Saturday 25 March 2017

Miguel Delaney: The eyes have it

Pochettino’s triumph of coaching may take tireless Spurs all the way to a league title

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino

Miguel Delaney

At the end of every single Tottenham Hotspur training session, Mauricio Pochettino goes to an office at the club’s state-of-the-art base in Enfield, wanting to make sure he can really believe what he is seeing.

The Argentine manager spends about half-an-hour with his analysts, scrutinising the squad’s minutely tracked physical performance stats that come in from GPS vests and other technological innovations. If any of the players drop below the demanded levels, they are told in fairly severe terms and dropped, often with an icy tone that is very different to that given off by the likeable figure Pochettino cuts in his press conferences.

Right now, those figures are not ­dropping. Many are actually ­improving. The whole team are running more, building up steam, coming for Leicester City like an express train.

With four big wins from their last five games, Spurs are working towards an emphatic crescendo, and one that could yet see them assertively grab the Premier League trophy from Claudio Ranieri’s hands. That would spoil what is being described as one of the greatest stories in football, and yet would still be a story with some hugely engaging strands of its own.

Some elements of Spurs’ title challenge are as impressively improbable as that of Ranieri’s side. If a club of Leicester’s limited dimensions should not be getting close to the league in this modern era, neither should a team as young as Pochettino’s.

The suspicion before the season began, after all, was that the Argentine would have to patiently make do during a period of underinvestment at a financially straitened club. Chairman Daniel Levy didn’t exactly spend big. The regular starting XI cost just £99m. Only Erik Lamela (£30m) was bought for more than £14m, and seven of them were less than £10m. That reflects their youth.

Pochettino was thought to have a promising squad, but not one that looked anywhere near ready to even push for a Champions League place. Little more than a respectable show of progress was expected.

Oh, they’ve made progress alright. It is resounding, rather than respectable.

It is not just that Spurs have the youngest average age in this season’s Premier League by almost 12 months, at 24 years and 305 days, or that winning the title would take almost a year off Chelsea’s 2004/’05 record in that regard. It is the way such a group are performing. The leap has been astounding. Players who shouldn’t even be ready yet are running riot, as Stoke City found last Monday, and as 20-year-old Dele Alli personifies.

Even if Spurs haven’t done enough over the entire course of the 2015-’16 season to end up winning the title, there is strong evidence they are currently the best team in the Premier League. They have the best records in goals scored, chances created, goals conceded and shots on target faced.

Essentially, they’re doing everything right. That is because Pochettino is doing everything in his job right. It is little wonder Manchester United joint-owner Joel Glazer is said to be amazed by the 44-year-old’s work with such resources, that Manchester City already see him as the successor to Pep Guardiola, or that Alex Ferguson believes he is the best manager in the league right now.

The Spurs team truly are a reflection of their manager in that way: young, admirable and on an eye-catching rise that may not stop until it hits the top. That is the story of Tottenham’s challenge, in contrast to Leicester’s. It is that of a manager building a long-term project, and one impressively ahead of schedule after less than two years in the job. The side, as so many within the game now regularly put it, are “a triumph of coaching”.

To fully understand how deep Pochettino’s effect has been, you only have to listen to one of the few properly experienced players in the squad, 29-year-old Hugo Lloris. In the summer of 2014, the goalkeeper had felt it was probably time to leave Spurs  — until he sat down with his just-appointed new manager.

“I trust him since the first second I met him,” Lloris said of Pochettino on Friday. “I had some concerns and I questioned myself two years ago, after AVB [André Villas-Boas] and Tim Sherwood were in charge, and I think the first meeting with Mauricio was very clear for me, for my future. I think he changed all — inside the training ground, inside the squad. It’s about his mentality, his personality. We can feel we improved a lot. We have a real identity now and, from outside, it’s very clear.”

It’s especially clear with what has become a theme of the season: the ongoing discussion over how the definition of the word ‘Spursy’ has changed. It no longer means a mentally weak side who will buckle under pressure. It could end up signifying a side who go full-on right until the end — and then win. The squad are known to be well aware of the infamous story about Ferguson feeling he only had to tell his United team “lads, it’s Spurs”, but that is something that Pochettino has insisted on turning on its head.

One of his most repeated mission statements on taking the job was that he wanted to change the entire mentality of the club. Hammering United 3-0 just two weeks ago was quite a flourish in that process. It also does more than preventing the side from ever giving in. It also ensures they always give everything, allowing them to work to the exceptional level that Pochettino and his disciplinarian assistant, Jesus Perez, demand. The fundamental idea is to make the squad fitter than everyone else, so they can just do more than everyone else. That requires meticulously planned double training sessions that have already become legendary, with the international team-mates of Spurs players often expressing “shock” at just how much they do.

