I’ve always reckoned that Spurs and Everton fans had a lot in common. Both sets of supporters have remained steadfast through the doldrums of recent times even though loyalty has been sorely tested by the success of their neighbours and bitter rivals. Once members of the so-called ‘Big Five’, the five most influential clubs from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties (the others being Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool), now no longer movers and shakers.
To a large extent it still holds true but over the past three seasons the comparisons with the other Merseyside club, Liverpool, have been unavoidable. Both Spurs and Liverpool were in the process of rebuilding, both appointed youngish managers, Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, within 2 days of each other in June 2012 whose reputations had gone before them. In the background, both clubs were itching for success and prepared, so it appeared, to invest heavily in the transfer market but looming over them was the expense of rebuilding famous but aging grounds.
No matter – these young coaches were the new breed, their methods and tactics compensating for any shortcomings in the market. Rodgers seemed to settle best but in the end AVB’s Spurs finished 2 places and 11 points ahead of Liverpool even though our side had several weaknesses.
Times change – the following December Liverpool ferociously tore into Spurs at White Hart Lane and ripped us apart as instinctively as a lion tearing the throat out of its prey. We lost 5-0, AVB was sacked and Liverpool’s thrilling attacking football nearly won the league.
Now it’s Spurs who have stabilised and Rodgers who is unemployed. Pochettino has so far succeeded where Rodgers failed. Comparisons are instructive as we pause for breath during the international break.
Pochettino’s choice of tactics is pretty much fixed to a 4-2-3-1 although the system itself has built-in flexibility, especially with the movement of the 3 and varying the attacking freedom given to the full-backs. One justified criticism is that he doesn’t have a Plan B if after 70 minutes things aren’t working, However, he knows what he wants and, above all, so now do the players. This has been at the root of our progress this season.
Also, he chooses players to fit that system. I think he is wary of the challenges that can be presented by players with experience who may have influence in the dressing room and different ideas about how they should play and what they should do in training. That’s why he goes for youth, because he can mould them, and why he was an attractive option for Levy when it came to choose AVB’s replacement.
It’s a shame in many ways but it’s working. The players know it’s Poch’s way or the highway. Those that didn’t buy into the philosophy were ruthlessly jettisoned. Now we have a group of players who can do what their manager wants. Also, the teamwork and attitude of those who are left has forged an excellent team spirit and a side working together for each other. Without any natural standout leaders, nevertheless the culture of hard work and high tempo has taken hold firmly in the squad, witness Lamela’s recent performances. A beneficial culture that exists independently of any individual is hard to establish but once created, it’s powerful and lasting precisely because it does not depend on the character of a few fist-pumping heroes.
Liverpool have spent an astronomic amount on players since Rodgers became manager. However, he’s fatally changed his tactical approach and bought players who don’t fit and/or aren’t good enough. Too many changes, players who are not the right fit for what their manager wants them to do, players who are not right for the intensity of the PL. There’s no spine, whereas our development this season is founded on the axis of Lloris, Vertonghen and Alderweireld, Dier (and Mason until he was injured).
Mulling this article over, Pochettino’s approach comes out in a positive light. The coach making the whole greater than the sum of the parts is at White Hart Lane, not Anfield, whatever Rodgers’ reputation may be. Some of it is refreshingly familiar though. Players with the right skills, the right attitude, playing in the right position, the one that suits them and team best. This applies to every successful side football has ever produced but it’s a lesson many managers and clubs easily forget, including Liverpool. Caught up in tactics, false nines, inside legs, registas, the essence of a manager’s job is player judgement. Still is, always has been. Right player, right attitude.
Rodgers’ experience at Liverpool also highlights a real potential problem, who takes decisions. Much has been said about Liverpool’s transfer committee. Informed sources point to players being bought who Rodgers did not want and an over-reliance on analytics, which provided skill but did not assess their attitude in the highly competitive PL.
Spurs have been here before. Martin Jol did not have full control over player choice and it seems suspiciously likely that Baldini’s bunch, the less-than-magnificent-7, were bought without full consideration of their ability to survive the physicality and intensiveness of 90 minutes in the PL, week in, week out.
It’s vital that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Although we have Pochettino’s men leading the hunt for players now Baldini has gone, Levy showed in this past window that he has not dealt with a fatal reluctance to support his manager properly. The Berahino fiasco left us with one striker, Son is injured, it only takes one knock and Chadli’s up front…
Pochettino won’t repeat Rodgers’ other error, going public with his criticism of his employer. It does mean though that he will have to make do with what he’s given. Right now, I’d take the talent and attitude in or squad over anything Liverpool can offer.
Swansea – a reasonable performance and reasonable point, all in all. Blunt up front with chances missed. Kane’s fluency has eluded him but he never hides, even after the catastrophic unforced error when he sliced a corner into his own net, having been so reliable at that near post set-piece defensive position. Chances gone but not quite true to say ‘last season he would have hit that first time’, because last season he would often have a few touches and still score, but there are times when he’s thinking too much now.
Eriksen picked us up with those two free-kicks, the first the keeper should have covered, the second just about perfect. Good movement in the front three with Lamela and Eriksen offering some lovely angled balls from centre mid, Lamela really picks those beautifully. Son makes things happen in the box, maybe a different result if he had been on the end of one of them.
At the back, we let too many runners go in the first half especially. A fine header for their first but three Swansea players advanced unaccompanied on the back four. Dier looked weary at the end, still brooding about an unjustified booking. He deserves a rest over the international break plus I think he misses the Liverpool game through suspension. His frustration bubbled over at the end. After a fine 20 minutes when we should have scored, a point seemed enough, then Dier chopped down an attacker. The free-kick imposed needless pressure and all our efforts were about to go waste when Hugo arced into the top corner to miraculously tip a header onto the bar and away.