Saturday 19 August 2017

Brian Kerr: Earning his Spurs

While there is so much to admire about the job that Pochettino is doing at White Hart Lane, unless Guardiola changes his attitude, Manchester City could end up in the Europa League

Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane have again been a crucial to Tottenham’s progress in the Premier League. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane have again been a crucial to Tottenham’s progress in the Premier League. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

One of the longest waits in English football is no nearer the finish line, 66 years after it began, eight months after it should have ended.

Whatever about the neurosis suffered by Liverpool supporters as they agonise over the lengthening of their 26-year title drought, for Tottenham fans - a grouping I belonged to as a boy - a perennial state of anxiety is also prevalent.

History has done that to them. Over the years, Spurs have consistently shown how they are more than capable of producing some lovely ball-playing teams - sides who everyone else liked watching - while lacking the mental toughness, physicality and ruthlessness to get the kind of consistent results that turns good teams into great ones.

Why else has Graeme Souness regularly offered the view that northern teams considered Spurs to be a soft touch as soon as their coach drove past Birmingham?

That sense of softness wasn't the only perception outsiders had of them. Throughout this century, as Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale were sold - there was an underlying feeling that Daniel Levy, their chairman, was more concerned in balancing the books than the squad.

And while his financial prudence was admirable on one level - the downside to his policy of selling on players like Ryan Mason and Nacer Chadli left Mauricio Pochettino's squad exposed this season, when it came to the dual requirements of Champions League and domestic football.

Certainly it cost them in the group stages, when the intensity of their twice-weekly fixture schedule exposed how shallow the quality in their squad actually was.

And so, an unbeaten 12-game run in the Premier League was followed by a period when they could win only once - across three competitions - in 10 games.

Tellingly, though, as soon as their interest in the Champions League came to an end, they have put together their best sequence of results this season, when they have won seven games on the bounce to move second in the table and within seven points of leaders Chelsea.

Bridging

While not an insurmountable difference, especially when you consider there are still 17 matches left to play, and that Chelsea still have to tackle Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City, there are plenty of reasons to stop you believing this can be Tottenham's year.

And history is one of those. It was 1961 when they won their last league title, and while they flirted with the idea of bridging a gap between those eras last season, the familiarity of failure revisited them, as they blew up in the closing stretch and Leicester held their nerve.

Leicester - first time winners in 2015/'16, became the 13th different team since Bill Nicholson guided Spurs to the double in 1961, to lift English football's biggest prize, serving as a reminder that for years, Tottenham have always been seen as a top-six team but also as a side who can't hack it when it comes to the crunch.

Last year they lost six league games. But this year they have lost only two with 17 matches remaining. Is this evidence of their improving strength and resilience?

Certainly you have to believe they are a bit more experienced, highlighted by the fact they are able to cope with the loss of Jan Vertonghen more so now than they would have been 12 months ago.

In Kevin Wimmer, a player who shipped plenty of flak for his performance for Austria against Ireland in November, they have a player who looks better as a centre-back than he did at full-back on that night in Vienna. Plus, Eric Dier's versatility is proving to be a useful asset while the back-up options of Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier offer a comfort to Pochettino.

Further forward, Dele Alli's increasing threat in front of goal - combined with additional contributions from Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son - have eased the pressure Harry Kane would have felt over the previous two years.

And why stop there? In Pochettino, they have a manager in whom there is so much to admire.

Quite apart from the manner in which he calmly assessed last season's disappointing ending by focusing instead on the overall progress his team had made, once again this season his willingness to vary his tactics and find a system that allows him get his best players on the pitch in their most effective positions, has been impressive.

Recently, a switch from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system, that allows both Eriksen and Alli to float centrally in support of Kane, has had deadly results.

Additionally, the massive energy and skill of the wing-backs, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, have been the key to the successful implementation of the system, as the remarkable ability of both players to simultaneously double-job as full-backs and wingers has freed up Alli and Eriksson to create havoc - the evidence of which was provided by Alli's two headed goals, from the Dane's chipped passes, against Chelsea.

Better again, the fact that Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama offer both a physicality as well as a technical ability in front of the three-man defence ensures there is a balance within their side that Manchester City, today's opponents, simply do not have.

