Spurs' core pulls apart big-spending Chelsea, against a measure of conventional soccer wisdom

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Son Heung-min (front) and Harry Kane are two of the mainstays that have grown together while with <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/tottenham-hotspur/" data-ylk="slk:Tottenham Hotspur">Tottenham Hotspur</a>. (Omnisport)
Son Heung-min (front) and Harry Kane are two of the mainstays that have grown together while with Tottenham Hotspur. (Omnisport)

You’re supposed to always be buying players.

In modern club soccer, the received wisdom is that it’s better to do too much in the transfer market, to overspend on the wrong players, than to do too little, or nothing at all.

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Tottenham Hotspur bought nobody this past summer. It tried to sign players, but for myriad reasons, no moves came to pass. And in the three months or so since the transfer market closed, there’s been enough handwringing over that fact to start several small fires.

And yet.

And yet on Saturday, an early spell of superiority produced the goals Spurs needed to beat heretofore unbeaten Chelsea 3-1 at Wembley Stadium. That made it five consecutive wins for Spurs across all competitions and seven of eight in the league. With the win, on goals by Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, Spurs wrested third place in the Premier League from Chelsea and remain five points back from Manchester City in first place.

The victory made a brash statement coming out of the international break for Spurs. Not only had Chelsea avoided a loss in all competitions (bar the Community Shield) before Tottenham vanquished them fairly comfortably, but the win kicks off a difficult stretch in which Spurs will play for their Champions League lives against Inter Milan on Wednesday and then make the short trip to North London arch-rivals Arsenal on Sunday.

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Spurs weren’t supposed to be capable of doing as well as they have, because of that aforementioned absence of signings. There wouldn’t be enough depth in the team, it was widely reasoned. No fresh blood. Hunger would abate. Never mind that a young team with plenty of prospects in the pipeline would have had another year together, spending a rare stretch of time as a young core getting to actually develop at an almost-but-not-quite-superclub.

The irony is that there was a time, just a handful of seasons ago, when Spurs getting through the summer without losing any of their major stars would have been considered an unqualified success. It wouldn’t have much mattered if they hadn’t bought anyone if they’d avoided yet another rebuild. Like when Luka Modric left in 2012 and Gareth Bale joined him at Real Madrid in 2013. Or even, on a smaller scale, Kyle Walker departing for City two summers ago.

This summer, Spurs hung on to Kane, Alli, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld, all of whom were reportedly coveted by bigger clubs. It also renewed the contracts of Davinson Sanchez, Harry Winks, Son and Eric Lamela. More importantly, it tied down Kane, Alli and the manager who has built the best version of Spurs since the early 1960s, Mauricio Pochettino, who also had suitors.  

What Spurs did, rather than upgrade, is keep its spine together. And wouldn’t you know it, they have improved. Last season, Spurs earned 77 points in their campaign. The season previous, when they came second, they had 86. With 30 points from 13 games, Tottenham is now on pace for 87.69 points. That would be the most in club history under the 3-points-per-win system.

On Saturday, Spurs ran riot through Chelsea’s lines early on, finding huge pockets of space behind the Blues midfield. But the first goal came on a set piece. Eriksen whipped a sharp free kick to the near post in the eighth minute, where Alli headed it on so hard that he left goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga without sufficient time to parry it.

Eight minutes later, Kane unloosed a speculative shot a long way from goal that completely wrong-footed Kepa to make it 2-0.  

Chelsea settled in after the second goal, but as Spurs settled for attacking on the counter, they kept producing all the chances. And so, in the 53rd minute, Son forged the third goal from a splendid individual effort. He tore off on the right on the counterattack, beat Jorginho, sliced past David Luiz and beat Kepa easily.

When they come to a full froth, there’s hardly any stopping the Spurs attack. It’s the benefit of having played together for so long that they find one another intuitively. And it produced so many chances that they might well have scored five or six. Because Son had two good chances before scoring. Kane missed a point-blank finish on a great counter. And Alli curled a finish just over.

Chelsea, for its part, had no significant chances at all until Olivier Giroud’s 85th-minute consolation goal.

Eden Hazard twice called for a penalty. Once credibly, when Juan Foyth chopped him down but referee Martin Atkinson was left unmoved; and once less obviously, when he was again denied the spot kick.

In the end, there was little doubt over who deserved the three points:

It left Chelsea disheveled on an afternoon when it conceded more than a third as many goals as it had in its first dozen league games combined – eight – of which half had been clean sheets. It was particularly unsettling, perhaps, that two of its worst performers were its most expensive signings of the summer, Jorginho and Kepa.

Supposedly stagnant Spurs were far superior. And they did it with the same old players.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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