With Eddie Howe’s revolution gathering pace with every passing week, how we performed against Spurs yesterday always felt like it would be a statement of where we were truly at. And, boy, was it.
Yes, we held Man City to a draw at home, giving them a hell of scare along the way. Yes, it took a 98th minute goal for Liverpool to beat us at Anfield. And yes, we out-played Man United in their backyard. But ultimately, we only got two points and a few plaudits for all those efforts. This was a result to match the performance, and confirmation for the ‘big six’ that were right in amongst them. Not in a few years. Right now.
Man City is the divisions stand-out team, no doubt about that. The best squad, the best manager, and that monster up-front. But I haven’t seen another team this season better than us.
Liverpool are in a period of transition, as they blood in Nunez, Elliott and Carvalho, while fighting off an injury crisis that we’d be proud off ourselves.
Chelsea, I would argue, are the same. Graham Potter deserved this chance but he is clearly still trying to find the best system and the best team with that squad. The break for the World Cup certainly won’t help him with that this season.
Spurs have been over-performing and they look to have started their annual capitulation six months early this year. The contract uncertainty over Conte and Kane is a shadow that doesn’t look like it will pass any time soon.
Arsenal have surprised everyone and looked, much like us, a team that have totally bought into their manager and his process. I think they will get a top four spot this year but I don’t think they have looked any better than we have. Albeit my opinion may be slightly biased…
Lastly, Man United. Ten Hag is finally getting a tune out of that squad but they still only ever seem a few bad results away from a crisis. If we had put away some of the chances our first half superiority deserved and not tired so badly in the second half, there is every chance we would have walked away from Old Trafford with a win too. They didn’t look a better team than us- and certainly not half a billion pounds better (or whatever extra they have spunked on that squad).
So, yes, IF- and it is a big IF- we can maintain this level of performance then I think we will be right in the mix for the top four. This season. And surely a few seasons ahead of even the most ambitious of our new owner’s schedules.
Is it clear and undeniable the total buy-in Howe is getting with this squad now? I won’t get bogged down with the xG’s and the turnovers in the opposition third etc but the stats don’t lie. They didn’t lie when they said Steve Bruce was bloody spawny with half the results he managed to pinch. When his media bum-chums kept telling us we should be grateful in spite of the crap we had to sit through every week (and that’s even before his full-time sum-ups). The underlying metrics said we would get our comeuppance and the first half of last season we did. The stats now show we have the best defence in the league. That we are working harder and smarter. Implementing Howe’s high-press game plan to a tee. That we fully deserve to be where we are- in fact, but for some prolificacy in front of goal, some bad luck and some shocking refereeing decisions earlier in the season, we would be right on Arsenal’s tail right now.
So, we deserve to be where we are. We’ve got there despite repeated niggly injuries to the spine of the team- Bruno, Shelvey, Maxi, WIlson and our £60-million man, Isak.
We may well see a drop-off in performance, but I think it more likely we don’t. Everyone can see the trajectory we are on. Everyone will want to be along for this ride now. If anything, I would expect another one or two Bruno/Isak-esque signings in January to press ahead and try to seal that Champions League spot this year. And once we get that spot, with the feeling we have around the club now and the financial backing, things will start to get really interesting.
Admittedly, I am a bit of a hopeless optimist when it come to the Toon (I had a fiver on us beating Barcelona at the Nou Camp when we had Barton in midfield and Shola upfront- I can’t remember how I justified that one to myself…). But I think there is serious cause not just for optimism here but faith and belief.
And, goddamnit, it feels good to have that again.