How good could this get? What is the realistic ceiling of Tottenham’s aspirations now? After one of the most unexpected and dramatic days of Premier League football in recent memory, almost unnoticed amid the fury over Luis Díaz’s incorrectly disallowed goal and the two Liverpool red cards, Spurs lie second in the table, still unbeaten. And at the end, striding unflustered through the sulphur and the chaos, there was Ange Postecoglou to point out his side should have varied their attack more against depleted opponents but not to worry because these are still early days.
And they are early days. Tottenham’s 2-1 win over Liverpool on Saturday was only their seventh league game under Postecoglou but already he has generated more memories, more moments that will be recalled fondly in 20 or 30 years, than his three predecessors combined. The doubt 10 days ago was that Spurs hadn’t played anyone of any note yet, that it’s one thing to see off a sickly Manchester United or outplay Bournemouth or thrash Burnley or score twice in injury time to beat Sheffield United, quite another to do it against an in-form member of the elite.
But they were the better side after half-time in drawing at Arsenal and, while decisions certainly went their way against Liverpool, there was no sense in which they were outclassed. They looked Liverpool’s equals when it was 11 against 11.
Many wondered how Postecoglou’s methods would translate to the Premier League. There have been plenty of popular managers in the past who turned up with a glowing reputation but found they didn’t quite fit in the Premier League, sometimes for trivial or superficial reasons. What works in one league does not necessarily translate. Managers from the US have found themselves undermined from the off by their accents; was there any reason why an Australian would be any different? And how would an elite footballer cope with being talked to by someone who sounds like a normal human being, something they appear to come across exceptionally rarely in the bubble?
It may be that the greatest gift Antonio Conte gave Spurs, building on the work done by Nuno Espírito Santo and José Mourinho, was to break the spirit of the Spurs squad, to leave them so desperate for any kind of positivity that no one was ever going to query the new bloke. And so far it’s working. That first home game, against Manchester United, was characterised by a sense of unease. Postecoglou was greeted by a giant tifo but the sense was that it could have got ugly pretty quickly. Harry Kane was gone, and so too was much of the optimism that had characterised the Mauricio Pochettino reign before its final months. There were protests outside about ticket prices that could have fused with a more general discontent into mass anti-board demonstrations.
Those protests haven’t gone away, but they no longer feel like an imminent threat. Three home games, rather, have brought three wins, two of them snatched deep into injury time, and a great outpouring of well, what is it exactly? Gratitude? Relief? Love? At the heart of which stands Postecoglou.
How far could he take them? There are obvious areas that require improvement. Two clean sheets in seven league games must be a concern. They’ve gone behind four times this season and, while resilience and Postecoglou’s capacity to change the momentum of games with his substitutions are both admirable qualities, it’s a risk to go to those wells too often. The limp performance in going out of the Carabao Cup at Fulham suggested the limitations of the squad. What if Son Heung-min were injured? Or James Maddison? Could Pierre-Emile Højbjerg or Oliver Skipp offer cover for Yves Bissouma or Pape Sarr?
So far everything is positive. Son has cast off whatever malaise afflicted him last season and his finishing, back to its deft and accurate best, has brought six goals already. Guglielmo Vicario is an upgrade on late-period Hugo Lloris. Destiny Udogie is a proper attacking full-back. Richarlison is showing signs of beginning to rediscover his form. Bissouma looks the player he was at Brighton. That is rare enough; the list of those who have faltered since leaving Brighton is almost as long as those who have done so since leaving Ajax.
But what if there is a setback? What if Spurs are like a bicycle, dependent on forward momentum to keep going? There will be times when fortune or officiating goes against them. Can this form be sustained? Early season giddiness can be intoxicating and dangerous. But Manchester United and Chelsea have been hopeless. Newcastle are yet to hit the heights of last season. Brighton and Aston Villa are inconsistent. Qualifying for the Champions League certainly looks possible, and few would have said that two months ago.
Beyond that, Liverpool have kept even fewer clean sheets this season than Spurs. Arsenal are still feeling their way. Even Manchester City suddenly look fallible after back-to-back defeats (and their league programme so far has been relatively gentle). Could they? Surely not … And yet …
A top-four place would be a remarkable achievement for Spurs and the euphoria of this start shouldn’t disguise that. And if giddier fans are beginning to imagine something extraordinary, that in itself is testament to the change Postecoglou has wrought. It’s a while since anybody’s been doing much dreaming round White Hart Lane.