Tottenham buoyed by strong defence as FA Cup clash with Palace looms
Mauricio Pochettino promised that Tottenham would fight hard to win all three competitions in which they are involved. So far, he has been as good as his word. Although Mousa Dembele, Harry Kane and Eric Dier were rested for Thursday night's Europa League 1-1 draw against Fiorentina, all three were brought on as second-half substitutes to consolidate the advantage of the away goal.
Pochettino did not look like a man who wouldn't be too bothered if Spurs didn't progress beyond the last 32. But nor should he. Momentum brings its own rewards, not least self-belief, and at present Spurs are playing like a team that don't believe they can be beaten. That mentality is worth preserving. While it's the goal scorers who often catch the eye -- cue praise for the coolness of both Kane's penalty and Christian Eriksen's late winner against Manchester City -- it's in defence where Spurs' success has been built.
In years gone by, Spurs were famed for the leakiness of their defence; managers and fans almost seemed to make a virtue of it and there was often a general feeling at White Hart Lane that the sole object was to score more goals than the opposition. (They score two, we'll score three. They score three, we'll score four.)
That was fine as far as it went, but it made winning some games unnecessarily difficult and others simply impossible. By making Spurs the most miserly team in the Premier league -- with only 20 goals conceded -- Pochettino has relieved the burden on the strikers to take every chance available to stay in games. Now it has become axiomatic that scoring one or two goals will win almost every game and lose none.
Much has been made of the central pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen (since replaced by Kevin Wimmer in the Belgian's absence through injury). All three have been superb, but what makes this Spurs team so different is that defence is seen as a team effort. Everyone joins in: from the central defenders to Kane. Seeing Erik Lamela, Eriksen, Dele Alli and Kane track back and put in tackles has been a revelation. As much as fans might miss the silkier touches of Rafael van der Vaart and Luka Modric, it's hard to imagine them buying into Pochettino's vision of defending from the front.
The danger in competing for three trophies is that you might end up with none. Some critics have suggested Pochettino should field a weakened team for one of the cups -- to give Spurs a better chance of winning the other two -- but why change a philosophy that has worked well so far?
Injuries and signs of tiredness have been far less evident in Spurs than in other clubs this season. Whether this is down to an improved fitness regime or sheer luck is immaterial; it's so far so good and Pochettino has earned the freedom to manage his resources as he sees best. There isn't even much point fretting about the lack of any backup for Kane. Spurs made their choices in the transfer window and time will tell what happens. If Kane does get injured, Pochettino will need a Plan B, but until then he can stick to Plan A.
Arguably the FA Cup is by far the easiest competition to win, as just four more victories are required, and Pochettino is sure to send out his strongest side for the fifth-round tie against Crystal Palace.
Kyle Walker and Danny Rose will come in for Kieran Trippier, as the full-backs seem to be on a one-match-on, one-match-off shift pattern at the moment. Dier, Dembele and Kane will also return. The only question mark is the fitness of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, and Pochettino is unlikely to risk him -- not least because Michel Vorm has begun to find some of his best form when given a chance in the other cups.
All of which leaves the club -- and its fans -- in uncharted waters. Spurs should be far too strong for a Palace side that has been badly out of form the past two months. Anything other than a home win would be a huge surprise. That would leave Spurs in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, favourites to reach the last 16 of the Europa League and second in the Premier League. What could possibly go wrong?
John Crace is a columnist and feature writer for The Guardian. He is also a THFC season-ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.