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A Year In, And The Pochettino Era Has Only Just Begun

It has taken a while, but the Mauricio Pochettino philosophy finally appears to be kicking in at Spurs.

For the first time since a strong spell at the beginning of the year, we’ve had a series of consistent performances that have demonstrated the type of football Spurs fans expected when the Argentine coach took over last summer.

Fast, energetic, assertive — the lusty rendition of “Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur” after the 4-1 thrashing of Manchester City showed how welcome the Pochettino way is when executed well.

There is a section of the fanbase at Spurs that have never taken to Pochettino, and I can understand the doubts as the glimpses of the Pochettino philosophy have been fleeting at times.

Since the strong spell at the start of the year, Spurs fell out of Champions League contention, crashed out of the Europa League, lost in the Capital One Cup to John Terry’s Chelsea, embarked on a pointless post-season tour when the players needed rest, messed up pre-season with the Audi Cup just before the opener at Old Trafford, failed to sign an experienced midfielder and second striker in the transfer window, and endured a 12-hour Harry Kane goal drought.

It was enough to test the faith of even the most patient fan, though many of the problems could be laid more at Daniel Levy’s door than the head coach’s.

On Monday Night Football, Gary Neville described the Spurs squad that Pochettino inherited as a “mob” — bad characters who weren’t prepared to put in the effort and who didn’t care about the club. It was pretty damning, but hard to disagree. A year ago, Neville talked about Spurs needing to muck out the stables over the course of several seasons, and I guess there is some credit due to Levy and Franco Baldini that they managed to rid the club of almost all the bad characters by Pochettino’s second year. Safe to say, character will matter in future Spurs transfer dealings just as much as stats.

To see the challenge that has faced Pochettino in finding a team he likes, you only need to look at the odyssey the Argentine has been required to undertake to find the central midfielders capable of executing his game plan.

In his first season, his likely candidates for central midfield slots were Paulinho, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli, Mousa Dembele and Nabil Bentaleb. Fan-favourite Sandro wasn’t up to it physically and was to be shipped out, while Ryan Mason was very much an afterthought despite a couple of decent performances in pre-season.

While Bentaleb showed his good play under Tim Sherwood was no fluke, the rest of the senior contenders failed risibly to take their chances. Perhaps only Stambouli can consider himself unlucky not to have been given more playing time. There was an air of desperation when Mason was thrown on against Nottingham Forest in the Capital One Cup, but he took his chance and even earned an England cap.

Over the summer, it was assumed that Spurs would land a central midfielder of proven quality like Sven Bender or James McCarthy, but nothing materialised. Mason and Bentaleb were the default first-choice partnership, but Mason missed preseason with injury, and Bentaleb started poorly and got hurt. With Paulinho, Capoue and Stambouli sold, and Dembele also injured, against Crystal Palace, Pochettino had to choose two among Eric Dier (a converted centre back), Dele Alli (a 19-year-old), Tom Carroll (who has yet to prove himself at Spurs or in the Premier League) and Harry Winks (who is yet to start for Spurs) in central midfield.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dier and Alli have both performed superbly, with England caps being mooted for the pair of them. Dier’s disciplined and gritty midfield play has given the defence the midfield shield it was crying out for, while Alli’s athleticism and ability to involve himself in key passages of play makes him the perfect fit in the Pochettino system.

Credit must go to Pochettino, for ensuring that when he turned to Dier, Mason and Alli, all of whom were playing slightly away from their natural positions, they were tactically, physically and technically equipped for the job. It’s just good old-fashioned coaching. The same coaching went into Paulinho, say, but he wasn’t up for the challenge.

It will be interesting to see, once Bentaleb and Mason return from injury, whether they are able to win back their starting places. But either way, there appears finally to be a solid rotation of midfield options capable of getting a team playing the Pochettino way.

Expectation in football is never static. Now that the team finally appears to be playing as it should, Spurs fans won’t accept a return to the old style of defensive shoddiness, midfield errors and tedious attacking play.

