Sunday 25 February 2018

Pochettino will be keen to show Old Trafford his special qualities

Many at United feel the Spurs boss would have been the better choice ahead of Mourinho

Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane shoots at goal against CSKA Moscow. Photo: Reuters
Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane shoots at goal against CSKA Moscow. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

In his chaotic last few months at Stamford Bridge, some of the Chelsea players expressed particular surprise at one aspect of Jose Mourinho's management, and they are sentiments that have been echoed in his uncertain first few months at Manchester United.

That was that the Portuguese - a famously hands-on coach widely respected for his drills - was spending less time on the training ground than they expected. There was one week, however, when that was completely different. It was when Chelsea were set to play Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane at the end of November 2015.

Suddenly Mourinho was immersed again, giving impressively insightful and detailed instructions to the players. And those players were engaged, as well as prepared. Those close to the Chelsea squad say Mourinho felt that was especially necessary against an improving Spurs, because his side might have otherwise faced another beating in one of their most heated derbies. He was impressed with what Tottenham were doing, and this was well before it became properly apparent they were to be title challengers. Mourinho had recognised something in Mauricio Pochettino.

He was not the only one. At the same time Mourinho was being manoeuvred to replace Louis van Gaal as United manager last spring, some among the Old Trafford hierarchy felt they should be looking at Pochettino. Alex Ferguson was telling people at private parties that the Argentine is "the best manager in the Premier League", and that was months before organising a much-discussed dinner with the Spurs boss at the end of the season. Joint owner Joel Glazer is also a huge admirer.

Pochettino seems to adhere to so many United ideals, from his promotion of youth to his proactive football, with the added bonus of how he has done so by maximising a relatively meagre budget. He has significantly overachieved at Tottenham relative to their resources, and it all informs questions that underlie today's match at Old Trafford.

Should United have tried to go for Pochettino rather than Mourinho last season? Should Pochettino now be the manager of the club? Is he now a better manager than Mourinho?

The debate is sharpened by a lot of other angles, like whether United are a club now behind the times and just reacting to the opposition - in the way Mourinho's appointment was supposedly a direct response to Manchester City hiring Pep Guardiola - rather than one trying to innovate and get ahead of the game in the way Ferguson did. It also distils the challenge for Mourinho today.

He badly needs to beat Spurs to banish such debates, to re-assert his authority and aura, and also to bury a more troubling recent trend.

Going by the Premier League table leading into this weekend, it is over a year since Mourinho has beaten a side above 10th in the table. That was an Arsenal team on September 19, 2015, who already had a complex about the Portuguese as a manager and Chelsea as a club. Since then, the list of teams he's defeated in the league isn't exactly terrifying: Aston Villa, Norwich City, Bournemouth, Southampton, Leicester City and Swansea City. There's also the fact that he hasn't won two matches in a row in any competition since beating Northampton and Leicester in September, with all that firing so much debate about the effectiveness of his approach in the modern game.

That is why beating Spurs would be such a big win for Mourinho, bringing together many recent questions and smashing them in what could be a juncture moment as he finally offers a true 'statement win' in his brief time at United. It's huge for United in that sense.

Problem is it would be equally meaningful for Pochettino, and that goes for reasons way beyond making a sales pitch for the Old Trafford job in the future. It's also about starting to show he can really build, really take things to the next level.

Because up until the last week, it didn't seem like he was going to build on last season at Spurs. The team had a horror October and November that saw them eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage, and seemed to hobble any chance of a repeat of last season's title challenge.

It did slightly foster the sense that, so far in Pochettino's career, he has only taken teams so far but no further. This is not to say he isn't an excellent manager with supreme potential but, to really warrant a job like Manchester United, you've probably got to crown so much overperformance with a truly outstanding, odds-defying overachievement. That is what Ferguson himself did with Aberdeen, that is what Mourinho did with Porto, and that is not what David Moyes did.

That is what Pochettino has not done yet either, despite generally doing very well.

He still hasn't won a trophy, and in fact lost his only final - the 2015 League Cup - to Mourinho himself in what was arguably the Portuguese's last big statement victory.

He still didn't win the league, as Tottenham's initially impressive surge badly buckled three games from the end.

He still hasn't finished above Arsenal, as his team humiliatingly caved in on the last day at relegated Newcastle United.

He still couldn't get the team out of their Champions League group, despite ending a six-year qualification drought.

In some senses, it feels like Pochettino's career is a reflection of his tactical ideal on how to play the game. The two are probably connected. In the majority of games, Pochettino's teams play brilliantly eye-catching pressing football, pounding opposition sides back into their own area until they look set to collapse - but they only rarely do.

There are so many matches when Spurs 'batter' a team a mere 1-0; when they dominate everything but still only score one goal. It is often as if they ratchet up the intensity to such an extent, but forget about the necessary incision. With the way they play, the ball tends to pinball around the box so dangerously, but without the poise or extra nuance to drive it home.

This is also where Harry Kane is key. He provides that nuance. In a Tottenham team where everyone is running at such a high tempo around the box, the striker so often provides the more thoughtful run to suddenly arrive from nowhere and put the ball home.

It is not a coincidence that Kane was missing for the majority of October and November when Spurs struggled, seemingly unable to score. The striker's injury is not the only caveat, though.

Tottenham remain one of the youngest squads in the league, and the one trait that young talent usually has to develop above any others is the type of mentality that brings consistency. It was always going to be difficult for a team of such inexperience to weather a title run-in as eventful - and traumatic - as last season and stay on the same level.

Even Ferguson's first title run-in at United ended with a bottle-job in 1991-92, and they didn't start the 1992-93 season well. They were seventh in the table and had just 27 points from 17 games before Eric Cantona made his debut on December 6, 1993, and changed everything.

Pochettino, to his credit, has also tried to change things enough at Tottenham to jolt something out of the team. He has regularly tinkered with the formation without Kane and, although some Spurs players have struggled with that, it has been a necessity to adapt.

It hasn't helped, either, that some new signings have also struggled. Vincent Janssen has added absolutely nothing other than penalties to the point that Kane's notional stand-in was dropped against Bayer Leverkusen for a game Kane couldn't play in, while Pochettino has publicly discussed Moussa Sissoko's struggles.

That is a further problem when Spurs are so financially constrained with the construction of a new stadium, and they can't carry the struggles of any new signings in the way, say, United can.

The point is Pochettino is obviously still doing a fine job, even just on the basis of this season's four months alone. He still has them six points ahead of Mourinho's United going into this game. 
In that regard, it remains intriguing to think what Pochettino would be doing had he been given the Old Trafford job. Would the side have more energy? What type of players would he have signed with a greater budget and more attractive club? How would more established and experienced players respond to the Argentine's relentlessly demanding approach? Like Louis van Gaal, does he need young players?

United did provide plenty of young players too, and it's difficult not to feel that, even allowing for some flaws, Pochettino's modern pressing game is more sophisticated than Mourinho's attacking style that remains so close to the approach he was using when he first came to England in 2004. The game has changed and evolved since then, and that fires so much of this entire debate. It is also why this game at Old Trafford has so much meaning.

If Pochettino wins, it would emphasise a point to United: that it would be a massive mistake to conclude too much from the last few months. And it would illustrate that he is still building this season.

If Mourinho wins, it would emphasise a point to everyone else: that it would be a massive mistake to conclude too much from the chaotic last year. And it would illustrate that he is still at the top;

Victory would make a statement for either manager, but remember the result last November: 0-0.

A repeat wouldn't be bad for either, but it wouldn't be what they really need.

  • Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur, Sky Sports 1, 2.15

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