Can Tottenham keep winning without playing especially well?

Tottenham striker Harry Kane celebrates scoring his second against Nottingham Forest

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For some perspective on Tottenham’s start to the season, it is worth recalling how they began the last. Four league games in, they had won the first three but lost the fourth, going down 3-0 away at Crystal Palace. It was at that point that the faint and fleeting sense that something worthwhile could come of the Nuno Espirito Santo experiment fell away, and everyone remembered why it had been considered an underwhelming appointment in the first place.

A year later, there is a lot different about how Tottenham have started. There are no such lingering doubts about Antonio Conte’s ability to do the job. The hodgepodge of a squad that he inherited has been improved upon through smart business. A top-four finish is the expectation rather than a mere ambition. Spurs even have a point more than they did at the same stage under Nuno.

Some things are not so different, though, and for some, with each passable but not entirely convincing performance that Tottenham put in, there are more and more fears that they are about to get found out all over again. Is that fair?

Not for the first time already this season, Tottenham were second-best for long spells in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest. Like against Chelsea and Wolves before, a slow first half had to be improved upon after the break. And surprisingly, it was the newly-promoted side rather than their Champions League-calibre opponents that dominated the ball. Forest ended with 55% possession. At times that figure swelled close to two-thirds.

In that regard, and in a league where it is now fairly common to see one team hog the ball while another relies on the counter-attack, it was jarring to watch Tottenham play in a manner more often associated with underdogs.

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Perhaps that was why Steve Cooper felt Forest deserved more from the game. “The performance was good,” he said post-match. “We really took the game to Spurs, got into good areas to threaten the goal. For all the play and the territory we had, we didn’t turn it into enough attempts on goal, but there were loads of good things from our game today.”

Conte, meanwhile, saw positives in the way his players had responded to the challenges Forest posed.

“We did good to overcome the moments that we suffered,” he said, admitting that Cooper’s courageous brand of playing on the front foot had caused his side problems. “In the first half we didn’t use our midfielders a lot. We wanted to go from one side to another side. It was easier for Nottingham Forest to put pressure on us and make us a bit insecure.”

Yet for all the talk of another underwhelming Tottenham display and questions about when exactly this team will click into gear, at the sound of the final whistle, it was hard to recall many clear-cut opportunities for Forest. Those long spells of possession Cooper’s side enjoyed would either break down or result in a speculative potshot, only a couple of which exercised goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris.

And though you would struggle to describe Forest’s dominance of possession as comfortable for Tottenham, it was hardly uncomfortable for them either. Spurs played like a team happy to cede the ball and play at speed into the space left in behind, knowing the pace of Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski would trouble a back three that were all still Championship players last season. The earliness of Harry Kane’s first also helped, coaxing Forest to come out and play.

A glance at the xG charts tells an interesting story, even after stripping out Kane’s penalty, with Forest’s 0.85 compared to Tottenham’s 1.42. The penalty should not be ignored entirely though, and particularly not if discussing Spurs’ response to the miss from the spot. A team that in the past may have crumbled instead rallied, finally began to dominate and take ownership of proceedings, and Kane eventually went on to score the decisive second.

Nobody is pretending this is Tottenham at their best. There is plenty of room for improvement, not least in the individual form of Son. Still waiting for his first goal of the new campaign, last season’s joint-winner of the Golden Boot is “suffering” due to his drought, Conte said. His preternatural finishing ability appears to have suddenly deserted him, for now at least.

Whatever an individual’s form, the collective’s is more important and there are signs of tangible progress. Compare Tottenham’s start this season to the corresponding fixtures last term. Home defeats to Southampton and Wolves have each been converted into wins, while rather than losing at Stamford Bridge, Spurs took a creditable point. If the performances could have been better, the results are almost a perfect record.

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Antonio Conte stood up for Richarlison (Mike Egerton/PA)

In fact, this is now Tottenham’s best four-game start to a league campaign since the runners-up finish in 2016-17. Only one manager finished above Mauricio Pochettino that year and he is now in the Spurs dugout himself. Conte will want to see better, more dominant performances sooner rather than later but given his own pedigree and that of his player, he can be confident that they are in the post. Until then, the points will do.

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