When a football club is missing parts of its spine, the team may not play as well. It’s that simple. Results don’t come off as they might when the team has its most important players on the field together.
And all season long, Tottenham Hotspur has felt the effects of fielding a team with an incomplete spine.
From back to front, Tottenham’s spine consists of: Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembélé, and Harry Kane. The match against Manchester United on December 11 marked the second time that those four had started a league match together. (The first would be against Sunderland on September 18.)
Dembélé would be serving a suspension for the first four matches of the 2016-17 season. This, all for a lapse in judgment (gouging Diego Costa’s eye) at the end of last season. He would return to the first team as a sub against Monaco in the Champions League directly ahead of the Sunderland match. He would play 74 minutes in his first league start of the season against, marking the first 74 minutes the spine would play together during the campaign.
But let’s rewind to the first match of the season, when Spurs would play at Everton. When the Toffees would score early on, Lloris would appear to suffer an injury. He was subbed out before the end of the first half. Then, would miss the next two matches, returning after the international break against Stoke. Lloris and Dembélé would subsequently miss time, further weakening Tottenham’s spine.
Let’s go back to the Sunderland match. Thirteen minutes after Dembélé was subbed off, Kane suffered a rather nasty injury to his ankle after challenging for the ball with Papy Djilobodji. The injury would be serious enough to keep the prolific forward out of action for seven weeks.
Following Kane’s injury, Spurs would win four on the bounce—including a 2-0 dominating home win over Manchester City. An international break followed, and they returned to league play against West Brom.
That match would take place four weeks after Kane’s injury. Shortly into the second half, Alderweireld had to be substituted off following a collision with center-half partner Jan Vertonghen. The Belgian would suffer an injury to his knee, keeping him out for seven-and-a-half weeks.
Kane would return to the starting XI in time for the North London Derby, but Alderweireld would be away for another month. The spine had bent in several directions, but it had not yet broken.
During the time both Kane and Alderweireld were out, Spurs drew four and lost an additional two. Kane’s return to the first team would bring a huge morale boost (and more goals) to the squad. A draw at the Emirates was followed by an inspiring London Derby victory over West Ham—Tottenham’s first win since they defeated Manchester City. However, that good result was backed up by losses at Monaco (eliminating Spurs from the Champions League) and at Chelsea (for the 27th consecutive season).
This run of form would be worse than anything that Tottenham would face under Mauricio Pochettino thus far. It could’ve been easy for the team to get discouraged. Then, the club’s fortune underwent a mini-revolution.
Following their first full week of rest since August, Spurs would turn it on in a return to White Hart Lane, obliterating Swansea City to the tune of 5-0. During the week, Spurs took on CSKA Moscow looking to undo their Wembley woes and leave the Champions League on a high note. After going behind against the run of play, they would quickly equalize and eventually take the lead before halftime. Midway through the second half, Alderweireld would return to the field. The spine, as it were, was back.
A loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford did not keep Spurs’ spirits down, responding well by winning and keeping a clean sheet against Hull. The weekend fixture against Burnley would start meekly, but goals from Dele and Danny Rose would help Tottenham pull off the comeback 2-1 victory.
The team looks to be playing how they did for most of last season since Alderweireld’s return. More importantly, Tottenham’s spine has started the last three matches together. But, they have yet to play 90 minutes together. It’s true that the team has not been one cohesive unit due to those various significant injuries. However, through the first 17 rounds of the current Premier League season, Spurs have won 33 points as compared to the 29 they won through the same amount of matches last season.
Despite having more points through the same amount of matches, Spurs sit fifth in the league. The top teams are getting back to their best and it’s up to Pochettino and his squad to keep up. With the spine in fully functioning order, Spurs stand a really good chance to mount a top-four challenge once again.