These are strange times for Tottenham Hotspur. You can smell it in the air, you can feel it radiating from the seats. It pervades the bones. It goes against their nature, this sort of thing. It does not sit easily with those who have seen so much, often from behind a mesh of sweaty fingers held in vain against the eyes. This growing sense of confidence, this defensive assurance, this gently simmering contentedness…it’s all a bit weird.
Spurs were not put on this earth to be defensively sound. That is a role that belongs to other clubs. Spurs are supposed to dare all the time, to do only occasionally and to blast their own toes off with a shotgun every 18 months or so. And yet Mauricio Pochettino appears to have cultivated a certain stability in a first season that hasn’t always looked comfortable.
Tottenham may have left it late to beat Sunderland, but it was hard to argue that they didn’t deserve the three points. Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier were excellent, the latter particularly so given that he had Jermain Defoe stuffed inside the pockets of his shorts, something that must have restricted his mobility. The Black Cats made a handful of chances, particularly towards the end when for the second time in seven days, Danny Graham attempted to impose his own unlikely sub-plot upon proceedings, but they were largely nullified. In the midfield, Spurs were impressive too, Christian Eriksen offered a demonstration of guile and incision, while Harry Kane scampered around in the hole like a six year old boy gleefully kicking over piles of leaves. Only in attack, where Roberto Soldado continues to shuffle around like a man who’s just been dumped by text message, did Spurs look short.
Of course, Tottenham haven’t actually performed that badly in recent years. They haven’t finished outside the top six since 2009, and they’ve only finished outside the top ten once since 2004. Given the traditional measuring devices of stadium size and recent honours, you would suggest that they are exactly where they should be, if not slightly higher. But as Arsenal fans will tell you, it’s not where you are that brings the frustration, it’s where you know you could be.
Tottenham have had several chances to step up to the big time, but not only have they missed them, they’ve panicked, made sweeping changes behind the scenes and then slipped back again. Harry Redknapp took Spurs into the Champions League, but his reluctance to rotate and some odd signings prevented further progress. He was dumped for Andre Villas-Boas, a man who promised a glorious new era of micromanagement. Tottenham’s 2-1 win over Arsenal in March 2013 gave Spurs a real chance of finishing second. Instead, they faded, finished fifth and he was sacked before Christmas the following campaign. Tim Sherwood sauntered in like a wild-eyed supply teacher drunk on power, but before the season was out his own players were telling him that he was going to get sacked.
All of which put Pochettino in a difficult position. He had the fragments of three men’s teams to piece together and he had to do it in a perilous and high pressure environment. Not only that, but Pochettino is a man with a plan, and not one to run a laissez-faire sort of operation. He needed his players to buy into his system and to do it quickly. Winning his first four games helped, but the success was illusory. A subsequent run of three wins from 11 games was a better indicator of where Tottenham were. This was not going to be a successful season. It was going to be a transitional season.
This, at least, is familiar ground, Tottenham seem to have been in a transitional season since 1987, after that extraordinary campaign when they finished third in the league, reached the League Cup semi-finals and lost one of the greatest FA Cup finals in living memory through the medium of Gary Mabbutt’s knee. Tottenham being Tottenham, in 1988 they finished just five points clear of the relegation zone.
That sort of thing won’t do these days. Football is a far more hysterical game and there needs to be visible and tangible progress at all times. The funny thing is, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Pochettino’s Tottenham are improving all the time. They are far from the finished article of course, but you could feel the difference in the mood of the fans on Saturday. Even when it looked as if Sunderland would steal a point, there was no anger from the stands. They know what’s happening here. They can see the improvement. And they’re as weirded out by it as the rest of us.