Overjoyed for the first time in many months: Mauricio Pochettino.
It was a sunny, opening day of 2015/16 Premier League season when Tottenham went to Old Trafford to face the newly-revitalized squad of Manchester United. In what looked like a brief warm-up to the current league campaign, the teams in question have fought a tediously drawn-out battle, seeing their attacking players failing to deliver over and over again; they’ve only provided five shots on target through the entire game! The hosts were by no means superior to their rivals, but a moment of panic by Kyle Walker and the resulting own goal has rewarded them with a quite suspicious victory. By that point, few people doubted that it will be yet another chapter in Tottenham’s tale; the tale of being the club which delivers performances rather than the results. After all, what good is having a fine afternoon in North West England if you can’t extract points from it?
Fast-forward sixteen weeks later, we’re living in a world where Spurs have just managed to break their all-time Premier League record of consecutive games without a single defeat. That’s right: after a painful lesson from Red Devils, the team remained unbeaten for 13 matches and won 25 points in the process; five more than they’ve obtained in fourteen initial starts of the previous season. And it’s not just the results; the entire reputation of Lilywhites has transformed before our eyes. Couple months ago, they displayed this irritating ability to drop points in games which absolutely had to be won – thus, teams like West Bromwich, Newcastle, Stoke and Aston Villa have left White Hart Lane with three points in their bags. This season, against Palace, Bournemouth, Villa, West Ham – Spurs were relentless; and if it wasn’t for couple disappointing draws, they’d be flying even higher.
The one to take major credit for this leap in quality is obviously Mauricio Pochettino. Known back in the days as an aggressive and tenacious centre-back, he has shaped his lads exactly the way his footballing experience as a player shaped him. Having inherited a shaky team that struggled to transtion into a post-Gareth Bale era, he proceeded to get rid of all failed Andre Villas-Boas’ signings. At the same time, he gradually developed a safety-first style of footballing which took an entire year to refine to a satisfactory level. Last season was a trail of struggles and miseries for the Argentinian. Spurs have experienced six home defeats; eight times, they’d end up with three or more goals inside Hugo Lloris’ net. Vlad Chiriches, Federico Fazio, Benjamin Stambouli, Etienne Capoue – those players had only few glimpses of quality but overall, they never belonged in Poch’s ideal starting eleven.
— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) June 27, 2015
The clean-up at White Hart Lane started with a revolution amongst central midfielders. Previously in Tottenham, this strategically critical position has been a subject of ridiculous rotation. 2014/15 haul started with Capoue and Nabil Bentaleb pairing up; then, it was Mousa Dembélé who jumped into the equation. Soon afterwards, Ryan Mason would enter instead of Dembélé; but in the middle of the season, it was already Mason and Stambouli duo who got the nod. Eventually, Pochettino settled for a Bentaleb-Mason partnership; but even in this configuration, things were far from perfect. The Englishman enjoys going forward and spreading passes around but his defensive abilities are sub-par and his creative side looks more showy than effective. And Bentaleb, slowly improving as the last season progressed, has suffered an ankle problem early in September, prompting yet another squad change.
In hindsight, all those issues have proven to be a wicked kind of blessing for Mauricio and his subordinates. Without Mason’s shortcomings and Bentaleb’s injury woes, the experiment of playing Eric Dier as a holding midfielder would probably never take place; there wouldn’t be room in the first eleven for Dele Alli either. Thanks to a mix of bad luck, Pochettino’s eye for improvements and the ambition of two young Englishmen, Spurs’ double-pivot midfield looks stronger than it’s ever been in the 21st century. The proofs are self-explanatory: as we speak, Dier and Alli have already won their first caps for the national team, scored two Premier League goals each and boosted Britain’s hopes of actually getting something done at EURO 2016. And let’s not forget; their combined age is only 40 years – which means there’s still plenty of room for development out there.
What’s even more impressive is that despite excellent form of those two, they still weren’t the most powerful aces in Pochettino’s sleeve. Mousa Dembélé, previously not far from being reduced to the status of a back-up player, has lifted his performance massively following the injuries of Christian Eriksen and later, Nacer Chadli. He’ll probably never be a flair player Spurs could have used for these days, but he absolutely bullies the opposition from the front. A bulldozer-like attacking midfielder is nothing new in Europe – last season, Juventus used Arturo Vidal that way – but in England, only few teams were ever able to pull this off correctly. Dembélé, who now averages four successful tackles per each Premier League game, is an example of how effective the sheer physical power can be when pushed further up the pitch to win the ball back in the opposition’s half.
Of course for Spurs, the links with Belgium hardly end at Dembélé’s power and Nacer Chadli’s pace. This summers’ £11.5 million signing of Toby Alderweireld from Atletico Madrid was aimed at solving Tottenham’s long-lasting problems with a partner for Jan Vertonghen – and what a solution that was! Fourteen games into 2015/16 campaign, Ajax-trained defender is in a sensational shape and races with Southampton’s Dutchman Virgil van Dijk for an unofficial title of The Best Defensive Acquisition in BPL. On the pitch, Toby can do anything that’s ever been expected from a modern centre-back: jump (four aerials duels won with the herculean Romelu Lukaku against Everton); pass (83% success this season); make a clearance (15 in just two games, against Bournemouth and Aston Villa) and score a goal from set-piece situation (like he did to West Ham and City). Utterly impressive from the 26-years-old.
