Champions League: Mauricio Pochettino will bank on Tottenham's 'animal spirit' to upset title favourites Liverpool in final
At different points during Pochettino’s tenure, Tottenham as animals has meant different things – energetic, swarming in groups, sensuous, driven to instinctual bursts of brilliance and self-destruction, grasping the graspable.
Over three years ago, Tottenham Hotspur found themselves in an unlikely league title race. The Mauricio Pochettino project was still laying its foundations but one could see that the results were beginning to bear fruit. Watford had lost by just a goal to Spurs and yet, found life difficult for their entire evening. The energy and the speed of Tottenham were proving too much for almost everyone.
Then Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores was moved to remark, “It was impossible because they are like animals there, trying to beat and recuperate the ball as quick as possible.” What kind of animal, it was left unsaid. A few days later Pochettino was asked to respond to his Watford counterpart’s comment. The Spurs manager surmised, “Like lions, this is what all managers want and expect from their players, to feel and play. Or horses. Or tigers.”
It remains difficult to pin Spurs down. Ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final — another unlikely accomplishment in the five glorious years of Pochettino at the club — Toby Alderweireld was asked to describe the team’s training sessions for the big encounter. Not surprisingly, in animal terms. “It would be a new creature, I think. It’s not one animal. It’s a metaphor. It says, in a positive way, the hunger is there,” suggested the Belgian defender. Considering that the players have had to run over burning coal as part of the preparations, the picture imagined by Alderweireld is close to the truth. Everyday humans do not do this sort of thing.
The animal spirit is alive and well at Tottenham. The players and coaching staff have come to believe that the final began two weeks ago. Ever since, Spurs have been trained to be mentally unbreakable. To fight like animals. The evolution of that metaphor says something about the team. At different points during Pochettino’s tenure, Spurs as animals has meant different things – energetic, swarming in groups, sensuous, driven to instinctual bursts of brilliance and self-destruction, grasping the graspable.
It is an animal that had to be trained, instructed. Its penchant for wild swings was a thing to be curbed. Like Pochettino once said about Dele Alli, “It is all a process with the younger lads to be more mature, with more experience, now more focused on playing football. It is like when you have a wild horse and you need to put it in a box and domesticate it, no?” He could have been talking about almost the whole squad.
But there were exceptions. Pochettino often likes to talks about his dog, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Such is his affection for the pet that he could even see him in Christian Eriksen once. “Christian is a very special person and you need to give him freedom, like on the pitch. You cannot put him in a box. You need to give freedom and trust him. Like my dog, in the park. I trust my dog. I say, ‘Go, I trust you’,” the Spurs manager made the point in his inimitable fashion.
The interplay between freedom and detailed instruction, call it animal husbandry if you like, is a skill Pochettino has come to monster. Ahead of this most eventful Champions League campaign, the manager was aware that he was still in charge of a side that was behind its ears. And he was careful that the players would not merely end up like a cow at the pastures.
When Spurs travelled to Milan last September, for the tournament opener against Internazionale, Pochettino wished for his team to be more than experienced. “It’s like a cow that every single day during ten years, sees the train crossing in the front at the same time. And if you ask the cow what time is the train going to come, it’s not going have the right answer. In football it’s the same,” said the manager cryptically. Only later did he elaborate the point to say that it is not just about experience, you need to have knowledge and intuition as well.
These are the ingredients that have gone into Tottenham’s path to the final. Before the group stages, Spurs were still Mourinho’s proverbial ‘little horse’ that needed milk to grow. Since then, ‘16 crazy things’ have happened in Jan Vertonghen’s words. Spurs went through a rollercoaster of emotions, to merely get out of the group stage. To describe their quarterfinal and the semifinal in the same breath would barely scratch the surface.
Late goals against PSV Eindhoven, Internazionale, Barcelona, and Ajax have kept Spurs edging away from elimination. And then there was the late goal that wasn’t – for City in the quarterfinal. The drama of these ties is unprecedented in living memory.
The thrill of Tottenham’s journey has been lived, and lived well. It will count for a lot even if things go pear-shaped in Madrid on Saturday night. Liverpool are the favourite but nobody will discount the animals at Spurs. Harry Kane’s return to fitness is a welcome sign, even though the team managed to win the rat race in his absence. Tottenham’s workhorses like Son Heung-min (Tottenham’s player of the season) will ensure that the side’s energy and drive remains the same, whether the talismanic striker Kane starts or not.
If Tottenham does go on to upset the odds once again, the irrational success could trigger a repeat of Pochettino’s animalistic celebrations. Or we might see his tears again. Either way, the manager has successfully turned this team into a different beast. The past proclivity for collapsing in the face of pressure has gradually dripped away. Like Alderweireld said, Tottenham is a new creature.
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