Whether or not Pep Guardiola deliberately meant it as a slight, his labelling of Tottenham Hotspur as the “Harry Kane team” last season was taken as such. Indeed, Spurs are a side defined by their top scorer and spiritual leader, but with Kane sidelined through injury until March they showed against Fulham that there is much more to them than just one player.
Spurs had to wait until the third minute of stoppage time to clinch the victory at Craven Cottage, but nonetheless, they got the job done in difficult circumstances, just about keeping themselves in touch with pace-setters Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. Anything less than a win would have seen them sucked into the top four scrap instead.
The circumstances are about to get even more difficult for Spurs, though. Already missing Kane, through injury, and Heung-Min Son, who is at the Asian Cup with South Korea, now Mauricio Pochettino will be without Dele Alli for a spell after the 22-year-old suffered a hamstring injury in the win over Fulham. Starting with Thursday night’s game against Chelsea, Spurs now face a series of season-defining tests.
While Fernando Llorente was deployed as a direct replacement for the injured Kane at Craven Cottage, it was Alli who was charged with effectively leading the line. Alli and Kane play in completely different positions, but in terms of shouldering the attacking burden Pochettino had seemingly anointed the 22-year-old his main man for the time being.
This is why his injury comes at such a cruel time for both Alli and Spurs. The North London side are now so light in the way of attacking options they may be forced into the January transfer market to ease their injury woes with temporary measures. That is certainly not ideal for a club chasing the title.
Given the situation Spurs find themselves in, Alli’s injury could deal just as big a blow to their hopes and dreams for this season as Kane’s. At least with Alli available Pochettino could plug the gaps in his forward line, asking the playmaker to take on more responsibility as something of a secondary striker – a role he has previously played. Llorente could come in for Kane, while Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela would be decent deputies for the absent Son.
Remove Alli from the Spurs side, though, and they lose their core. We already saw an erosion of Spurs’ identity in their performance against Fulham, when they slung cross after cross into the opposition rather than playing at speed in transition like they normally do. Alli’s absence will only accentuate this issue further.
It could be that Pochettino has to devise a new game plan, maybe even a new footballing ideology, to get Spurs through this tough period, but that comes with almighty risks at this stage of the season. More so than ever before, it’s crucial that Spurs finish in the top four this season with their new stadium set to open later this year.
The alternative train of thought suggests that Pochettino’s system will actually sustain his team regardless of the players carrying it out. That even without Alli, Kane and Son the muscle memory will kick in for a group of players who have been coached in a very particular way over the past few years.
Whichever way the current situation is viewed, whatever the perspective, Spurs now face a stretch of games that will define their season. A true title challenge might now be beyond them, but consolidation of their top four place is a target they simply cannot afford to miss.
Not at this time, anyway.
A League Cup final place, which can be secured with victory over Chelsea on Thursday, would also move Pochettino closer to the piece of silverware he requires to validate the progress made in recent years. Understandably so, much has been made of Kane’s injury and the impact it will have on Spurs.
But all things considered, Alli’s injury could be just as damaging.