Wednesday 21 February 2018

Well-matched duo embrace challenge of catching superpowers

Today’s visit of Liverpool is the start of a daunting run of seven games in a month for Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham side Photo: AP
Today’s visit of Liverpool is the start of a daunting run of seven games in a month for Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham side Photo: AP

Barney Ronay

Mauricio Pochettino loves a hug. The pre-match handshake may be no more than a glazed formality for most Premier League managers.

But not for Pochettino who, when he gives himself, gives himself completely and who has taken the Poch-hug to new and ever-manlier levels in his four years in England, from simple chest-bump to full-blown neck-fondling embrace. What seems certain is that Jurgen Klopp will get something from the most fraternal end of the scale when Tottenham and Liverpool meet at Wembley today.

Not only do Pochettino and Klopp appear genuinely to like one another, they also have plenty in common. Both favour a high pressure, hard-running style. Both are affectionate, occasionally exasperated Anglophiles. And both are tasked with managing clubs where the day-to-day businesses of preparation and performance are undercut at all times by constant ambient interference.

Managing Liverpool will always involve managing the past, being measured against the ghost Liverpool, at least until the next red-shirted empire is built. To take charge of Spurs is to be dogged by something more understated, defying the muscle memory of a club where even in the good times expectations are undercut by a distinct home-grown fatalism.

It has been a good week for Pochettino in this regard. The idea Tottenham will naturally struggle to win at Wembley has been eased by a first league victory, against Bournemouth, and a third home-from-home clean sheet in a row. The idea Spurs will naturally plateau out, struggling to maintain that hard-pressing style against better teams, has been undercut by a commendable draw at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night.

Pochettino had already talked about the need to find variations within his tactical scheme. Last season Spurs pressed Manchester City so high up the pitch the game was bizarrely split, like the distant units of a hurling match.

In Madrid, Tottenham were the opposite, notably deep and compact, the back three flattened into a back five. It worked. The product of endless, cajoling drills on the fields of Enfield, it looked effortless in practice.

At the end of which a Premier League date with Liverpool this afternoon is a significant hurdle, against opponents Spurs have failed to beat in their last 10 attempts. More than this it feels like a meeting of minds, two clubs engaged in a similar business of aspirational reinvention.

Much will be made of the coincidence that pits Klopp against his first opponents as Liverpool manager almost exactly two years on from his arrival. But Spurs-Liverpool is significant for more interesting reasons. These are two well-matched clubs. They have for the last few seasons occupied a similar middle ground wedged in between the spendthrift elite, hopeful cruiserweights always looking to find the right combination of coaching and recruitment to launch a grappling hook across the divide.

Both have wealthy but not obsessively generous owners. Both have worked around the construction of a commercially vital new stadium infrastructure on the same historic site. Both have managers prized elsewhere but for now hugely engaged in their current project.

Given the similarities in scale and ambition it seems odd to think that three seasons ago Liverpool beat Spurs 9-0 on aggregate home and away in the Premier League. The second of those games, a 4-0 cuffing at Anfield in March, was an eighth league win in a row for Liverpool that put them top of the Premier League.

Few would have expected that day, as Spurs' defenders took it in turns to fall over, run the wrong way and generally collapse in front of a rampant attack, that it would be the 9-0 whipping boys who would edge ahead from there. Two months after that defeat Pochettino arrived at Spurs and Luis Suarez departed Liverpool, and in the three seasons since Spurs have finished above Liverpool every time.

But then, this has been the story of both these clubs, a feeling of gears forever being crunched, assorted mini-eras launched and junked. Stick a pin in it and whatever you hit is likely to resemble some kind of turning point. Those twin Liverpool thrashings in 2013-'14 were a junction point in so many careers they could probably be teased out into their own overblown, six-part Netflix documentary series.

For a start Liverpool managed to take out not one but two Spurs managers that season. The 4-0 at Anfield was the moment it became clear that Tim Sherwood's time was done. Andre Villas-Boas was sacked the day after the 5-0 Liverpool thrashing at White Hart Lane, a defeat that was in many ways the conception of the current Spurs team.

Five products of the post-Bale splurge - Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Roberto Soldado - started, all of whom apart from Eriksen have left. A month later Harry Kane scored his first Premier League goal. Two months after that Pochettino arrived from Southampton. The same summer Eric Dier turned up, followed one window later by Dele Alli, the pair costing a combined £9m.

And really this has been the difference in three-and-a-half years since. Helped by that golden seam of smart recruitment, Pochettino has dug his fingers deep into every aspect of the club, a restless eye for detail that has helped shape both the club's new-build infrastructure and the blooming of the first team.

Klopp's task in his two seasons to date has been to achieve something similar, albeit not from a standing start. Such is football's furiously binary value system that offering Brendan Rodgers any credit is likely to meet with a sneer of derision.

But the fact is five members of that 5-0 team are still in the first-team squad and Klopp has spoken warmly of the culture and personnel he would inherit 18 months on. Liverpool did look like a red-shirted version of Poch-era Spurs that day: a mix of home-growns, clever buys and one world-class striker, en route to their widely-lauded runners-up spot.

Right now the balance of power is pretty even. Both top their Champions League groups, a serious point of progress in itself. Victory at Wembley would take Liverpool to within a point of Spurs in the Premier League.

The game itself will surely be another bruising, high-tempo affair, with Kane and Eriksen likely to apply a more sustained surgical pressure to the Liverpool defence than Manchester United mustered last Saturday.

It is the start for Tottenham of a daunting run of seven games in a month, five of which are against Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. In the past they might have shrunk from such a season-defining seam of fixtures. For Pochettino, it will be just another moment to be embraced.

Observer

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