Saturday 18 November 2017

Tottenham dare not tire in pursuit of title

Pochettino's focus on physical pace and power has brought Spurs to the brink of history

‘Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur aren’t talking about the title, but if they were to win at Manchester City today, people would be doing the talking for them’. Photo: Reuters
‘Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur aren’t talking about the title, but if they were to win at Manchester City today, people would be doing the talking for them’. Photo: Reuters

Dion Fanning

When Tottenham Hotspur signed Ilie Dumitrescu in 1994, the Romanian asked the club's manager Ossie Ardiles when Spurs had last won the league. Ardiles, of course, was part of the club's history. He understood the traditions and would be able to explain to Dumitrescu about the double-winning side of 1961, and the visionary Arthur Rowe who led Tottenham to their first league championship ten years earlier. "I couldn't tell him," Ardiles said, before making a point that these triumphs would have to be part of the future, not just the distant past.

A few months later, Ardiles was out of job. His 'famous five' forward line of Jurgen Klinsmann, Teddy Sheringham, Dumitrescu, Darren Anderton and Nick Barmby was one final adventurous play before Tottenham again embarked on a new direction.

For years, Spurs have been striving to be a side that lives up to its history, even if the history is now more distant. Unlike other once-great clubs, Tottenham retain some advantages. They are based in London, they can generate revenue and they can still attract players of a certain rank.

There have been moments, particularly under Martin Jol and Harry Redknapp, when Tottenham appeared to be ready to make the great leap forward, only for them to be undermined by forces beyond their control, even if they all seemed to fall into the category of 'Lads, it's Tottenham', which was Alex Ferguson's pre-match address to Manchester United before the clubs played as recalled by Roy Keane.

The message was that Tottenham always found a way to self-destruct, whether it was food poisoning in 2006 or doing nothing wrong at all in 2012 but being denied a Champions League place when Chelsea won the competition.

Spurs have been viewed with suspicion for 40 years by the brutal realists who have dominated English football, but that is changing.

Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur aren't talking about the title, but if they were to win at Manchester City today, people would be doing the talking for them. Pochettino's Spurs have already jettisoned Tottenham's old image and the manager would probably be a better choice for Manchester United than Jose Mourinho.

But he can achieve greatness at Tottenham. Last week Quique Sanchez Flores talked about Spurs being "like animals" as they hunted for the ball. While there may be a danger of fetishising the physical efforts Spurs make in a game, there are no doubts about their approach or what Pochettino demands.

"We're covering more distance than teams, we're able to press teams and not give them a moment on the ball," Tottenham's Welsh full-back Ben Davies said last week. "That's not just for 20-30 minutes, that's throughout the whole game. The amount of goals and way we play towards the end of games really does show with the fitness, and as players you're able to keep going for longer."

This has always been Pochettino's way. Last week, he was asked what animal he would like his players to become on the field, but there have been times when some of them felt like they were being treated like beasts. "At times you want to kill him, simply because he makes you suffer like a dog," Dani Osvaldo said once of the coach he worked with at Espanyol and Southampton. "But in the end you get the right results."

Davies signed for Spurs from Swansea City two years ago. He says that when he returns to Wales, he tells his international team-mates about the work Tottenham do and they can't comprehend it.

There weren't any routines which shocked them. Instead they were stunned by the relentlessness of the demands. "It's not so much drills or exercises," Davies says. "It's more days off, where we don't seem to get hardly any, and they have quite a lot. It can be about having a few nice days off or be about doing well at the end of the season, I know what we prefer."

For the second week in a row, Manchester City will face a side whose approach contrasts sharply with their own. If Leicester City's team ethos exposed fault lines in Manuel Pellegrini's side, Tottenham's attitude has already been too much for them.

In September, Spurs beat City 4-1 at White Hart Lane, a game which demonstrated the Tottenham way under Pochettino. This season, 'Lads, it's Tottenham' means something else, it means an afternoon of torment without a moment's peace.

They have improved since that game as well. Harry Kane scored his first goal of the season for Spurs in the victory. It took him another month to get his next league goal, but that hat-trick against Bournemouth got him going and now he has 15 league goals, while Dele Alli's talents have suggested he is heading towards greatness.

Yet Davies was a central figure in their victory against Watford last week, dominating the game from full-back, doing all that Pochettino demands from a player in that position, even if he demands much from players in every position.

The training sessions are "tough" initially, Davies says, but they allow Spurs to perform in the aggressive way that Pochettino demands, hustling to win the ball back within seconds of losing it.

There are differences in their approach, but Leicester City share these energy levels, suggesting that English football is about to embrace a new fad, replacing the idea of possession percentages with data on distance run and sprints made.

For some, this will mean losing sight of the primary goal or running when they should be standing still, but for Tottenham under Pochettino, there is a clear objective, even if they may not have expected to be challenging for the title this season.

For romantics, the idea of Spurs winning the league would have been seductive before Leicester came along. If Claudio Ranieri's challenge has been built on a core group of players, Tottenham have more competition for places and that has increased the intensity.

"It's definitely made us all better players, really," Davies says. "It means competition and it keeps you on your toes every day in training. There's no slacking, otherwise you're not going to be in the team."

They will need their squad as the Europa League resumes this week but nobody at Tottenham will show any weariness for fear that Pochettino will replace them with somebody with more energy. Davies understands what that means. "Don't be tired," he says.

Tottenham have the energy, but the remaining games will see if they can free themselves from their history. Don't be tired, Davies says, but don't look back could be an important message as well.

Manchester City v Tottenham

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