Monday 19 August 2019

Comment: Pochettino not on solid ground as Tottenham fail to land a blow against champions

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: Reuters
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: Reuters

Paul Hayward

Mauricio Pochettino said Spurs had "less in every respect" compared to the rest of the elite.

Against the best team in England, Tottenham had fewer spectators than expected, not much time on the clock when Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring, and no defence against the charge that their new stadium should have been ready by now.

They also had their two best attacking midfielders on the bench at the start of Monday night football - a term coined, appropriately, in American football - which is an important caveat.

When fully fit, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen will surely lift Pochettino's flagging spirits. But there was no mistaking the dip in the Tottenham manager's outlook, or the doubts surrounding the club's ability to keep pace with the best in the division.

Twenty-one points after nine games was Tottenham's best start to a Premier League campaign. With no reinforcements and building delays at their ground, Spurs have done a fine job of grinning for the cameras.

Their England stars returned weary but with reputations burnished. If they could just get through those tricky first few weeks.

Now, though, you can feel the strain among the players and the fans.

It was painfully apparent when Pochettino dropped the pretence in the run-up to this match that he is content to be part of such a slow-moving project.

"The season so far, it's strange because my feeling is the worst feeling I've had in the five years I've been here," Pochettino said.

"It's the worst, my feeling, but it's the best start ever for the club in the Premier League.

"It's strange, no? I am disappointed we are still waiting for the new stadium when the expectation was to be there at the beginning of the season. I don't know, many things happened in the summer, many things that make myself not in my best mood or best humour."

By the time City floated into Wembley (with many Spurs fans staying at home), Pochettino had recovered his poise. But the truth was already out.

No man can be Daniel Levy's lightning conductor forever. Pochettino has had to answer for the club's every move - and non-move.

Recruitment, construction, Harry Kane's form: the whole shebang.

Pochettino said he wanted Spurs to be able to act like "Liverpool, City, United, Chelsea and Arsenal".

He will have known as he soon as he said it how dangerous this kind of talk can be, however true it is. Once players get the idea that a coveted manager is losing faith, anxiety can spread quickly.

Pochettino has carried the diplomatic burden well but allowed himself a howl at the moon just before his team's toughest home assignment.

His players were fortunate that City struggled to capitalise on Mahrez's early goal, fiddling and faffing around Hugo Lloris's penalty area as the second half resumed.

This was one of the strangest big Premier League nights in recent memory.

Damaged turf, an NFL crest in the centre-circle and yardage lines and numbers all over the pitch were a visual distortion of the game itself, confusing the eye and blurring the usual movements.

Not that it seemed to bother City in the opening five minutes, when Raheem Sterling worked the ball to Mahrez for Pep Guardiola's goal factory to open its doors.

Around the Americanisation of Wembley, condolences were expressed for the dead of the Leicester helicopter crash, and at half-time a message of support was sent to Glenn Hoddle, Tottenham's finest modern player, who was struck down on Saturday by a heart-attack.

With so much going on around the margins, it was perhaps never going to feel like the idealised Premier League package of one exciting team against another.

In recent days Spurs have opened the largest club retail space in Europe, but still they lack the home to sustain it. Players, management and fans can be forgiven the touch of desperation. At least City showed some sympathy, missing chance after chance.

"It is my wish and my hope for the club, for the fans, for everyone to be available to fight in the same condition as the other clubs and show our real skills," Pochettino had declared.

"The way we have been competing in the last few years, the frustration is massive because we have had less in every single aspect."

Spurs need to escape Wembley and feel the spiritual boost that walking out in a new White Hart Lane will bring them. They also need new players, though at least Dele Alli and Eriksen returned against City, with 17 and nine minutes left.

Guardiola was becoming angry. Pochettino just clung to hope.

But Spurs kept going. They have to. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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