Tottenham's fun has become dependent on Dejan Kulusevski

Kulusevski has a hamstring problem
Kulusevski has a hamstring problem / Craig Mercer/MB Media/GettyImages

After Tottenham beat Southampton 4-1 on the opening weekend of the 2022/23 season, a stat highlighting their free-scoring frenzies went viral.

At that point, Spurs had scored 51 goals in 2022, the most of any Premier League side - Manchester City had 50 and Liverpool had 46, before dropping off to Chelsea with 34 and Leicester City with 33.

Fast forward to late October and Tottenham find themselves in a darker headspace, despite sitting third in the table and on the cusp of Champions League qualification.

What was meant to be a season where Spurs took a big step forward to becoming contenders (if not challengers) has turned into a mild identity crisis, with reservations over the team's style of play and big-game mentality racing to the surface.

It's a far cry from the last few months of the 2021/22 campaign. In last season's final act, Spurs found a rhythm and consistency that made them the most lethal team in the country. One that stood tall in big games and managed to leapfrog rivals Arsenal into the top four when so often the story in the past was the complete opposite.

There were various factors behind this upturn in form - Antonio Conte spending more time with the team and Cristian Romero returning from injury were just a couple - but the arrival of the perfect co-star to Harry Kane and Son Heung-min was one of the most important.

After initially joining on loan from Juventus at the end of the January transfer window, Dejan Kulusevski replaced Lucas Moura in Spurs' strongest XI, properly announcing himself with a goal and assist in a marquee 3-2 win at Manchester City.

His combination of strength, creativity, work ethic and left-footedness made him the perfect fit for Tottenham's attack and Conte's vision (which was also helped by Rodrigo Bentancur and his own technical qualities to elevate the team). Kulusevski was the driver behind the Italian's full-throttle race car.

Tottenham's performances this term have been a far cry from those last time out. Only wins against Southampton, Fulham, Leicester and Eintracht Frankfurt have even remotely resembled the dominations which propelled Spurs back into the Champions League.

Showings were beginning to slip prior to Kulusevski's rotation and subsequent injury, but losing him from selection altogether has put a cap on how Tottenham can perform and their standards at either end have considerably dipped.

He is the only player bar Kane (and now to a lesser extent Son) capable of creating a chance - by means of a shot, pass or cross - out of nothing, a unique squad profile which is irreplaceable.

Spurs are now stuck in a similar position to the years when Christian Eriksen was the orchestrator. When he's available then the team will at least be competitive, but such a loss lowers their floor and ceiling considerably.

At a time where Conte - much like Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino before him - has become insistent that Spurs need further transfer windows to truly become contenders, he must have an eye on a similar mould of player to Kulusevski to avoid the same pitfalls as the squads constructed with Eriksen. Richarlison has played from the right this season, but it's becoming increasingly clear that his skills should be utilised elsewhere in the forward trident.

Tottenham have become slow, predictable and easy to nullify. They might not have reached last season's levels with Kulusevski still fit, but they could hardly be as stale as they have been considering his dynamism and different capabilities.

It's important to note that football changes quickly and the perception around Spurs' style could completely flip again once the 22-year-old returns, but the north Londoners are marooned in a period where the games are coming so thick and fast and Conte has been vocal on not rushing Kulusevski back from a hamstring injury. They're going to have to keep grinding through games for now.

In fairness, it's served Tottenham semi-well to this point - as mentioned, being third in the league and so close to the knockout stages of the Champions League isn't a benchmark to be scoffed at - but it's pretty much a given they won't just blow by teams without their ginger Swede. There's still some suffering to do just yet.