After Spurs beat Manchester City here at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on February 5, a few of the senior players discussed an overdue realisation they had shared: that no one would now want to come here and play Spurs at their home ground over the final phase of the season.
That might sound obvious, but this has been a difficult season for Spurs, full of distractions. It has been hard work to maintain any sort of positive mood. But this message — that Spurs’ home games should be difficult for their opponents — is one that Cristian Stellini has been trying to get through to the players. And over the course of this month, it has started to percolate down through the squad.
Watching Spurs beat Chelsea 2-0 on Sunday afternoon, you got a sense the mood might be slowly starting to change, both inside the squad and in the stands. For the first time since the start of the season, Tottenham look a bit more stable and unified.
Spurs’ defeat at Leicester City two weeks ago was obviously a disaster, but take a step back and it looks increasingly like an aberration. Spurs have now won four of their last five in the league, and in all four of those wins, they have kept clean sheets. That makes this their best run of league form since before the World Cup.
Skipp celebrates his stunning goal (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
When Tottenham won 1-0 at Fulham in January, Antonio Conte kept saying afterwards that the win had to be a “starting point” for a big improvement in spirit and defensive organisation. At the time, it sounded like just another press conference soundbite, a way for an under-pressure manager to sound proactive and look like he has a plan. But five weeks on it does feel as if Spurs are indeed following the ethos Conte laid down that evening. Even though he has spent so much of that time recovering from surgery.
The victory against Chelsea was the perfect example. So much of what helped them to win the game was evident against West Ham United, or before then against Manchester City or Fulham. For a start, there was consistency of selection; this was the same team that beat West Ham. The decisions that were surprising last week — Ben Davies at left wing-back, Richarlison ahead of Son Heung-min — were justified last time and worked again today.
This Tottenham team has more defensive stability now than they have done since the end of last season. This was the big obsession of Conte before his illness, that the team that was so hard to score against last season was leaking goals in the first half of this one. He knew the solution was not to be found in individuals but in the broader contours of the team, the attitude, and the organisation.
But Leicester aside, those qualities have been far better in recent weeks and so they were again today. Chelsea forced Fraser Forster into two saves in the first half but in truth, they barely threatened. Cristian Romero was perfect, Eric Dier looked back to his last-season form and Davies and Emerson Royal provided invaluable protection in wide areas. Not every fan would choose this back five with two holders (include Forster and it is a back eight), but there is no question it makes Spurs harder to score against. Stellini spoke proudly afterwards about this defensive turnaround and how much it owes to “unit work”, “helping each other” and “covering the space quickly”.
What makes these improvements so important is that Tottenham have now stopped going into half-time already 2-0 down. And the players have realised that football is in fact far easier when you do not have to launch yet another desperate rescue job in the second half of every game.
The first half here was unremarkable (apart from the VAR controversy) but at least it was a platform. Spurs could lift the tempo at the start of the second half — just as they did last Sunday against West Ham — and take the game away from their opponents. It was Emerson’s tenacity in the final third that created the shot just before Oliver Skipp’s brilliant opener and Richarlison’s hard work that forced the corner from which Kane scored the second.
Put these ingredients together — the clean sheet, the solid start, the turning up of the tempo after the break — and it feels as if Tottenham finally have a method that works for them.
Harry Kane battles with several Chelsea players (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
Just as importantly, they have the clear support and confidence of the crowd again. There have been some tough moments here in recent weeks, not least the dispiriting defeats to Aston Villa and Arsenal. But three wins and three clean sheets in succession have turned the mood. This is the first time Spurs have put together a home run like this (with no goals conceded) since April 2019, in the first weeks of this stadium’s existence. Spurs did start this season with seven straight home wins in all competitions, but the best teams they beat in that time were Fulham and Marseille.
Suddenly, this feels like a team and a stadium that can take on big opponents again. At the start of this month, Spurs had not beaten a single big team this season. Now they have beaten Manchester City and Chelsea in a matter of weeks. This was the first time they had beaten Chelsea in Tottenham since January 2017, which was so long ago that Conte was in his first season managing Chelsea. Too often Spurs have an inferiority complex or mental block in this fixture, but there was no sign of that this time.
All of this makes promising preparation for AC Milan coming here the week after next. That is arguably Spurs’ biggest game of this season and one of the biggest this stadium has ever held. You would not have expected January’s Spurs to turn that tie around, but it feels as if February’s Spurs might be a different prospect.
(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)