People are scared of Tottenham Hotspur. The club’s win against seemingly champions-elect Chelsea on Wednesday night sent shockwaves through English football, with Mauricio Pochettino’s men not only showing that Antonio Conte’s expertly balanced team was not infallible but also staking a serious claim to the title themselves. Tottenham may be seven points behind the leaders, but the fear factor they have established in recent weeks could prove fateful in bridging that gap.
Pochettino was deservedly the subject of numerous column inches praising him and his team for the nullification of Chelsea, which until Wendesday night had shown no sign of being undone. The Argentine’s decision to use a back three was crucial to Tottenham’s success, but praise for Pochettino should go much further—he has presided over a Spurs team which on its day offers the greatest intensity and poise to be seen in the Premier League.
To say that Pochettino has moulded this team would ignore the very fundamentals of why he has made a success of the job Daniel Levy handed to him in the summer of 2014. The final season before the start of the Pochettino reign was one many Spurs fans would like to forget. A sixth place finish papered over the cracks of a season in which consecutive managers failed to unlock the potential of new signings and established players alike. Spurs looked bereft of energy and relied heavily on the unpredictable form of Christian Eriksen and Emmanuel Adebayor.
Since taking the job, Pochettino sought to unleash the potential of his group of players, knowing that not only would Spurs start playing better, but they would become a much more unpredictable outfit. Their most recent win provides enough evidence that he has succeeded. Phenomenal individual performances all over the pitch contributed to a team effort that is quickly becoming the hallmark of a Pochettino-managed team.
Whereas previous managers may have consigned certain players to certain roles and contributions, it is evident that Pochettino picks his team knowing that key duties will be performed by his players playing to their own individual strengths. This has resulted in the actual tactical roles played by many of his attackers being difficult to establish, as Pochettino himself refuses to pigeonhole his players.
Dele Alli is the prime example of this. Lauded in recent weeks for an impressive goalscoring run, Pochettino’s description of the 20-year-old as a “wild horse” is telling. Alli plays no specific tactical role. He fits in as almost a second striker alongside Harry Kane, roams wide frequently, goes hunting for possession in deeper midfield areas and—most importantly for Spurs—pops up in goalscoring areas undetected. The fact that he was able to score two almost identical headed goals on Wednesday against the league’s most organised defence is a testament to his elusive existence.
The man who crossed exquisitely for both of Alli’s goals has similar freedom. Christian Eriksen broke into the Danish national team as an 18-year-old destined to become a fantastic no.10. While many would say he now fits that description, it would be lazy to consign him to such a narrow playmaking role. He does not play the amount of defence-splitting passes as a genuine number ten, but instead orchestrates from a much earlier stage in build-up play.
Described this week by his own manager as “the brain” of Tottenham’s attack, Eriksen prefers to mould his attacks through short passes and darting runs into space. When in form, he regularly picks the ball up both deep in his own half and in the final third, creating space for himself and others with his passing and movement, whilst at the same time moving opposition midfielders to where he wants them. He is more reminiscent of Argentine Juan Roman Riquelme than most other modern playmakers. Once again, it is the freedom of Pochettino’s system which allows him to flourish. That he totally eluded Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante was telling of the liberty the Dane has to operate all over the pitch and how difficult this can be to trace.
These are just two of the men Pochettino has liberated. The same could be said of Harry Kane, who contributes to too many sequences of play to be called simply a poacher or target man; Moussa Sissoko, who has been playing as a wide target man cum winger; and Son Heung-Min.
By letting his players do what naturally comes to them, Pochettino removes the indecision which may have previously clouded these players’ judgement, and which was certainly visible when the team’s form fell off in November and early December. While this may sound somewhat casual and laissez-faire, it mustn’t be forgotten that meticulous defensive organisation provides the stage for Spurs’ attackers, for it is probably in central defence where Spurs have improved most in the past two years.
Wednesday’s win has everybody talking about Tottenham and their manager. They got it right on the night. However, this should come as no surprise. Spurs have become a tougher and tougher opposition ever since the commencement of Mauricio Pochettino’s project. This project gives his side attacking authenticity, which more often than not proves unpredictable, difficult to prepare for and difficult to stop. Until someone picks the lock of trust Pochettino has in his players, they will continue to be an outfit that teams fall victim to.