Tottenham top a two-year table, but they have no silverware to show for it
The league table famously never lies. Currently it shows Chelsea three points away from being crowned champions and Tottenham powerless to halt their local rivals, unable to even take the field again until after Antonio Conte's side face West Bromwich Albion on Friday.
But there is a second league table, one where Tottenham are 10 points clear. It dates back to the start of last season. In that time, Mauricio Pochettino's team have taken 144 points; Chelsea and Manchester City have 134, Arsenal 131, Liverpool and Manchester United 130 and Leicester 124.
It is an artificial construct but it also shows the extent to which Spurs have outperformed their peers during a two-year period when the Manchester clubs alone have paid out around £600 million in the transfer market and, while it is a different marker, Pochettino's net spend is under £20m.
And yet the two Premier League champions in that period will be Leicester and Chelsea, clubs who have married mid-table finishes and flirtations with relegation with golden runs. Tottenham's reward for greater consistency has come in the form of Champions League qualification and accolades aplenty. But not silverware.
Tottenham's last trophy remains the 2008 League Cup, while Pochettino's was the 2006 Copa del Rey from his playing days. Harry Kane and Dele Alli, their flagship players, have picked up personal prizes but Leicester's Marcin Wasilewski has more major medals than either show for his time in English football.
Which raises the risk that Tottenham's destiny is to join the ranks of the great nearly teams. It may sound premature, given the youngest side in the division have the potential to get better and given the improvement Pochettino has implemented on an annual basis. Yet there can be an automatic assumption that those who come close will take the further stride forward required to capture honours. The warning from history is that it does not always work out that way.
There are reasons to assume Tottenham will continue to prosper, but excellence has not brought a reward that can be placed in the trophy cabinet yet. Glory is not guaranteed: not if Kane, Alli or Pochettino are lured elsewhere, not if injuries hit, not if others' greater spending power propels them past Tottenham, not if other managers have the same transformative impact that Claudio Ranieri had at Leicester and then Conte at Chelsea.
And there are certain types of teams who were terrific in their time but who are denied their rightful place in history because they were starved of silverware. David O'Leary's Leeds side were, like Pochettino's Tottenham, a hard-running, fast-improving group based on local talent. They had a fearless attitude and a physical approach. They had three top-four finishes and reached a Champions League semifinal. They won nothing.
Kevin Keegan's Newcastle were the "Entertainers," supposedly everyone's second favourite team as they blazed a trail towards the title in 1995-96. But they were overhauled by Manchester United, and while a sequence of remarkable scorelines -- two 4-3 losses to Liverpool, a 5-0 win over United, a 7-1 thrashing of Tottenham, Kenny Dalglish's 3-2 defeat of Barcelona -- showed their greatness, it was flawed and their achievements were diminished by the gap on the honours board.
A few years later, Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle shared some of the same traits of the modern-day Spurs. They brimmed with pace, youth and adventure. They recorded three top-five finishes and reached an FA Cup semifinal. The only trophy that went to the north-east in those years was secured by Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough, just as Martin O'Neill's more limited Leicester won League Cups when Newcastle went trophyless.
As Tottenham tighten their belts while the building of a new ground is financed, they may sense a parallel with austerity-era Arsenal. The class of 2008 were constructed on a budget and remain both arguably Arsene Wenger's best team since the 2006 Champions League runners-up and a very different group from his last trophy winners. They were five points clear at the top of the Premier League before Eduardo broke his leg at Birmingham. Misfortune can turn potentially superb sides into ones who are first overtaken and then overlooked.
Tottenham have been described as the best side of the last two seasons as well as the best on their day. In a heady week in March 2009, when they beat Real Madrid 4-0 and United 4-1, Liverpool appeared the best in Europe. They finished second and slipped to seventh the following year after Xabi Alonso's sale. Their glimpse of glory disappeared, just as it did in 2014 when runners-up parted company with the catalytic Luis Suarez.
The loss of one player is a recurring theme; so, too, the games that provided sliding-doors moments and the sense that unity, cohesion and momentum were more fragile than they first seemed. Perhaps some of the great nearly sides suffered for prioritising the league while lesser teams picked up prizes in the cups. Perhaps they were ultimately overhauled by the more pragmatic, streetwise or experienced.
They delivered progress, entertainment and fine victories but suffered for not taking the opportunity when it materialised. They could not rely on endless tomorrows and finished with no defining achievement, no conclusive proof of their importance at a time that promised much more. The challenge for Tottenham is to avoid the same fate.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.