gettyimages-1284560046.jpg
Getty Images

If the mark of a title contender in waiting is still doing just about enough to win the points even on their worst days then Jose Mourinho might feel his Tottenham side are already proving their status among the Premier League's top sides.

A tally of 17 points from eight games has them one off current leaders Leicester City with the league's best goal difference to their names (+10, level with Chelsea). Their expected goals (xG) for and against, measures of the average scoring return from the chances created by Tottenham and their opponents, are similarly impressive.

Tottenham's xG is at 15.88, their opponents is at 9.31. Their xG differential of 6.57 is the second best in the division, some way ahead of Leicester's third best 4.59 albeit nearly as far from xG difference league leader Liverpool's 7.94.

Spurs have huffed and puffed through their last three games but crucially have earned nine points from nine in away games against Burnley and West Bromwich Albion either side of a home match with Brighton & Hove Albion. Most supporters, players and perhaps even Mourinho himself would have identified these fixtures as ones where a maximum return was to be expected. In reality getting that tally is proving to be a significant challenge for all of the Premier League elite this season.

Probable mid-table teams like Southampton, Aston Villa and Leeds United have already stolen points off Spurs' likely rivals. They are doing so more frequently than before and it would appear, with nearly a quarter of the campaign played, that this season's champion will register a lower points tally than in previous years.

In 2017-18 Manchester City were the top flight's first ever centurions, two years later Liverpool registered 99. Extrapolate the return of Leicester's league leading points total over a season and you have a champion with 86 points. Whatever the final figure in this most demanding of seasons it is hard to see any team reeling off 15-odd wins in a row as has become de rigeur for league winners in the Jurgen Klopp-Pep Guardiola mini-era.

An almost perfect season is no longer the baseline requirement for an English champion, particularly when the team that lifted the trophy last season are ravaged with injuries this. The door has been opened, perhaps only slightly, if another side can simply find the consistency that eluded many top clubs in recent seasons. 

1. Spurs strong start

Mourinho's side have not been immune from the difficulties faced by the big six with draws to Newcastle United and West Ham United but they are without a defeat since the season's opening weekend, at home to Everton. Since then they have largely done enough from a fixture list that has been kind to them but has also asked a lot of Mourinho's squad. Trips to Belgium and Bulgaria have been followed by victories, not necessarily the most invigorating but victories nonetheless.

tottenham-gareth-bale-spurs.jpg
Gareth Bale in Europa League action against Antwerp Getty Images

Not all of their wins have been as dour; when teams give them the chance to cut them apart on the counter Spurs have done so with remorseless efficiency. The team scored five goals away to Southampton and six at Old Trafford against Manchester United. And while it's worth remembering that the first half of the 5-2 win over Southampton was nowhere near as easy as the second but there was no so much competitiveness when they trounced Manchester United at Old Trafford.

With such a small sample size those two excellent wins play an outsized role in Spurs' underlying metrics but that does not entirely detract from how favorable they look. No team has created more big chances and what has been impressive is how Spurs have varied their attack. In open play they have had the second most shots on targets per game whilst they lie third in chances created from set pieces. With Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld and Harry Kane in the box they can beat opponents in the air if the latter's combination play with Heung-min Son hasn't already crafted a way through.

2. Harry Kane the resurgent creator

That the England captain has more strings to his bow than being a pure number nine is no cause for surprise among seasoned Tottenham observers but his link play with Son has been devastating. Kane is one goal off the lead in scoring with seven in eight but leads Jack Grealish by three in the assist table, averaging one per game.

Considering that only two players, Thierry Henry and Kevin De Bruyne, have bettered an assist every other game over the course of a campaign it seems inevitable Kane's output will drop off somewhat, particularly when his expected assists of 0.16 per 90 mins are so outweighed by his actual output of an assist per match. There will be inevitable regression towards that expected number in his output, after all so far this season he has had a hand in a goal every 48 minutes when his previous best was 70. but its clear that this season Spurs rely on him to do more than lurk around the penalty area. Indeed his manager has made a point for praising him for being more than just a goal scorer.

"When you go to stats in relation to the strikers, I always say that the stats should be... how many goals the striker has scored, and what he did for his team in the matches where he didn't score," said Mourinho after his side's win over West Brom. "Many of the strikers in history would be an incredible number of goals that they score, plus zero.

"Harry Kane you have to say… this number of goals scored, this number of assists, this number of balls recovered, this number of duels won, this number of balls that he saved his team in a defensive set-piece.

"This is Harry Kane.

"It's goals plus this and this and this and that. So, for me, it's not one more goal or one less goal, it's about what he is as a player."

Harry Kane's Premier League output by season

SeasonGames playedGoals scoredAssistsMinutes per goal contribution

14-15

34

21

5

99

15-16

38

25

1

130

16-17

30

29

7

70

17-18

37

30

3

93

18-19

28

17

4

116

19-20

29

18

2

130

20-21

8

8

7

48

At the heart of the striker's creative awakening has been his functioning as a withdrawn forward, almost a quarterback at times, playing as his beloved Tom Brady with a cadre of offensive weapons on his flanks. 

