Mauricio Pochettino has Tottenham believing in a Premier League title
By the time the Watford players got back to the White Hart Lane dressing room on Saturday, they were utterly exhausted. Consequently, they were also extremely impressed with the opposition. The visiting squad apparently couldn't stop talking about just how relentlessly good Tottenham had been.
"They know that we were playing against an amazing team," Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores said after his side's defeat, a 1-0 that could really have been 5-0. "They recognise that this may be the best team we play this season."
The growing question is whether Spurs can now prove themselves to be the best after a full 38 games and actually win the league. There has naturally been much noise about Leicester City's sensational title surge, but it has allowed Spurs to rise up to second place in much quieter fashion. One White Hart Lane source says the squad are more than happy for the focus to be on Leicester right now, as it allows them to just keep winning games without the same hype and resulting mental pressure.
The absence of pressure, however, brings another question: Does this developing young squad believe they are ready to win the title?
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino was directly asked that on Saturday after the win. His response was initially evasive, but still revealing.
"It's better to not speak too much, only show, to work hard," Pochettino said. "I believe in my players, in my squad, and we'll see. It's difficult to guess what will happen in the future. In football, belief is the most important. If we believe, it can happen."
What Pochettino was doing was engaging in classic psychology management. He didn't want to consciously talk about the end target, because then his squad could fall into the classic trap of fixating on the objective instead of concentrating on the process.
So far, Spurs have gone about their jobs with the utmost focus. The last few weeks have displayed that perfectly, especially in how responded to their last defeat. It actually came at home against Leicester on Jan. 13, and the way in which Robert Huth scored the only goal late on made it feel like a deeply deflating moment for Spurs. It could have sapped the side at a delicate point of the campaign but instead, thanks to their manager, it had the opposite effect.
Spurs have won six in a row in all competitions since then. They are doing all the little things with massive effort, in the right way. They've concentrated on the journey, rather than getting distracted by the destination. They are no longer a team that possess a delicate mindset.
Spurs dressing-room sources say that in keeping with Pochettino's wishes, "the title" is rarely talked about around the training ground. That does not mean such talk has been banned, or anything unhealthy like that. Rather, there has just been a quiet, yet intense, concentration.
The title hasn't been mentioned much, but sources say the squad are still "massively confident" they can win it this season because they do have that belief to which Pochettino referred.
That is largely because one of the manager's main missions in preparation for this season was to get rid of any players who didn't completely buy into the approach. He was determined to get rid of the mental "deadwood," so that he could create this tightly hewn squad.
Harry Kane subtly referenced that approach, and its positive effect, this week.
"If you have one or two bad eggs, it can bring others down -- and we don't have that," the striker said. "Everyone is fighting for each other ... we've got to try to keep that belief high.
"There is nobody who doesn't want to train or who tries to take it easy, because none of the players would let him do that.
"Everyone speaks up and tells each other what is needed to be done to reach the top, which is why we've got a great team."
All of this backs up Flores' belief that Spurs "have everything" necessary to win the title: They have a very bright manager and a distinctive style of football that is very difficult to play against when intensely applied. They also have a squad that can carry out those duties, because of the mentality imbued in them by that manager.
Yet they do lack title-winning experience and, potentially, enough energy for the title race. That second point is a slight concern. So far in Pochettino's managerial career, his teams have had a tendency to drop off in the closing stretches of the season. Three of his five full seasons as a manager have seen his team claim fewer points-per-game in the last 13 matches than they did in the first 25. Of course, it's hard to say to whether that is just a coincidence, or a consequence of both his intense play and reluctance to buy any extra players who don't commit to his approach.
It also creates the very real temptation for Pochettino to play a second string in their Europa League last-16 tie with Fiorentina on Feb. 18. The second-tier continental competition is often unreasonably dismissed by Premier League clubs but, this season, it could badly detract from Spurs' higher priorities.
In normal campaigns, it is genuinely difficult to weigh up what would be harder for the White Hart Lane club: finishing in the top four, or winning the Europa League. This season, the amount of games in the continental cup could physically diminish the players just when they seem almost guaranteed of a top-four finish, and just when they have a unique opportunity to do something really special.
They already have the belief they can do it. They may just need a run-in as clear as their mindsets.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.