BY CHRIS CLARK
When Mauricio Pochettino arrived from Southampton in May 2014, Spurs had disengaged themselves from their supporters after a disastrous 2013-2014 campaign. By the time season 2014-2015 had finished, Spurs fans had fallen back in love with the club and the credit for that should rightly go to Pochettino, but how did he manage that during his first season in charge?
2013-2014 was an awful season for Spurs. In that pre-season they sold one of the best players in the world (Gareth Bale), and spent the money injudiciously on overseas imports who 1) took time to adapt to the Premier League and 2) were never going to adjust to the Premier League. Under Andre Villas Boas formation of one up front, Roberto Soldado floundered, and during his time with Spurs, has never recovered. Other expensive imports – Paulinho and Erik Lamela for example – have struggled with the fast pace of the Premier League. Consequently, AVB ended up getting sacked in December 2013, after another heavy defeat against a top 4 rival. He was replaced by Tim Sherwood, initially on a caretaker basis. Humility is not in Sherwood’s vocabulary; he antagonised the Spurs fans with his pre and post-match comments, when he based everything around himself and manufactured situations to his personal gain.
The Tottenham Hotspur football club Mauricio Pochettino walked into during the pre-season of 2014/2015 was far removed from the Spurs side which contained Ledley King, Luka Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale only a few years previously. Pochettino was in charge of a bloated squad that was still lacking strength in key areas of the pitch, due to the constant buy/sell tactics of the board. Pochettino looked to rectify this by trying to bring in Morgan Schneiderlin from his old club Southampton, and Mateo Mussachio a tough Argentine centre back from Villarreal. However, Pochettino was quick to learn that the chairman Daniel Levy has a set price for players and he will not be wavered from that. So instead of these two quality additions, Spurs bought Federico Fazio from Sevilla – a tall but slow centre back. Was he any improvement on the recently sold Michael Dawson? Highly unlikely. Also joining the squad instead of Schneiderlin was Benjamin Stambouli. Stambouli was a defensive midfielder from Montpellier whose performances throughout the season were mainly restricted to Europa League games.
Expectation amongst Spurs fans and the board is always unrealistic, let’s remember that Spurs have only finished in the top 4 twice in the Premier League era. However, with an edict driven from the Chairman that the club must always challenge and aim for the top 4, Pochettino was under scrutiny from day one. Pochettino’s Southampton were well known for their pressing and intensity, but this cannot be over-achieved overnight, it takes months of practice on the training pitch and also time to identify the players who can play this style of football. The early months of the season were sketchy, as Spurs cantered to fine victories over QPR and Pochettino’s former team Southampton, however, during that period there was also heavy defeats at home to Liverpool and away to Manchester City which exposed the limitations of the Argentine’s side. Spurs were struggling to maintain any consistent pressure on the top sides as the two front men Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor were not up to the task of holding the ball up and working hard for the team. Meanwhile in the Europa League and Capital One Cup, Harry Kane was scoring goals for fun. He was bullying the opposition and taking his chances. It’s easy to say it was like watching a fan play, but that enthusiasm and desire to do well for the team had not been seen in a Tottenham forward for a number of years. One game during the Europa League summed Harry Kane up. He scored a hat-trick against Asteras Tripolis, ended up in goal, and let in a soft free kick. The fans lapped it up. Whilst Spurs were inconsistent in the League, the European games were great fun, mainly because a young English centre forward was bulldozing his way through games.
As the early months of the season passed, Pochettino began weeding out the players who could not play his desired high tempo style of play. Players such as Etienne Capoue and Paulinho were jettisoned and replaced by Ryan Mason, who showed a willingness to work for the team that the previous two had failed to do. Joining him in centre midfield was Nabil Bentaleb, who had improved greatly as a player; his World Cup experience with Algeria being a major factor. These two formed a midfield partnership for the rest of the season, which was as unexpected as it was effective.
All Spurs required was a spearhead and slowly but surely Harry Kane was given his chance. He scored a last minute winner at Aston Villa, via a deflected free kick. Spurs players celebrated like they had won the cup in front of their travelling fans. Over the top yes, but necessary to get the fans back on board.
With Kane’s irrepressible form leading to him start more games, the enigmatic Dane Christian Eriksen started improving. He finally had someone he could link up with and Eriksen went on a run of games in which he always seemed to pop up with a last minute winner. Spurs were pinching games with these late goals; were Pochettino’s training methods slowly beginning to show on match days? You could argue that from November 30th to February 28th, Spurs were at peak-Pochettino. The high intensity, all action style of play garnered impressive victories over local rivals, Chelsea (5-3, in arguably the game of the Premier League season) and Arsenal (2-1). This youthful Tottenham side had an identity, the early season disillusionment had gone. Tottenham were a joy to watch for those months, even in a narrow defeat away to Liverpool, there were still positives to take from the performance. During this period, Spurs progressed to their first domestic cup final since 2009 and faced Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. However, Jose had learnt his lesson from the 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day and he knew the threat Tottenham that could pose. Tactically, Mourinho was spot on in the final; Chelsea kept Spurs at arm’s length and sauntered to a comfortable victory. It was disappointing on the day, but Spurs learnt more that day in defeat than they would in victory and just getting there was an achievement in itself.
The players had run through walls for 3 months, and it was inevitable that the season would tail off after that. Pochettino only had around 15/16 players he could trust to play his brand of football out of a squad of 25. One of the most badly affected was Christian Eriksen who was having an excellent season up to that point, combining work rate with flair. However, during the last few months of the season he ended up a shadow of the player he was.
It can be argued that Pochettino’s side petered out like his compatriot Marcelo Bielsa’s sides often do. Both coaches rely on a squad of super-fit and technically gifted players. Pochettino does not currently have that at Spurs, but if backed over the coming months, next season Spurs might be able to press for the whole season.
Overall though, Spurs should look back at this season with a sense of overachievement. Given the negativity that was swirling around the club for the opening months of the season, the good run in the League Cup and Europe, the fifth place finish this should be seen as success.
Pochettino has improved players who were derided by Spurs fans for a variety of reasons, and now they are vital cogs in the first team. Danny Rose has come on leaps and bounds, Nabil Bentaleb is an astute all action midfielder and whilst credit for Harry Kane’s emergence has to lie initially with the player, Pochettino’s coaching and encouragement should not be overlooked.
Over the summer, Pochettino now has the knowledge of who, and who cannot, play his brand of football and with the club operating in the £5-£15million market of buying young and cost effectively, Spurs – after years of aiming for a fanciful – top 4 finish, have stumbled upon a plan to back a manager with a youthful side to maintain it’s current position in the top six of the league, until the new stadium is finally in place in season 2018/2019.
Spurs fans should be positive about the future and the club appear to have become aware of its place in the Premier League hierarchy. In the past, when Spurs have finished 4th, Chelsea were struggling under previous managers, which now seems inconceivable under Mourinho. Manchester City were direct competition, as the Arab millions had not taken effect fully on their side. Manchester United now have a world class manager, who is being backed with the riches one of the wealthiest clubs in the world can give. Meanwhile, the other lot in North London are reaping the benefits of having a new stadium and are able to sign a marquee player every summer. Things have changed, and whilst the immediate future may seem more 5th/6th place finishes and the Europa League, it is being done with youthful players, with a manager who can motivate and improve the side.
If Spurs stick to this plan, then there is no reason why Spurs under Pochettino cannot be a force to be reckoned with when the new stadium is ready before the end of the decade.