Saturday 24 February 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Tottenham players need to back up Pochettino's belief

Pochettino said before yesterday's game against Chelsea.
Pochettino said before yesterday's game against Chelsea. "I want to win the Premier League." Photo: Reuters
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

A clue as to just how much of a threat Jose Mourinho sees in Tottenham will probably come at the pre-match press conference in October if somebody puts Mauricio Pochettino's words to the Manchester United manager.

If they were uttered by Pep Guardiola or Antonio Conte, Mourinho would certainly fire back and even though Arsenal are looking less and less like a realistic challenger, Arsene Wenger would get a barb back just for old time's sake.

"I need to explain what it means to win a trophy," Pochettino said before yesterday's game against Chelsea. "I want to win the Premier League. I don't say it's not important to win the League Cup or the FA Cup or the Europa League. But for me, we need to put Tottenham every season with the possibility to win the Premier League and the Champions League, the two most important trophies. That is our challenge.

"If one day I am not capable to win the Premier League here with Tottenham, or we don't have the chance to win the Premier League, it will be very disappointing. I want to win the Premier League, I want to win the Champions League, those are the real trophies.

Comments

"Sometimes, it is lot of comments about 'ok, now Tottenham need a trophy.' No, no, no, no. (We) need a big trophy. A big trophy is Premier League or Champions League. If not, OK we prepare the team to win the FA Cup or League Cup, and you are in the middle of the table, or sixth, or seventh, in the Premier League. I think I would be disappointed, it would mean nothing."

Two seasons ago when Tottenham finished third in the league, United were fifth but won the FA Cup. Last term, Tottenham went one better in the league, United went one worse but lifted the League Cup and Europa League trophies.

Not "real trophies" perhaps, but for a Tottenham manager to suggest a cup would "mean nothing" to him without a strong league campaign sets a high bar for himself and the club that, at some point soon, they must get over.

It was reminiscent of the 'fourth is a trophy' argument put forward by Wenger during Arsenal's remarkable record of qualifying for the Champions League. In terms of difficulty level, getting into the Premier League's top four over 38 games is a far greater test than beating Saint-Étienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax as United did in the knock-out rounds to win the Europa League but, to add to the old phrase, if you're explaining - and finishing second - you're losing.

From a move to a new ground, to an unhappy, under-paid left-back and being the team in the league that all neutrals like to watch, there's more than a hint of Arsenal from the last decade about this Tottenham team.

Yesterday they had 68 per cent possession, and 300 more passes than their opponents as they lost to Chelsea at Wembley despite playing reasonably well. Short of Didier Drogba scoring the winner, it was a fair impression of their north London rivals.

After several defeats in important games, Arsenal learned the hard way that much as though players might profess their love for a club, there is only so long they will stick around to be part of a project where success would be more rewarding but is far from guaranteed. It's far easier to jump ship to a team who can give players "real" trophies they will argue they so desperately crave, with the added bonus of having their wages doubled or trebled.

In the first few seasons after their last Premier League title win in 2004, Arsenal flattered to deceive in terms of a title challenge before wilting under the pressure brought about by the knock-out stages of the Champions League and falling out of the pack in the race for the league title. The current Tottenham team, however, aren't even yet at that level.

Instead, the last two seasons have been title races in name only with Tottenham resembling the athlete picking up the bronze or silver medal without seeing anything other than the back of the eventual winner. They might have got close, but never close enough to overtake.

By ratcheting up the pressure on his team, however, Pochettino is publicly challenging his players to live up to his expectations which was once the hallmark of Wenger before any notion that fourth could be considered a successful season.

In September 2002, after their second double in four years, Wenger was widely laughed at for suggesting his Arsenal team could go the whole league season unbeaten, particularly when, within a month, they had lost three games in a row. In the end, the Arsenal manager was one season out with his prediction.

impressive

The most impressive element of Pochettino's time at Tottenham is that his message hasn't really changed yet largely the same group of players continue to respond and improve, unlike at Arsenal.

Eight of yesterday's starting XI - Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, Dele Alli, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Harry Kane - each started at least 24 league games in both of the last two seasons and, barring injuries, will do so again this time.

At their best, Tottenham devour teams with their intensity and power running where the ball at times feels almost incidental as opponents are squeezed unless their technique is up to scratch before eventually being suffocated under the pressure.

Chelsea looked like being the latest victims yesterday until they pounced on a mistake from Victor Wanyama, which was then compounded by Lloris, and left Tottenham scratching their heads.

"We were much better than Chelsea," insisted Pochettino afterwards. "If we play that way, we'll win a lot of games in the future."

Like winning trophies, real or otherwise, this is the season when Pochettino needs his players to back up his belief.

Irish Independent

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