Sunday 18 February 2018

Keepers key to glorious chaos and the effective pinball play

Premier League's best defence and best attack clash for a thrilling physical encounter

Pep Guardiola cites Mauricio Pochettino’s physicality tactics at Espanyol as the most ‘complicated’ games he faced during his four years at Barcelona. Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters
Pep Guardiola cites Mauricio Pochettino’s physicality tactics at Espanyol as the most ‘complicated’ games he faced during his four years at Barcelona. Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters

Miguel Delaney

It's Friday afternoon at Tottenham Hotspur's Enfield training base and, in an idle moment, Mauricio Pochettino is shown a clip of one of his derby matches as an Espanyol player against Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. It is an incident with another Camp Nou star, though, that stands out. At one point in that 1997 game, the original Ronaldo is surging forward, only to be met with the full force of an infamous Pochettino challenge. The Spurs boss can't help smiling as he watches, and even gets a little lost in the moment. He does a little kicking motion when the tackle is replayed, and is still chuckling about it as he walks up the stairs with assistant Jesus Perez.

This isn't to say that Manchester City's attackers will be in for that treatment at White Hart Lane this afternoon, but it does sum up a big difference between two ideologically similar managers, and could yet make a big difference to the season.

Today's match is not just the meeting of the current top two going into this weekend. It is also a meeting between the Premier League's best defence so far and best attack. In six games, Spurs have conceded three, while City have scored 18. You couldn't get a more basic representation of the fact one was a physically abrasive defender for the defiant second team in a city, and the other was the main midfield creator for the same city's global mega-club.

At Barcelona, Guardiola used to specifically warn his players about the physicality of Pochettino's Espanyol, and the Argentine has recreated that at Spurs with a first XI full of six-footers that fill that robust defence. Those are still mere external contrasts, however, that cover the real reasons Guardiola used to describe those games as the most "complicated" of his four years at Camp Nou; and that could well make today the first time City drop points in the league. It will certainly be a different challenge to what they've faced so far, but that's because it's so familiar to their manager.

Espanyol used to make life so difficult for Guardiola's side over nine matches between 2009 and 2012 because Pochettino was so surprisingly willing to do to Barca what Barca did to everyone else. He got his side to press very high, hounding them. It was at that point unthinkable to leave yourself so open against an attack featuring Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta with such inferior opposition, but Pochettino made it effective, and inflicted Guardiola's first home league defeat. It didn't always work against that kind of wonder, like when Barca pummelled them 5-1. Even around then, though, Guardiola praised Pochettino. "There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you. Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football."

That is probably because they were very close in their football upbringing, with both being influence by high priests of pressing in - Johan Cruyff and Marcelo Bielsa. It is a history that could make today a hysterically thrilling match, and possibly the most unrelenting of the season. It is in neither manager's nature to have their sides sit back. Both demand their attacks harass the opposition, to do everything on the front foot.

What makes this match especially tantalising, though, is that they have similar ideas about what should be done at the back.

Guardiola has never had any doubt about the need for a ball-playing goalkeeper like Claudio Bravo to facilitate his football -first telling the City hierarchy he wanted one in January - but Pochettino must have been watching all that furore with a smirk. He sees Hugo Lloris in an almost identical way, as the source of every attack. "The goalkeeper is a very important function." In video sessions, Pochettino has explained how a team's most important pass is the goalkeeper's. If he plays the right one, two opposition attackers can be drawn to the defender on the ball, space is opened, and the side can tear up the pitch. Pochettino cites the third strike in Spurs' 3-1 win over Aston Villa last November as his "ideal goal". The ball went from Lloris's boot to Harry Kane's in six slick passes, and then into the corner of the net.

Guardiola comes from a different perspective, and that is where there is a deviation in interpretation. From his time at Barca, the City boss believes in "the 15-pass rule". The idea is that a team cannot possibly construct a choreographed attack of their own, or cope with counters, until they have played 15 passes to gradually get into their optimum shape. Then, they unravel you.

It is likely this feeds into their difference in goal stats, and it is tempting to say that contrast is further conditioned by their differences in football background. Pochettino's stripped-down direct football might of the type that comes from a student who had to hone his own limited ability in more testing surroundings, while Guardiola's technique-indulging play is that of the naturally gifted who received an education at one of the most prestigious learning institutes in the game at Barcelona. The Catalan encourages imagination, while Pochettino demands you impose yourself.

Whatever happens from that collision of core beliefs, the relevant point is that this is going to be a game where goalkeepers who are charged with patiently build all play will be up against attackers expected to impatiently close them down. That premium on time and space could force the kind of concentration and focus that lifts everyone up to technically exquisite levels, or it could make for glorious chaos and effective pinball.

Who would that suit? Pochettino's explosive game or Guardiola's expansive one.

Relevantly, the Spurs boss believes a failure to adhere to his ideas cost them the title last season - but not in the infamous 2-2 draw with Chelsea. It was instead the game before, when they were 1-0 up against West Brom and could still have closed the gap on Leicester City.

Spurs were rampant in the first half, doing everything right - except taking their chances. In the second, though, Pochettino noticed that something changed psychologically. A hesitation and anxiety afflicted their play. The backline and defensive midfielders stopped wanting the ball, leaving Lloris no option but to kick it long to Harry Kane. That was perfect for a side like West Brom, who eventually got the equaliser.

That is also why he said on the eve of the season that the only remaining barrier for this team is mental. Despite so much change elsewhere - and particularly the arrival of Guardiola - Pochettino is said to privately believe they can rectify that to win the league this season.

This match will tell a lot. If City win, it will be in-keeping with the season, and continue their glide. If Spurs win, it will make everything that bit more complicated.

  • Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City: Sky Sports 1, 2.15pm

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