The test will come for Pochettino when one of his key cogs is unavailable for an extended period. Without Dier, for example, can the defence remain so solid? Without Alli, could the pressing be so intense? Without Harry Kane, can we really score enough to win? News that Son Heung-min has sustained a foot injury suggests that test may be upon Pochettino. The South Korean has been superb since his arrival, and as much as anyone has set the tone in terms of how Spurs should be approaching their football.

But this is a far better problem than the one we had just a few weeks ago — wondering when the team was going to get it, and whether Pochettino was really able to bring the game plan that was so successful at Southampton to White Hart Lane.

It’s taken more than a year, but it feels like the Pochettino era has finally begun.

Charles Richards blogs over at The Spurs Report. Please follow him on Twitter (@crg_yeah) and follow Fresh Spurs (@Fresh_Spurs_) as well.

Qara-who? Five Things To Look Forward To As Spurs Return To Europa League Wilderness

Thursday night marks the start of Tottenham’s annual foray into the existential wilderness that is the Europa League. Our opponents are FK Qarabag, winners of the Azerbaijan Premier League the past two seasons.

FK Qarabag are from the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the South Caucasus, which is a de facto independent state within Azerbaijan. The Horsemen, which fits rather nicely with Spurs I guess, play their home games in the Azerbaijan capital Baku due to conflict.

For pure existential wonderment, we’ll never beat our Europa League group of two years previously. We faced Anzhi Makhachkala, from Dagestan, but had to play them in Moscow as the region wasn’t safe for visiting teams. We had Moldovan powerhouses Sheriff Tiraspol, who are actually from from Transnistria, a state that is not internationally recognised. And we had Norway’s Tromso, which involved a trip to the Arctic Circle on a winter’s night. Baku may be a five-and-a-half hour flight away, and will be freezing in late November, but at least we can get to Brussels by Eurostar and Monaco is civilised no matter the weather.

Oddly, for the first time in several years, I’m looking forward to the Europa League.

While in previous seasons it has been a distraction and an impediment to our quest for Champions League qualification, in this new age of long-term strategy and minimal realistic hope of gate-crashing the Top Four, it feels like a bonus. More watching Spurs for us fans, and a more game time for Mauricio Pochettino to blood our young team.

It’s a bit like on Football Manager, where the Europa League gives you a bunch of easy games which do not matter but enable you to accelerate the development of all the young studs you are bringing through the academy.

So here are five things to look out for on Thursday night:

THE ERIK LAMELA SHOW: As mentioned previously, I predict Lamela to be a mainstay of the Europa League team. If he performs well, it is a route back into the Premier League team as a starter, and failing that, it is essentially an advert for his talents and he can use the competition to ensure he gets a move away from Spurs. Lamela’s rabona was the highlight of a mediocre Europa League campaign last season, but he is just the sort of unpredictable but exciting player who can make things happen against the mediocre opposition that we will face in the group stages. I imagine he will start in the centre on Thursday, with Townsend on one flank and either Son Heung-min or Nacer Chadli on the other. I’d like to see Alex Pritchard given a start, but it seems unlikely.

HARRY KANE HAMSTRING WATCH: Given he is the only out-and-out striker in the squad, one presumes Harry Kane will start up front. It’s not necessarily a bad shout to give him another run-out while he is looking for a Spurs goal. Kane will get a breather eventually, especially if qualification is looking secure. One assumes, Pochettino will like to use the Europa League to test Son and Clinton N’Jie in the striker role. Son showed his talent in flashes against Sunderland but lasted less that an hour, and N’Jie is not yet match-fit. So until then, we’re praying to the hamstring gods that Kane gets through another 90 minutes.

CENTRAL PERKS: Perhaps the most interesting selection will be in central midfield. One assumes, Eric Dier gets a breather as his midfield protection shouldn’t be needed against such lowly opposition, while Ryan Mason is continuing to recover from the knee injury he picked up against Sunderland. Nabil Bentaleb is out for three or four weeks, and Dembele isn’t yet fit. So it will be a raw central midfield — likely Tom Carroll and Harry Winks. I was surprised that Carroll wasn’t sold in the summer as I find him an underwhelming player, but he has one hell of a chance to impress and prove that he has a future at Spurs. He’ll not only have to control the midfield, he’ll also have to lead with someone as inexperienced as Winks alongside him.