90% tattoos, 10% hairstyle; Alderweireld is the man Spurs were missing.
Toby’s accomplices in the heart of Spurs’ defense aren’t easing off the gas either. Jan Vertonghen has been instrumental to weathering the storms against Everon, Leicester and Liverpool. His contributions were so big, he actually managed to cover both for himself and for Danny Rose – the player usually involved in an absurd number of forward runs down the left flank. Even Kyle Walker, widely expected to be a weak link in the entire Pochettino’s scheme, bucked his ideas up. This season, we’re seeing an entirely new face of the ex-Sheffield United lad: composed, determined and decisive at putting in challenges when it matters. This means that Hugo Lloris can take a breather. The Frenchman finished last season with 107 saves to his name; but if current trend continues, he’ll only need to make 97. Piece of cake for him; he just parried Eden Hazard’s highly venomous strike.
While we’re at the Chelsea game: despite all Jose Mourinho’s post-match mind games and antics, it was Tottenham, who were on top last Saturday. Much more comfortable in the middle of the park, they would gradually commit more and more players to breach The Blues’ trenchline, leaving themselves open to counterattacks – but, as it turned out, not open enough to concede. The only two reasons why Spurs didn’t win that game is a) Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma didn’t make a single glaring error and b) there was still not enough quality provided from the likes of Eriksen, Lamela and the new kid on the block, Son Heung-min. The Korean should’ve scored from one free header he was allowed to take, but neither the direction nor power fell into place. Signed for a massive, £22 million fee, Son has to finally step up and score something; after all, his challenger Chadli won’t be injured forever.
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) November 29, 2015
If there’s one thing Pochettino may be frustrated with recently, it’s exactly this: the form and the end product from his attacking midfielders. Dembélé can be excused; not only did he score couple of goals, but he also has many defensive responsibilities on his shoulders. But what about Erik Lamela? The Argentinian once used to be a pretty efficient second striker in Roma. As a winger in London, he’s very combative but that’s about it: if the game doesn’t go his teams’ way, he tends to fade away or, more frequently, lose his temper and collect bookings instead of goals or assists. Thus, it’s all up to Christian Eriksen to do the creative work. The Dane was widely expected to hit top form immediately after he bagged two free-kick goals at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. That didn’t materialize (yet?): with 5 assists and 2 goals, he’s been living in the shadows of Mesut Özil and Ross Barkley.
It is not the first time Poch’s struggling with the relative weakness out wide, but he doesn’t seem to mind it too much. Even despite Nacer Chadli’s six-week break from professional football, the boss never hesitated for a single second to punish one of his wing options, Andros Townsend. TV cameras have seen the guy clashing with one of the club’s physios, Nathan Gardiner; he was visibly defiant and insubordinate. Subsequently, Townsend has been fined for the incident, left out of squad couple of times and immediately rumored to be leaving for Swansea, Southampton, Newcastle, Villa or West Brom. This might be the last Lilywhite gasp from a player, who once had a very promising breakthrough at White Hart Lane – and it was just two years ago. Still, at the same time, it seems that Pochettino will be letting go of the last piece of deadwood he’s had in his dressing room.
When your clubs becomes unbeatable and Gunners can’t win in Norwich…
And then, what: top-four finish? Top-three? Perhaps even title challenge? It depends. A year ago, things were quite simple: Spurs would keep conceding goals, then open up the game and hope to exploit a splendid partnership between Eriksen and Harry Kane. This time around, Kane looks more isolated than six or seven months ago – and he’s not exactly in such roaring form either. Without the hat-trick gifted to him by Bournemouth’s keeper Artur Boruc, the striker would’ve only racked 5 goals in 14 appearances. That’s not quite enough from a player, who’s been under such immense pressure to confirm his reputation after a 21-goal trail of 2014/15 destruction. Ironically, Kane’s performances look just as sharp as they did during his breakthrough season – he’s just more generous to his teammates, who are often unable to capitalize on his work. Some selfishness here and there certainly wouldn’t hurt.
One thing’s for sure: the current Tottenham’s manager is the right man in the right place. He does not accept bad performances; he does not accept complacency. Even in the middle of an exhausting Europa League travels (3975 km-long flight to Qarabag this Thursday!), he wouldn’t use them as an excuse for not beating Chelsea. Still, it doesn’t take a genius to notice that a potential, long UEL run will have a serious influence on Spurs’ legs. After hard-fought group stage against Monaco and Anderlecht, they must be feeling some tiredness already; yet, their boss remains relentless and doesn’t hesitate to slam performances like the one at Stade Constant Vanden Stock, when his team crumbled 1-2. If anyone knows the focus is important, it’s him; West Bromwich and Newcastle, his last-season’s nightmares, are exactly the teams Tottenham shall face in the next two Premier League matches…