This is nothing new where Kane is concerned, take his assist for Heung-min Son during a 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town in the 2017-18 season. His drift to the right took the attention of both center backs, leaving space for Son to dart into and convert his cross. But as Mauricio Pochettino's squad drew ever more drained Kane did not seem to zip into space with such electricity.  When he dropped deep it often seemed he felt compelled to do everything, if at all possible he would assist himself.

Kane no longer seems as worn down as he once did. He has the weapons to ensure what chances he does create are taken: his relationship with Son is nigh-on telepathic whilst Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn and Gareth Bale all offer incision and varying degrees of pace in behind. Should Mourinho ever deploy Kane as a truly more withdrawn playmaker he has Carlos Vinicius as an alternate option at striker.

3. Strong squad depth

Spurs attacking options speak to Tottenham's impressive depth, meaning their squad is able to withstand the sort of injury crisis that has already afflicted the likes of Liverpool this season. Spurs' pure weight of numbers Moussa Sissoko noted on the Que Golazo podcast, has allowed Spurs to manage a packed fixture list of Premier League and Europa League games.

"Everything is here to recover after the game and try to recover for the next," he said. "We have a good and strong squad so sometimes the manager can rotate the team. 

"We have that chance this year, let's keep going on that way. Hopefully at the end of the season we will have some great results and some things."

That chance did not feel quite within Spurs' reach when they initially assessed their financial circumstances as coronavirus took its toll on football. A $232million loan from the Bank of England was designed to ease the immediate pressure on finances at a time when chairman Daniel Levy warned of $265million in lost revenue. Mourinho predicted his club would not spend "rivers" of money and yet he emerged from a trying period with his squad greatly enhanced. 

For a net spend of just $70million Spurs got themselves strong new options in both full-back positions (Sergio Reguilon and Matt Doherty), attacking versatility in Vinicius and Bale and the imposing midfielder they had needed last season in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. His effective cost to them was $4million with Kyle Walker-Peters going to Southampton in exchange, it already appears to be a steal.

Little wonder Mourinho is cutting such an optimistic figure around north London. The off-field drama that has defined him since his Real Madrid tenure has not been entirely eradicated with his decision to side line Dele Alli, although that seems as reflective of the player's own decline as his manager's proclivity for isolating key dressing room figures.

Certainly Sissoko sees no evidence of the difficulties that often accompany Mourinho.

"When you see him from outside you can say it's maybe a bit hard to speak with him, to deal with him, but when you're in the team it's totally the opposite. He's a happy man, always smiling, tries to give confidence to the player. 

"At training of course he wants the players to train well, to perform. Of course he can be upset when you're not doing things right in training and games but that's normal because he wants to win.

"Everyone likes him, since he came he is doing a great job. In the past he won titles with nearly every team, hopefully he can achieve this with this club but we need to all be in the same direction."

There is belief in the Spurs camp that under this manager their 12 year wait for a trophy can end. Kane is dreaming bigger than even another EFL Cup.

"When you look at the ability of our squad, you would definitely say that we've got enough to win a title," he said.

"This is a season where I don't think one team's going to run away with it - like Liverpool last year. There's going to be opportunities for other teams to put good runs together and get right up the table."

If they are to fulfil Kane's belief the coming weeks will be crucial. Spurs' early season fixtures verged on the cakewalk, the coming five games are more like a bed of nails. Manchester City and Arsenal travel to White Hart Lane whilst Mourinho's side go away to Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool. Even after that Leicester and Wolverhampton Wanderers are on the calendar. There could scarcely be a more ideal run of games for calculating Tottenham's exact position among the elite.

4. A defense that's just good enough

For all Mourinho's faults you suspect it is a period he might secretly relish even as he will surely bemoan the demands placed on his players. In his last five league games against 'Big Six' opponents Mourinho has won three and drawn one and only once since his appointment as Spurs manager nearly a year ago has his side lost by two clear goals to one of their rivals, a 2-0 defeat at home to Chelsea on December 22. Frank Lampard's side are the only one of the Premier League elite to have put two past Mourinho's defense.

That backline has not been perfect this season but it says something about the logic-defying nature of the campaign so far that a record of nine against in eight games is the league's joint-best defensive record. Spurs have reached that level by getting the basics mostly right. They have registered no errors leading to goals and just two that brought shots from their opponents. Their 3.25 shots on target allowed per 90 is the third best record in the competition, bettered only by Chelsea and Brighton.

Spurs are notably among the league's lowest ranked in ball recoveries, 18th of all teams per game in terms of how often they win the ball back. This is not a team that presses with kamikaze intensity, their blueprint was rather the 2-1 win over Arsenal at the back end of last season. Mourinho's side kept their shape without the ball, refused to concede easy shots and challenged their opponents to find the creative spark to carve through them.

Some may well manage in the coming weeks but there are doubtless those who will leave their meetings with Spurs frustrated that they were unable to impose their will on proceedings. That may not be enough to form a title-winning blueprint because for all the excitement around Tottenham the team that are level on points with them in the Premier League remain its most imposing force. For every attacking metric where Mourinho's men are second Klopp's are first. At their best they have hit a level Spurs cannot match. The question is, with three-quarters of their back four potentially missing for several weeks along with Fabinho, how near to their best Liverpool can get. 

In this season of high variance Tottenham look like a team with a baseline that might just be enough to keep them towards the top end of the table whilst so many others oscillate wildly.