When Ange Postecoglou took over at Tottenham before the Premier League season kicked off, the appointment was met with surprise and even dismay in some quarters – from those who have not followed his career, at least.
The big question was simple: How far could he – and his bold tactical approach – take the team in his maiden campaign in the world’s top league?
Postecoglou exceeded all expectations with a 10-match unbeaten run to send them top of the table early in the campaign, playing a blinding brand of attacking football.
The Australian won Premier League manager of the month in each of August, September and October. Then injuries and suspension decimated Spurs, who lost four of their next five matches.
Stream Over 50 Sports Live & On-Demand with Kayo. New to Kayo? Start Your Free Trial Today >
Postecoglou steadied the ship and has lost just once in their seven matches – even with a couple of key players at the Africa Cup of Nations or, like South Korea’s Son Heung-Min, at the Asian Cup for a month.
Tottenham currently sit fifth on 44 points, with 13 wins, five draws and five defeats.
To put that into perspective, that tally through 23 rounds would be good enough to comfortably sit in the top four in every season going back to 2018/19 (when, coincidentally, they finished fourth in the last full season under Mauricio Pochettino).
It’s fair to say that they’ve confounded the critics so far. That’s especially true considering the club’s talismanic captain Harry Kane, who had scored at least 20 goals in each of his last nine seasons, was sold before the season kicked off.
But Kane’s departure may have proved a blessing in disguise for Postecoglou. Firstly, it provided him with funds to splash in the transfer market. Kane was sold to Bayern Munich for a German-record €100m plus €10m in bonuses. Postecoglou used that to sign winger Brennan Johnson (22) and James Maddison (26) for almost exactly the amount Kane earned the club – then made another seven signings.
Of the nine permanent arrivals, just two were aged over 25: Maddison and goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario (also 26).
And besides Kane (30), he allowed three other players to leave on permanent deals – 30-year-old Lucas Moura, and 27-year-old duo Harry Winks and Davinson Sanchez. 27-year-old Tanguy Ndombele was sent on loan, as was 26-year-old Sergio Reguilon (all ages above are at the time of the deal).
It was a drastic reshaping of the side with the future firmly in mind.
Tottenham’s average age of the starting XI (across every match) last season was 27.5 years old, while the average age of the entire squad was 27.1 – the fourth-oldest in the competition.
This time around, the average age of the starting XI is just 24.9, with the entire squad averaging 25.3 years old – the fourth-youngest in the competition.
In Spurs’ last match (2-2 against Everton), all of the substitutes were aged 21 to 23 years old.
The starting XI for that match included seven players who have arrived at Spurs this season.
The oldest player in the team, 28-year-old Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, is an outlier – and Postecoglou had him up for sale in January only for the player to reject an exit. Tottenham were reportedly hoping to replace him with Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher, who turned 24 this week.
Compare that to the top of the table clash between Arsenal and Liverpool on the weekend, where the teams fielded a combined total of five signings from this season in the 22 men who took to the field for kick-off.
Manchester City, as another example, started just one new signing in their 3-1 win over Brentford: 22-year-old left back Josko Gvardiol.
Postecoglou has not only signed a host of young players, but entrusted them to play regular minutes.
And in the January transfer window, he took the process a step further – being far more active than any of his top-half rivals.
Out the door went the likes of 37-year-old gloveman Hugo Lloris, 34-year-old Ivan Perisic, and 29-year-old Eric Dier. In came 21-year-old centre-back Radu Dragusin, with Spurs beating plenty of rival interest to land the talented youngster.
In a massive boost for the future, Spurs also won the race for 18-year-old Swedish midfielder Lucas Bergvall, who turned down Barcelona to join Postecoglou’s side at the end of the season.
There was also one of the most surprising deals of the window: a loan deal for 27-year-old striker Timo Werner with an option to buy at the end of the season for around £15m. The German was a flop at Chelsea before returning to RB Leipzig, having been all-but written off in England.
Werner managed 10 Premier League goals in 56 appearances for the Blues.