INTRODUCING KEVIN WIMMER: The big Austrian defender hasn’t yet seen any competitive action for Spurs, but this should change Thursday. I’ve not been impressed with the partnership between Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen due to a lack of physicality, but it is early days and Mauricio Pochettino will stick with it for a while. For Wimmer, good performances in the Europa League will secure him status as first choice replacement should injuries or suspensions strike our Belgians, or if the partnership fails to improve. From the pre-season games, he looks big and strong. It will be interesting to see how he does on the ball, and what he is like temperament-wise in a big game. One imagines he partners Federico Fazio, who Spurs failed to sell this summer. Personally, I’d rather see Cameron Carter-Vickers or Milos Veljkovic — Fazio has no future at Spurs, so why waste precious minutes on him?

POCHETTINO PHILOSOPHY WATCH: I was very disappointed by last season’s Europa League campaign. While it provided the basis for Kane to springboard to first-choice striker, and a goal of the season in Lamela’s rabona, Spurs achieved little else. The team struggled mightily against average opposition like Besiktas and Partizan, and too many squad players like Andros Townsend, Benjamin Stambouli and Roberto Soldado failed to take the opportunity these games presented. The performances were listless, and there was no evidence of the Pochettino philosophy in action. This season, I would like to see evidence that the philosophy is taking root beyond mainstays such as Dier, Mason and Kane. It’s not hard to spot — fast, organised football with an intense press and defensive solidity. I’m not too bothered by results — the Europa League is a brutally long competition, and the inability to move Premier League game to Sunday evenings or Mondays leaves the English sides at a disadvantage to teams from Spain and Italy. Spurs may be among the bookmakers favourites, but the chances of victory and a Champions League place feel as remote as, well, Azerbaijan.

Charles Richards blogs over at The Spurs Report. Please follow him on Twitter (@crg_yeah) and follow Fresh Spurs (@Fresh_Spurs_)

Who Should Be Tottenham’s Third Attacking Midfielder?

In one of the more attractive vacancies in the footballing world, Spurs are on the look out for an attacking midfielder. Following the closure of the transfer window, Spurs will be looking in-house to fill the position.

Wanted: Attacking midfielder with proven ability to play on right side of a three.

Attributes required: The ideal candidate must show a willingness to run behind, press high up the pitch and provide cover for a marauding fullback when required. The ability to create chances, run with the ball and use possession efficiently are essential. Pace and shooting ability preferred.

Christian Eriksen, knee injury permitting, is the main creative force in the centre and was sorely missed against Everton, despite Ryan Mason’s sterling effort at filling in. One presumes Son Heung-Min has been signed as an upgrade over Nacer Chadli for the Jay Rodriguez role on the left-side, cutting in and supporting Harry Kane with goals.

But that leaves one space up for grabs. A third amigo, a third musketeer, a third banana.

In the season so far, Mousa Dembele has occupied the position, to limited effect. The Belgian has his supporters, but I’m not one of them. For all the talent and touch and seeming class, there is little-to-no end product. He presumably had some traumatic experience with long-range shooting as a child, such is his unwillingness to have a go at goal. He also has developed an aversion to carrying the ball forwards in recent seasons, preferring instead to take a step forward, stop, retreat, and then pass the ball sideways like some latter day Ray Wilkins.

His slow plays gums up Spurs attacking flow and makes it too easy for the opposition to get into formation, and is a frequent contributor to the tedious play we see at White Hart Lane with its tight pitch. As I’ve mentioned previously, I actually would like to see him up front — I’m going to keep banging on about this until either a) someone agrees with me or b) Pochettino tries it and he is rubbish.

So, let’s take a look at the other candidates:

Nacer Chadli: Once Son settles in, it will be at the expense of Chadli. Chadli had all the makings of a transfer bust in his first season, but then turned it around splendidly once Pochettino arrived. He scored 11 goals in 35 appearances last season, and already is off the mark this term. He looks like he has everything — pace, power, technique, goal-scoring ability and height. But the whole doesn’t quite add up the sum of the parts — he is a very good player, but not a great player. There are times when he drifts out of the game, or appears to settle for a 7/10 performance when a greedier player would be sniffing around for the extra goal or assist. You’ve got to want to dominate. But, to me, I’d rank Chadli as the primary option to fill the vacant spot due to his ability to score goals. Bar his first season at Spurs, he has been a consistent scorer throughout his career. He should be able to operate on the right rather than his preferred left flank.

