How Arsenal and Tottenham turned their seasons around
Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal meet today in unusual form. Both will arrive with the football wind in their sails, in good shape, confident and with more fit, hungry players than they can accommodate.
Neither started the season particularly well, neither impressed their ambitious fans, and their annual fight for fourth looked a long way away. But both sides have taken 19 of their last 24 available points. If Arsenal get a positive result today, they will go third. If Spurs win, they will go fourth.
So how have they changed their fortunes?
"In the last few years, we went to Manchester City and wanted to convince everybody that we can go and play our own way," said Per Mertesacker, summing up where Arsenal had been going wrong. "Sometimes we have to do something unexpected."
The 2-0 win at the Etihad on January 18 was Arsenal's best league result of recent years and it was due to a complete re-think of their approach. No more expansive, pro-active football, but rather a disciplined, deep-lying counter-attacking game.
When Arsenal beat Aston Villa 5-0 last Sunday, they had 48 per cent possession, knowing that you do not always need the ball to be dangerous. Afterwards, Mertesacker explained the change in style. "What comes first is defensive work, and not just for the back four," he said. "Sometimes you need a wake-up call."
This season has been a story of Pochettino imposing his philosophy and his style on Spurs. Through the double sessions, the fitness work, the realisation of which players he can trust and which he cannot, he has moulded the team as he wants it.
The hallmarks of the Argentinian's Southampton side are here. There is the promotion and improvement of youngsters, such as Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and the unrecognisable Harry Kane.
Then, there is the relentless running and pressing. Pochettino tells his players that when they lose the ball they must press directly for the first three seconds to win it back, and they are getting better at it.
It was their physical power, more than anything else, that overwhelmed Chelsea on New Year's Day.
No Arsenal player could hope to be as dominant as Alexis Sanchez. But the most important player in their recent run has been Santi Cazorla, running games from midfield.
It was never quite clear where Cazorla's best position was, but now it is. He has been moved inside, playing central midfield in a 4-1-4-1, at the centre of it all.
"Santi looked to find a new role," Wenger explained yesterday. "He is a team player, he works hard, with a good balance between attacking and defending. He is a better defender than people think."
Cazorla was never more instrumental than in the 2-0 win at Manchester City which re-shaped this team. If Spurs are to stop Arsenal today, they must first contain their scampering little conductor.
The one criticism of Christian Eriksen's first season at White Hart Lane is that he was insufficiently decisive.
He has always been very watchable but he did not win enough games for Spurs. This season, while retaining all those creative skills, he has already scored 11 goals. Six were winners, three of those in the dying minutes of games.
Pochettino does not talk much about his players but he said on Thursday that Eriksen could be as good as Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas.
Jan Vertonghen, who convinced Eriksen to join Tottenham, said he could be as good as Gareth Bale. While Eriksen will never have Bale's physical power, he does have something like that ability to win games by himself.
Arsene Wenger spent much of the first half of the season talking about the need for "defensive stability", as anyone would who was limited to two senior centre-backs. Laurent Koscielny made just five appearances through October, November and December because of chronic tendinitis in his Achilles, forcing Wenger to play full-backs at centre-back.
Nacho Monreal is a good professional but is not tall enough to play there, Mathieu Debuchy has been unfortunate with injuries and Callum Chambers has struggled after a good start. Koscielny is back now, and defensive performances have improved. His partnership with Mertesacker is as strong as ever.
It helps that the team is now more geared towards clean sheets. With Francis Coquelin shielding the defence better than Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini have done this year, they are harder to score against than before.
As any new manager would, Pochettino spent much of the first half of the season finding out what his best team was. Younes Kaboul, the club captain, started off at centre-back.
Vertonghen sat in frustration on the bench while Federico Fazio, the £8m signing from Sevilla, was sent off twice early on. But Pochettino realised the answer in November, after his fourth home league defeat of the season.
Since Vertonghen and Fazio were paired together, Spurs have played 12 league games, won eight, drawn two (both 0-0) and lost two.
Too many Arsenal seasons have been ruined by injuries and it did seem in the autumn as if this one might be too.
Olivier Giroud broke his leg and missed three months. Mathieu Debuchy damaged ankle ligaments, missed three months, returned and dislocated a shoulder. Jack Wilshere had ankle surgery in November and has not played since. Arteta has been out for just as long with a calf injury. Mesut Ozil was out for three months with a knee ligament injury. Theo Walcott returned from a long knee ligament lay-off and injured his groin. Aaron Ramsey suffered two separate hamstring injuries. Koscielny had chronic Achilles tendinitis. Danny Welbeck missed all of January with a hip injury.
Yet, despite all this, Arsenal are approaching full fitness again. Sanchez's hamstring may keep him out today but Welbeck is back and Wilshere will be soon. Debuchy and Arteta will be the only two remaining absentees and they have been ably replaced by two youngsters.
One of the many successes of Pochettino's time in charge of Tottenham has been his management of injuries. Spurs have already played 39 official games so far this season - five more than Arsenal - yet they have kept almost all of their important players on the pitch together.
Mason is one of their few first-choice players to suffer from knocks but even they were not too bad and he has started 17 games in all competitions anyway, by far the best record of his career.
Pochettino works his players hard but he is well attuned to what he can ask of them and always talks of the analysis done with his conditioning team so that every player's workload is perfectly judged.
If the defeat to Southampton on New Year's Day was a turning point in Arsenal's season, it was not just down to changed tactics. It was also the point, given what happened in the dressing room afterwards, when Wenger lost patience with Wojciech Szczesny.
David Ospina, the Colombia international signed in the summer, has played four games since and kept four clean sheets. Szczesny came back in for the FA Cup game at Brighton and conceded twice.
While Ospina struggled for fitness when he first joined Arsenal, suffering a recurrence of a thigh injury, he has impressed on this run in the team.
There is a theory at the club that he is a more calming, reliable influence at the back than Szczesny, who is prone to bouts of over-enthusiasm. He will keep his place today.
There is no debate about who is first choice at Tottenham, who have the best goalkeeper currently in the Premier League.
It barely registers any more when Hugo Lloris makes brilliant saves to keep Spurs in a game, as he does every week.
Lloris started the season perfectly at West Ham, in a game Spurs won 1-0, and has maintained that level ever since. With those preternatural reflexes and gymnast's agility, he kept out Manchester United in December - a crucial game - and was almost as good, despite conceding three, when Tottenham beat Chelsea. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service