This has already been a deeply confusing season. Nothing makes much sense and as the impact of the virus and the compacted calendar continues to be felt, nothing is likely to any time soon. But still, particularly given how the opening weekend went, there can be few details weirder than Tottenham, who host Brighton on Sunday, would have gone into this weekend top of the Premier League had they not let slip a 3-0 lead against West Ham.
These are early days. Tottenham haven’t yet recorded a home win – although it took a spectacular alignment of the fates and VAR to deny them victory over Newcastle. A much-changed side were drab at Antwerp on Thursday. Even their three away wins have been variable: emphatic against a dismal Manchester United; ruthless in exposing Southampton as they disintegrated in the second half; dogged against Burnley. But the year does end in one, as it did for their two previous championship successes, four of their FA Cups and a League Cup. More meaningfully, they have in Son Heung-min and Harry Kane a strike partnership that is setting mind-boggling statistical markers. Could Spurs actually be title challengers?
Leicester in 2015-16 were far greater outsiders than Spurs, but their success demonstrates some of the circumstances that permit a less-fancied champion. Theirs is the success the complicit and the complacent can point to if they wish to insist the finances of the Premier League are not scandalously imbalanced because, look, a 5,000-1 outsider can win it.
To which the weary reply is that the issue is not they won the Premier League, but they were 5,000-1 to start with. Even allowing for the fact that figure was a commercial offer rather than a realistic assessment of Leicester’s chances, there is a grim futility to a competition when a team that had finished 14th the previous season could be considered such an outsider.
It took an array of factors to align to create the environment for Leicester to win the title: half a dozen players having the season of their lives, the curious catalytic effect of Claudio Ranieri’s eccentricity on the solid base left by Nigel Pearson and that all the elite clubs had their individual issues.
There was José Mourinho’s meltdown at Chelsea. The entropy of late-period Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City. Arsenal’s continuing slide in Arsène Wenger’s dotage. Manchester United’s struggle to adapt to Louis van Gaal and he to them, that Tottenham had not reached their peak under Mauricio Pochettino. And there was the better than expected performance of some of the non-elite, notably West Ham and Southampton, who took points off the big five or six, depending how you defined it then.
Many of these elements are evident this season. Liverpool, having finally won the title, perhaps diminishing their hunger, are probably entering a period of transition and have lost the heart of their defence, Fabinho’s injury at least for a time compounding the absence of Virgil van Dijk.
Manchester City are hampered by the injuries to their two centre-forwards and seem to lack the sharpness and cohesion of their two title-winning seasons under Pep Guardiola. Manchester United and Chelsea have managers with clear flaws. Arsenal have only notionally been a member of the big six for some time and while there are promising signs under Mikel Arteta this remains a limited squad.
There’s also a burgeoning middle-class: Everton, Aston Villa, Leicester, Leeds, Southampton and Wolves have interesting managers doing interesting things with interesting players. Crystal Palace, West Ham and Brighton, in their various ways, look capable of taking points from wealthier sides.
The likelihood is still that Liverpool or City win the title but suddenly there are a lot more teams in play than usual
Liverpool have dropped as many points this season as they had before the shutdown last. All the indications are that this will not be a championship it requires 90+ points to win. Given there are no unbeaten sides after six matches for the first time in 53 years in the top flight, it may be that it doesn’t even require 85+ points to win. And while the likelihood may still be that Liverpool or City win the title, suddenly there are a lot more teams in play than is usual.
Which brings us back to Tottenham. Son and Kane have been phenomenal. They have set up 29 goals for each other, seven behind the most productive pairing in Premier League history, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. But what is remarkable is that nine of those have come this season: in six games they have amassed a quarter of the all-time record.
Even if opponents do find a way of preventing Kane, having dropped deep, from feeding Son, the explosive pace of Gareth Bale on the other flank should (eventually) offer an alternative. A side playing a high line will always be vulnerable to that sort of ball in behind them and if they drop off Kane can return to playing in a more orthodox way.
A repeated criticism of Mourinho over the past decade has been his unwillingness to structure attacking moves, preferring his forwards to improvise. Having Kane drop deep to feed Son does not answer that. It requires the opposition to leave space behind it, and won’t trouble a massed defence, but it does make Spurs potentially devastating on the counter.
This season, that may be enough. Although both managers had particular reason for caution, Manchester United’s 0-0 home draw with Chelsea last Saturday felt like a natural response to the wildness that has characterised the start of the season.
With little time to hone sophisticated systems, more teams may adopt a back-to-basics caution. Mourinho is as good as anybody at setting up a defence, although a record of 38 goals conceded in 32 league games and just eight clean sheets suggests he has not made Spurs that secure yet. But if this season does witness a return to more traditional tactical approaches, it could be that solidity plus a lethal forward pairing is all it takes for a serious title challenge.
At this early stage of what feels a very weird season, Spurs may be in the mix.