The upshot is that Spurs have evolved from being a team who conceded too many goals to one who have coughed up just 14 in 21 league games this season. Still, in spite of their new-found miserliness, their image as an attacking team has not disappeared.

So credit Pochettino for this transformation. After doing an outstanding job at Southampton, with Spurs, he has delivered everything except a trophy.

An impressive character, one who is respectful of his players, the fact he is so controlled and disciplined on the touchline has not gone unnoticed.

Alex Ferguson, remember, met him for tea last year in London, just before United opted to replace Louis van Gaal with Jose Mourinho.

Integrate

And by managing to integrate the traditional Spurs style with the requirements of the modern game, whereby he has a side that is both easy on the eye but hard on the opposition, there is every reason to believe they can sustain the success of the last 18 months.

But win the league?

You feel last year - when Chelsea, Manchester United, City and Liverpool were suffering a collective meltdown - was their chance. And yet you also look at the fact that they handed Kane a bigger contract to keep him at the club, while also re-signing Hugo Lloris, as evidence that they are more determined to hold onto their better players than ever before.

Perhaps Levy learned a lesson from the Bale sale - when the €100m recouped from Real Madrid was wasted on seven different players - a time when Garth Crooks suggested they had sold Elvis but bought The Beatles in his place.

Sadly, the so-called Magnificent Seven turned out to be more like Jerry and the Pacemakers, although Eriksen did prove to be a good investment, while Erik Lamela also remains at the club.

But this is a crucial period coming up for them. Away to City today, they also have to travel to Anfield in the next month before Europa League duties kick in, when you imagine Pochettino will rotate his squad again, while worrying about the effect of twice-weekly fixtures.

And as they move to a new £750m stadium - you can envisage problems on the horizon, as they head to their temporary home at Wembley - where they suffered defeats to Monaco and Leverkusen earlier this season.

Worse again, their spending at the high end of the market will be contained, certainly in the short term while the stadium build is ongoing.

Those concerns, though, are dwarfed compared to the ones Pep Guardiola, the man in the opposing dugout today, has to currently contend with.

Having won the first 10 games of their season, funnily enough their limitations were exposed by Pochettino's Spurs back in October, when Tottenham really upset City's rhythm and build-up play, sowing doubts in their goalkeeper and defenders' heads while doing so.

Hustling and harrying them out of possession that day, Spurs profited too from the fact that Lloris made some brilliant saves, particularly from Sergio Aguero, while Claudio Bravo, the Chilean who was outstanding in the 2014 World Cup, has been drained of confidence from the moment he made his debut for City in the Manchester derby back in September.

Bought because Guardiola favours goalkeepers who are competent with the ball at their feet, you look at the number of goals Bravo has conceded this year and wonder why his Spanish manager doesn't prioritise goalkeepers whose initial concern is to save shots.

That is where Guardiola has got things majorly wrong - that and in his continuation of a policy where he insists on building the play up from the back.

While that game-plan worked wonders for him at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the difference in England is that he hasn't been handed four of the best players in the world to go and cause damage with.

So while he has some very talented players in attack - Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva - at the back, John Stones has showed his inexperience while his ageing defensive comrades, and Bravo, are also causing problems, leading to four defeats in their last eight games.

In an effort to alter those results, Guardiola's constant formation and personnel changes have caused confusion rather than improvement: in total he has used 13 different back fours, six different back threes, three different goalkeepers, 10 different defenders, retaining the same backline on just three occasions.

Alteration

And all the while the biggest alteration he needs to make is by changing his tactical emphasis from attack to defence, to recognise that every successful team in the game's history was able to defend in an efficient manner. City can't.

If he fails to adjust to English football's requirements, then it'll be the Europa League for him and City next year. Will it be the Champions League for Spurs? If they get a win today then you'd certainly say they are good enough to finish in the top four, but they probably lack the depth of squad to overtake Chelsea.

Still, Levy will be happy.

After all, the books once again are balanced.

The Tottenham numbers game

66: Years since Tottenham last won the league

13: Clubs who have won the league since Spurs did the double in 1961 - Ipswich Town, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Leeds United, Arsenal, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea, Leicester City

8: Times Spurs have finished third since 1961

3: Times Manchester City have retained the same backline this season

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