Thursday 18 January 2018

James Lawton: Pochettino must ensure Spurs don't become the new Arsenal

Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: PA
Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

One of the most appealing aspects of Mauricio Pochettino is that unlike many of his rivals, he is unlikely to mistake a football game for the outbreak of World War III.

Still, the pressure gets to everyone in the end and this week there were a few signs that the 45-year-old Spurs manager might not be entirely immune.

Certainly, his stress levels seemed to be up before Christian Eriksen's late winner beat a dogged Crystal Palace and pegged Chelsea's title lead back to four points.

Pochettino didn't glower and grimace like Palace's Sam Allardyce. There was nothing like the huge passion of Chelsea's Antonio Conte or the harrowing despair frequently displayed by Arsenal's Arsene Wenger.

Mellow

But, no, Pochettino wasn't quite the mellow figure on view when his team are purring along with the bite and vision they have been producing with regularity over the last three seasons.

He will hardly be relaxed when Arsenal visit on Sunday, especially if Chelsea earlier in the day have won at Everton.

Pochettino has said that finishing above their north London rivals - which would be guaranteed with victory on Sunday - would be no more than a small historic detail for Spurs.

It must rankle that in eight years of impressive work at Espanyol, Southampton and Tottenham, Pochettino is still searching for his first trophy.

The most important question, though, concerns the psychological strength of the team in which he has brilliantly released the talents of Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eriksen.

Spurs were a team on the rise the season before last. Going into last spring they were supposed to be burnishing their skills and pressing for the title, but the ambition was found desperately flawed as Leicester eased to their astounding triumph.

Now we want to know if there is a real Tottenham to stand up when it truly matters or just a team touched - or cursed - by the kind of engaging skill but critically flawed ambition which has bedevilled Arsenal for the last 13 years?

Read more: Mauricio Pochettino's thinly-veiled jibe at Arsenal shows how much the tide has turned in North London

Maybe this was on Pochettino's mind when he brusquely dismissed the potential landmark of finishing above Arsenal. Perhaps it was not so much the belittling of Arsenal, but a cry to his players for them to lift their heads and see new horizons - and make new demands on themselves.

But how clearly, Pochettino is asking, do they see themselves as pure winners, untouchable, uncontainable? Have they begun to acquire the abrasive strut of a Diego Costa or the unassailable certainty of Eden Hazard when he bears down on goal?

There were moments at Selhurst Park when Pochettino was plainly yearning for such evidence of an arrogant winning culture.

He could do little, certainly, to disguise his devastation at the scale of last season's spring-time implosion. For him, it was more than one failure. It was the unravelling of all he had sought to instil into his teams.

His philosophy is a statement of warrior intensity, something gathered in down all the years since he first appeared in the Argentinian top flight as a teenage title winner with Newell's Old Boys.

Pochettino played 20 times for Argentina as a resolute centre-back whose nerve was unaffected by the penalty he conceded when bringing down Michael Owen in the 2002 World Cup, a transgression punished by David Beckham from the penalty spot.

He announced his attitude in the clearest terms, saying: "You show on the pitch who you are. If you are brave in your life you cannot behave differently on the pitch. I do not understand how to play differently. Always be brave."

This week, in the wake of Chelsea's crushing FA Cup semi-final victory, Pochettino has been seeking to refresh and re-vitalise his battle cry.

Learned

He says: "I think we are showing we have learned a lot from last season as a team. This is so important because improving on last season was the big challenge. It was a massive challenge.

"An area that is key for us is improving our mental attitude, and I believe the team is now showing it is ready.

"It is not about us sending a message to Chelsea. It is about us building our belief that we can win, being confident that we can do anything that is set before us.

"The greatest attribute of a team is a winning mentality."

Do Spurs have one? Are they indeed ready to seize the prizes promised by their high talent and inspired coaching? Or are they the new Arsenal, a team to flirt with success while never commanding it?

We will know a little better on Sunday afternoon, when Pochettino will, no doubt, wonder about his future no less intensely as Wenger regrets so much of the past.

Irish Independent

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