Throughout a two-year period where the so-called ‘big teams’ of the Premier League have flattered to deceive, one manager and his impressionable young team have undoubtedly surprised all pundits, journalists, and fans.
However, the man who has overseen this remarkable progression will be the least surprised out of anyone. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur side have demonstrated that a return to normal service after Leicester’s 2015/2016 Premier League triumph will have to wait still. This season has presented new challenges for Pochettino and his players, in particular, a testing Champions League group in which their home games had to be played at Wembley, a ground where Spurs have won only 2 games from 9 since 2007.
The injury to talismanic striker Harry Kane in autumn for 10 games in a six-week period was also an initial setback. However, this piece of bad news saw an opportunity arise for Son Heung-min, whose haul of 21 goals in all competitions so far this season has added to a relentless Spurs attack.
The most significant challenge however that Spurs have vanquished this season is their response to the free-spending Manchester sides and their banishing of the hoodoo between themselves and arch rivals Arsenal, finishing above them for the first time since 1995.
The success behind Spurs’ resurgence to the top 4 is the result of a combination of factors orchestrated by Pochettino. When held in comparison with the rest of the top 6 in the Premier League before the start of the season, Spurs were widely perceived to be outsiders in the race for Champions League places. However, despite a net spend of only £11 million (since Pochettino joined in 2014), a philosophy driven by youth has the been the catalyst to Tottenham’s success in achieving second place in the Premier League.
The case for Pochettino being voted the Premier League Manager of the Year, therefore, becomes credible, as the resources at his disposal were significantly less favourable than those of Antonio Conte at Chelsea. With a clearly defined project, Pochettino has turned Spurs into competitors again and despite not collecting any silverware this season, their presence as contenders for trophies next season is undeniable.
The development of Mauricio Pochettino’s philosophy has been the hallmark of Tottenham Hotspur’s rise to challenging for the Premier League title. Ever since he was a player, Pochettino has learned from his most inspirational coaches, most notably Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa coached Pochettino at Newell’s Old Boys, Espanyol, and Argentina at a national level, where he installed his tactical ideas. Vertical and intense pressing has been integral to the new identity that Spurs have undertaken. Always known for expansive and exciting football, Spurs have traditionally been defensively naïve and ineffective off the ball in the Premier League.
However, Pochettino expects intense levels of pressing from his players to win the ball back off opponents high up the pitch. The system is not therefore chaotic, with Pochettino believing in clarity in conviction. These ideas transcend to the other elements that have made Spurs competitors this season. With an established youth set-up at the Enfield Training Centre, the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Harry Winks have become enshrined in this new tactical philosophy. These players are at the perfect age for learning a single football methodology, and Pochettino’s demanding tactics will not be risky due to these players not knowing any different during their short careers.
Instead of loaning out players like Winks and Josh Onomah, Pochettino believes that playing them less regularly but being exposed to the first team day-to-day processes under a single coach will benefit their development and help the squad as a whole. His philosophy is rich in young talent and satisfies those who want English players competing at the highest level of the Premier League for the benefit of the English national team.
The money that has been spent at Spurs on players is the lowest of the top 6 Premier League sides since Pochettino’s appointment in 2014. Since then, Pochettino has sold most of the players brought in by André Villas-Boas such as Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Nacer Chadli for a combined £32 million. This figure has enabled him to bring in the likes of Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, and Toby Alderweireld, who have demonstrated that they are tailor-made for the demands of the Premier League.
Pochettino, unlike Villas-Boas, has not bought players frivolously just because of the funds available. Instead of buying quantity, Pochettino has opted to purchase players with the potential to excel in his demanding system. Pochettino has ensured that burn-out in the wide areas is minimized by replenishing his supply of full-backs. The purchases of Kieran Tripper and Ben Davies for a combined £13.5 million has meant that the impact of injuries and fatigue to Kyle Walker and Danny Rose is lessened, with the backup young signings enshrined in his tactical beliefs.
