less than three short years after being exposed to America’s preeminent coaching genius?)