“I’m not going to lie. At the start it was horrible. Horrible.”
In an interview to The Telegraph earlier this year, Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker was categorical about his feelings during the opening days of manager Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure. The Argentinean manager expected immense physical effort in training from his charges and there was to be no let up.
At the end of this season, many within the club feel the same way as Walker. It was horrible. Horrible. Tottenham collapsed to a 1-5 loss at relegated Newcastle United and could not finish as runners-up to Leicester City. From being title challengers a few weeks ago, Spurs ended up third in a two-horse title race (as someone remarked on Twitter). Pochettino called it his worst day as manager.
Yet, it would take a leap of immense faith in Arsenal to claim that the Gunners were better than their north London rivals this year. In fact, it would be improper to measure Spurs’ success in relation to their arch-rivals alone. Once the title slipped away from Pochettino’s men, the side took its foot off the gas. As the manager remarked after the final day embarrassment at the hands of Newcastle, the team was ‘on holiday’. This is not to excuse the appalling state of the side in the final fortnight; rather this should be read as a cautionary note when you view the final league table.
For when the Spurs players were turning up for work, they gave their manager very few worries. Right-back Walker is well-placed to judge the way this team has developed. He was part of the Spurs squad that finished fourth in the 2011-12 league campaign under Harry Redknapp. Despite playing in a team that featured Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, Walker placed the current side above in hunger and team spirit. Pochettino’s open-door policy towards his players and the respect for his work made Walker’s choice easier.
This was a glimpse into the level of devotion towards the manager that has been seen throughout the Spurs squad this season. The players are not playing for the club alone; they are playing for Pochettino too. That’s an impressive achievement for the young Argentine coach who is only 44 years old. Perhaps it helps that Spurs have the youngest side in the league with an average age of 24 years and 305 days. Pochettino had revealed in the past that he found giving team talks stressful. A youthful team, though, is likely to treat him with greater respect and be more receptive to his ideas.
The youthful composition of the side also presented Pochettino with an opportunity to implement his design in its entirety. Favouring a high-pressing approach that requires incessant running, the Argentine manager has borrowed many ideas from his mentor Marcelo Bielsa. Pochettino was part of Bielsa’s title-winning sides at Newell’s Old Boys from 1990-92 and his time with the maverick coach has left an impact on his philosophy.
This has been particularly apparent in the use of Eric Dier as a spare man at the back when Spurs build from the defence and the change-up vertical pass that continues to catch opponents off-guard. Like Bielsa’s teams, Spurs swarm the opposition’s half and hound defenders. Frustrated by the intensity of Pochettino’s side earlier this season, Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores opined that it was impossible to play against them “because they are like animals.”
But they are animals that have had to modify their habits in order to achieve physical superiority over most teams in the league. Upon his arrival, Pochettino made gym sessions mandatory. Furthermore, he started to hold double training sessions that were infused with immense detail. Pochettino had already acquired a reputation for meticulous planning at Southampton and his successful time there only convinced him of his ideas’ worth.
Yet, it took time for everything to come together. Spurs lost their season opener to Manchester United and this was followed by three straight draws. Expectations were not really high at White Hart Lane as the club had chosen to restrain spending over the summer. Although Leicester City’s campaign has made mockery of spending budgets, Spurs’ regular starters were not too expensive when compared to other illustrious sides in the league. The playing eleven consisted of seven players bought for less than 10 million pounds, which is quite remarkable considering the wealth at the disposal of most Premier League clubs.
Now that he has achieved a place in the Champions League, Pochettino’s task will get tougher. With a host of changes expected at clubs whom one would expect to challenge Spurs next term, the challenge would be to ensure his team is not a one-season wonder like the 2010-11 side that participated among the European elite. Although little was at stake in the final fortnight of this campaign, the drop in level of his players was termed as ‘good information’ by Pochettino.
Despite his genial demeanour at press conferences, Pochettino is known to deal strictly with those who do not follow his path. Players that do not feature in his plans will be pushed out of the club. Aaron Lennon’s departure is a case in point.
In the aftermath of the defeat to Newcastle, Pochettino looked devastated. As he often likes to say, Spurs is a family to him. It’s a family that has not seen a major trophy success for quarter of a century. Pochettino himself is yet to win his first silverware as manager. But a new stadium, or home, awaits them two seasons from now. The manager’s time at the club has held promises of a shining future. Pochettino is the man with whom Spurs should move in.
Updated Date: May 16, 2016 20:05 PM