Saturday 17 March 2018

Pochettino fitness regime spurs Kane to new heights

Gareth Southgate: ‘You could see right from the start in training that Harry Kane’s finishing was deadly’. Photo: Getty Images
Gareth Southgate: ‘You could see right from the start in training that Harry Kane’s finishing was deadly’. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Wilson

Gareth Southgate believes England can profit from the fitness regime Mauricio Pochettino has introduced at Tottenham, with all the Spurs players in the national squad showing marked improvements in strength and stamina over the past couple of years. Until now the Argentinian's major contribution to England World Cup hopes was to leave his left leg dangling for Michael Owen to trip over in Sapporo in 2002, but Southgate insists his training methods speak for themselves.

Even when Pochettino was at Southampton, who also employed his present assistant, Jesús Pérez, Southgate noticed the Saints players in his under 21 squads showed similar fitness gains.

"Mauricio and Jesús are on to something," Southgate says as he prepares for the internationals against Slovenia and Lithuania. "We see a definite difference in their players' fitness levels. It's what allows them to play the pressing game they like to play. It was the same with Southampton, you could see the impact on the players from their club training."

That is one of the reasons, Southgate feels, why Harry Kane is presently sweeping all before him, with another two goals yesterday to add to his remarkable tally of 12 in Tottenham's last six away matches. Southgate has known the player for a while, though at under 21 level he generally preferred Saido Berahino, because until Pochettino arrived at Spurs Kane was not the prominent figure he has since become.

"At the time Berahino was outstanding for us, he scored goals immediately," the England manager explains. "We quickly took a view that because he was playing regularly for West Brom and dealing with Premier League football that he was our best striking option.

"Harry was not playing so often for Spurs and missed a couple of England camps with injury, though you could see right from the start in training that his finishing was deadly. The quality he was showing in front of goal took me back to watching Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler or Paul Scholes. We still wanted to know whether he could transfer that into matches, then he got his chance at Spurs under Tim Sherwood."

Southgate reckons the biggest change since then has been physical, with a stronger Kane growing into the role as line leader and gaining confidence from a series of impressive performances. "I think you can see the conditioning work they do at Spurs has improved the team and Harry has benefited from that," he says.

"He now looks strong, lean, a little bit quicker and sharper. When we played France he was up against some world-class defenders and he was running in behind them and along the sides as well as being strong and clever. That then has an effect on your mentality. If you know you are in good physical condition then mentally you are in a better place."

This is all very well, though the downside for England should they reach the tournament in Russia next summer is that over the course of a season Pochettino's demands on his players could add up to exhaustion. Kane might look the very model of a fit and focused striker at the moment, but with England at Euro 2016 he looked tired, a mere shadow of his present self.

While Southgate would not be the first England manager to grapple with the problem of jaded players at summer tournaments, he sees no reason to be unduly pessimistic at this stage. "I think Spurs signing Fernando Llorente will take some of the weight off Harry," he says. "The other night in Europe they were able to take Harry off with 20 minutes to go. Those latter stages of games are the ones that can have a real physical impact when you add them up. But I know what it is like to play in tournaments, I know what it is like to play 45 or 50 games in a season.

"I can't say I am a huge believer in burnout. I think you can be mentally fatigued, but physically it's about getting the right level of training, the appropriate stimulus to make sure people are ready. We should have enough expertise to get the players to the best possible level. It will require all the players to be looking after themselves right, but somebody like Harry will do that anyway. He is already willing to do whatever it takes to give himself the best chance. He's meticulous about his diet and meticulous about the way he recovers from games."

Despite England's poor record in recent tournaments - the main factor in being overtaken by Wales in FIFA's world rankings - Southgate is undaunted by the task ahead should England qualify for a place at the finals in the next few days. "We are not short of areas we think we can improve," he says. "We see masses of opportunities for development of individuals and the team.

"Our job is to analyse why we haven't done well and work out how to get better, and there's plenty for us to work on. What I know from my own experience is that when you reach the end of the season everyone is in a different place. Some will have only played 20 games and be quite fresh, others might have played 50 or more and need handling differently.

"We will have to pay attention to individual situations and I agree with Fifa about a mandatory rest period at the end of the domestic season, even if it is only a week long. There needs to be some sort of mental switch-off from club football before a tournament, but even then you have to be careful because there is a danger that you might tail off too much and then not be able to get back."


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