It has left some Spurs players shocked, too — or, rather, former Spurs players.

Pochettino has been described as “ruthlessly clear” with the squad. Either they fully get on board with what he wants, or they’re out. He can turn very hard. That has explained the drastically quick exits of Younes Kaboul, Aaron Lennon and so many others.

Some of those players wouldn’t be quite so complimentary of Pochettino, having endured either ominous freeze-outs or explosive ‘bollockings’ from him.

Lloris, however, is fully on board. “It’s about the players, how they take all he gives,” he says. “If they want to improve, individually, if they want to be involved in the team, he will do everything to satisfy them and to change them as top players. That’s why it’s very positive inside the changing room.”

That is the clear positive of his ferociously hardline approach. It has helped to quickly hew and shape a squad that is fully committed to his approach, and to him. Pochettino is brilliant to work with so long as you buy into his ideas, and will back those players that do in disputes with the club. That has meant many former players still rave about him. Lloris, Harry Kane and Jan Vertonghen, meanwhile, are said to feel their first loyalty is to Pochettino rather than Spurs.

That level of fitness and that level of commitment also combine to ensure Pochettino is able to play as close to a pure an ideal of his football as possible. There is simply no mental or physical hesitation with any of the players, and that greatly fits the assertive style too.

Pochettino recently described the fundamentals of that ideal: “We are brave. This is how we are as a team, taking a risk to play along the grass, to try to build from the back, to be aggressive, to press high, to take the ball as soon as possible, and to dominate the game.”

That has been the root of so many thumping wins. At their best, Spurs fully impose their game on the opposition, pinning them back in their box and overloading them to the point that goals become inevitable. Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores recently said it was “impossible” to play against them “because they are like animals”. That was after a mere 1-0 victory, even if it could have been three or four. Spurs are now regularly taking those chances. They are evolving.

It’s not just about blowing teams away, though. There is intelligent design there too. Pochettino and his team themselves work from 7.0am until late planning every little detail, and ensuring the players are so well briefed that they cannot be easily caught out or have excuses for mistakes from set-pieces. That helps explain their excellent defensive record, as does the fact so many of the starting XI are at least six foot in height.

Cristian Gomez is one of over 20 youth players that Pochettino has given a full debut to in just seven years as a manager, and the former Espanyol attacker is still in awe at some of the Argentine’s work in Spain between 2008 and 2012.

“When we played against the big teams with Espanyol, we always gave them problems due to his planning,” Gomez, now with Catalan side Hospitalet, tells the Sunday Independent. “Those teams might beat you, but they had a lot of problems with us. [Pep] Guardiola’s Barcelona certainly did.”

Many current Spurs players treat talking about Pochettino’s tactical instructions as if they are trade secrets, but Gomez offers some rare insight into how he worked. “He was very specific. From the way you’d come out with the ball, it was more or less like Barca, with players opening up the pitch and then others inside to always create a numerical superiority. He worked on that a lot, especially in the opposition half. Last season, you could see it took Spurs a little bit to get in tune with that, but this season’s it’s much more complete.

“I was in a similar position to Christian Eriksen and he would tell me to play without fear, to dribble. In that sense, he gives you a lot of liberty.”

That mix of exact instruction and self-expression explains how Alli can so often get free to play the same type of slide-rule pass to release Kane from out wide, and how defenders still have so much trouble with it. It has also created a squad that are enjoying their football and just itching to play, to properly chase Leicester down and really go at West Brom at White Hart Lane tomorrow night.

“It’s a long week,” Lloris says. “We want to play the next game as quickly as possible. We are in good form, playing with confidence and we want to know what will happen.”

Again, there is no hesitation about this side.

“We can feel the appetite of the team getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

It means Pochettino’s reputation is only getting bigger and bigger too.

In all of this, it should not be forgotten that he hasn’t won a single trophy as a manager yet. The nature of his work also raises the possibility that he may have a more modern version of Louis van Gaal’s issue, that he needs malleable young players to properly implement his ideas, and might have greater struggles with the stars of a bigger club.

So far, though, there are no problems. There is only unmistakeable progress. Spurs are relentlessly bearing down on Leicester in the way only repeat ­champions are expected to.

Even if Pochettino doesn’t win the title this season, a feat that would make him a proper star in his own right, it’s impossible to deny Spurs are going in the right direction. Up.

“It’s not just about this season,” Lloris enthuses. “It’s also about the next season and the project of the gaffer. In the way we work, we are improving every month. Now we feel we are competitive, and ready to compete against any team.”

Lloris is one of many who really believes.

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