Andros Townsend: Sorry, England international Andros Townsend. I thought Spurs would move Townsend on this summer while his stock remains high after his excellent international outings. But, they kept hold of him — it now feels like the last chance saloon. Last season, Pochettino gave Townsend and Lamela extended runs and neither excelled. In 17 league appearances last season, Townsend had two goals (one was a penalty) and two assists. This is pretty pathetic when you have your mate Harry Kane up front and breathing fire. To me, Townsend is best coming off the bench as an impact guy who runs at tired defences. When he starts, he gives the ball away too much, doesn’t track back and contributes little. He may improve, and he certainly needs to.

Erik Lamela: The record signing and official club enigma. I thought he was out the door this summer, but various transfers collapsed and he is stuck at Spurs. He is never going to be a £30 million player, but there is undoubtedly talent there. First of all, Lamela makes things happen. Last season in 25 league appearances he had two goals and seven assists (Eriksen had just 2 assists in 37 games). He obviously has a wand of a left foot, as that rabona and the game winner against Burnley showed. His problem is that he gives the ball away constantly, and fouls whenever he tries to make a tackle, especially during League games when it appears the pace is too high. This must drive Pochettino mad. But, as a creative option, I’m glad Lamela is still kicking around — the squad feels a bit samey and predictable without someone like him. I’m not sure how much time he will see in the League, but I expect Lamela to light up the Europa League this season — even if only in a bid to secure his move away from the Lane.

Dele Alli: In his few appearances so far, Alli has looked seriously exciting. He scored what should have been the winner against Leicester, and against Everton he was immediately into the action and could have been involved in two goals. He looks an extraordinary athlete, with great technical ability and a willingness to make runs and get involved. It would be no surprise if Alli had made this position his own by the end of the season.

Alex Pritchard: His injury at the U21 Euros was seriously unfortunate as it cost him a rare chance to impress Pochettino in preseason. But, he is fit now and has an opportunity with the Europa League and Capital One Cup kicking in. I think it is easy to downplay what he did last season with Brentford — he was sensational. Twelve goals and seven assists in 45 matches is some performance. I watched a couple of the games as I was starting to get excited — it wasn’t that he was technically good, what caught the eye was that he was dominating and leading the team. In his brief England performances in the summer, he was one of the few players to make an impact and was sorely missed once he was injured. In style and physique, he seems a lot like Eriksen, but a lot of his play for Brentford was from the wide positions.

Josh Onomah: From what I know about him, he primarily plays through the centre. But many a fine player has shifted wide in search of playing time early in their careers. I’ve only seen glimpses — but they are so tantalizing! What touch and vision he shows. I’m sure it is a year or two too early for him — but who knows? The fact that he is still there, rather than out on loan, means he has a chance.

Clinton N’Jie: Can he play on the right-side of a three? Can he play up front? Can he play at all? Is he the next Samuel Eto’o? Is he the next Helder Postiga? Can he walk in a straight line without falling over? I really have no clue, and suspect no-one else does either.

Those are the main contenders. Ryan Mason, at a push could play out on the right, but this would be a defensive choice. Harry Winks plays centrally. I’d like to nominate Tom Carroll as the official “forgotten man” of the Spurs squad — I’m amazed he is still here. Though, with the lack of central midfield options, we may be seeing him in the Europa League. But anyway, he isn’t a wide man.

So, there are options. In fact, there are plenty of options — it’s just not entirely clear if any of them are good options. Some are intriguing, some are an exercise in optimism, some have already flattered to deceive.

But I like the fact there is clear competition for a spot in a good Premier League team, and that it will come down to who is the hungriest and who takes their chance when offered.

Charles Richards blogs at The Spurs Report. Follow him on Twitter (@crg_yeah), and Fresh Spurs (@Fresh_Spurs_)