Compared to the net spend figures of £258 million and £316 million for Manchester United and Manchester City respectively, it would not have been unreasonable to argue before the season that Spurs would struggle to qualify for the Champions League. However, Pochettino has focused on building a team perfectly equipped to compete in the Premier League instead of buying the biggest names in European football. This choice has paid off without a doubt, as Spurs have developed as a team that can feasibly not only compete at the top positions of the league but also against their most prominent rivals.
Spurs have undoubtedly played a brand of football that has been captivating in an attacking sense, with the solid base of the 3-man defence allowing expression further up the pitch. Pochettino kept hold of Christian Eriksen from the Villas-Boas era, one of his cheapest signings at £11 million. With the emergence of Son Heung-min (signed from Bayer Leverkusen for £22 million), there can also be the rotation of the attacking trio in Pochettino’s 3-4-3 formation. Eriksen has embodied the astuteness of Pochettino’s brand of football, offering different options for goal-scoring opportunities such as dead-ball situations, long-range through balls, and crosses. The game where these skills were demonstrated expertly was the 2-0 victory against title challenges Chelsea in January at White Hart Lane, where Dele Alli’s brace took the headlines.
Yet Eriksen was at the heart of unlocking a Chelsea defence. This was a defence that had conceded only four goals in the league since the change of system under Conte in October. Both Alli goals came from Eriksen’s crosses, with the perfect technique of curve and dip exposing Chelsea’s lack of height at right centre-back (in 5 ft. 10 Cesar Azpilicueta), and the defensive naivety of David Luiz in failing to deal with both crosses in behind the Chelsea defence. Spurs showed in this fixture that they were not just flat-track bullies, but instead were clinical enough to dispatch their nearest challengers, as they had also done in October at home to Manchester City in another 2-0 victory.
It seems hard to be hyper-critical of this Spurs side when it comes to falling short in the title race due to their lack of financial resources. Furthermore, considering the fact that Hull have spent more days at the top of the league than Spurs, it is also foolish to refer to them as choking under the pressure when they were chasing Chelsea from Christmas. The foundation has been set by Pochettino, with Kane, Alli, and Son all scoring 20 goals or more in all competitions this season, an unrivalled statistic among many others this season.
A series of challenges have been faced by Spurs this season such as the financial power of the Manchester clubs and the shadow of neighbours Arsenal looming large of White Hart Lane, yet Spurs have banished these threats with consummate ease. Challenges remain in the near future for Spurs, like any other club, but it is clear that they are perfectly equipped to progress even further. Indeed, the move to Wembley for home matches will be difficult with the FA refusing to reduce the size of the pitch to suit their style of play.
However, when held in comparison financially with the other clubs, Spurs continue to demonstrate how this factor does not hold as much importance as previously thought. With Champions League football secured for the 2017/18 season, Spurs’ young and trendy project will be able to attract some of the best prospects around Europe, continuing the progressive youth development program already underway.
Pochettino has made it clear that on and off the pitch, extravagant transfer fees do not guarantee immediate success. The implementation of players to a system that is able to boast the best defensive in the league and possess some of the most threatening attacking talent at the same time is much more critical to success than emojis and social media brand exposure.
The perception of Spurs as always letting their fans down when it comes to intense pressure situations is therefore somewhat misguided in recent seasons. Spurs have no right to be competing in the Premier League title race until the latter months of a season, considering their squad’s strength in relative value with others. Instead of criticizing the mental strength of some of their players who have never been exposed to such pressure, it should be celebrated that a coach has undertaken a project that demonstrates the fundamental importance of young English players, attacking football, and tactical dedication.
There is no doubt that Chelsea were the best team in the league this season, but to therefore assume that Spurs buckled under the pressure is wrong. In comparison with the rest of the teams below them in the top 6, Spurs have not only had a better season, but have become a side to envy especially if Pochettino’s project continues to prove everyone wrong.