Postecoglou has never shied away from bold transfer moves – like at Celtic, where he raided Japan for a series of players after his successful stint coaching Yokohama F. Marinos in the J-League.
He also has a strong record of helping maligned players to discover top form, something he has demonstrated this season with the resurgence of Richarlison.
The Brazilian striker scored just one Premier League goal in his first season at Tottenham, but has already bagged 10 under Postecoglou this campaign – just three behind his best-ever haul at Everton.
If he continues scoring at his current rate, he’ll easily reach personal-best figures by the end of the season.
And if Postecoglou can get the most out of Werner, it could be another Ange act of genius.
THE BIG CHAMPIONS LEAGUE CHANGE THAT COULD DEFINE SEASON
Now, the January transfer window has closed and the Premier League finish line is beginning to loom.
Spurs are fifth, seven points off title leaders Liverpool (51 points) with 15 games to play. Reigning champions Manchester City are second but have a game in hand and could leapfrog the Reds, while Arsenal are currently third – also on 49 points.
That trio appear poised for a gripping title race. One spot further back is Aston Villa (46 points) in fourth, ahead of Tottenham (44), Manchester United (38) and West Ham (36).
While Villa still hold out hope of a late-season title charge, it’s more likely that Unai Emery’s men will be targeting a top-four finish – and the all-important boon of Champions League qualification.
Having been dumped out of the FA Cup and League Cup, Tottenham’s hopes of ending their long silverware drought this season rest on claiming an unlikely Premier League crown. But like Villa, qualifying for the Champions League is the desperately-sought aim in the final 14 rounds.
Qatar through to Asian Cup Final | 01:35
But next season the Champions League will look very different, and it could have a huge impact on Spurs.
The Champions League will adopt the so-called Swiss Model, which means four more teams will now compete (36 in all).
The two leagues whose clubs perform best in European competitions this season (across the Champions League, Europa League, and Conference League) will each get one additional place next year.
Had the rule been in place for this season, Liverpool and Atalanta would have qualified for the group stage – both teams having finished fifth in their respective leagues last campaign.
So instead of the top four teams on the league ladders from England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy all qualifying, two of those nations will instead have FIVE teams automatically qualify – based on which nation’s teams do the best in Europe this year.
For Premier League fans (and indeed Tottenham fans) there’s room for optimism since England has finished in the top two nations in Europe in six of the last seven seasons.
Sometimes, the coefficient points (aka the ranking of each country) are so close that the top two nations are decided by the result of the final. In 2019-20, the Premier League finished third in the coefficient points only because of Bayern Munich beating PSG 1-0 in the final – meaning Germany leapfrogged England.
This raises the spectre of Spurs finishing fifth and relying on a Premier League rival, such as their North London neighbours Arsenal, to win the Champions League final in order for Postecoglou’s men to qualify.
That would truly be a day of mixed emotions for the Spurs faithful.
SON RETURNS AHEAD OF BRUTAL RUN HOME
For now, however, Postecoglou is focused on the task at hand – getting back to winning ways, having won just one of four matches while Son has been absent at the Asian Cup.
The South Korean star decided to fly straight back to England once his team was knocked out of that tournament and could feature against Brighton on Sunday morning (2am AEDT).
Postecoglou will be hoping his star man can hit the ground running and show the kind of form he demonstrated against the Socceroos, having won a late penalty before scoring an excellent extra-time free kick to eliminate Australia in the quarterfinal.
Having exceeded all expectations to this point of the season, and having arguably won the January transfer window with their bold actions, Postecoglou is well-poised for a late Premier League charge.
But finishing in the top four and sealing the major financial and reputational boost of Champions League qualification won’t be easy – especially since Spurs have a brutal four-game run of games to look forward to from mid-April.
They face Newcastle, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool in consecutive matches before finishing their season against Burnley and Sheffield United.
That four-game run could make or break Spurs season. But even if they do miss the top four (or five) and Champions League qualification, Postecoglou has proven his brand of football can cut it in the league – and he’s laid the groundwork for long-term success.