Mauricio Pochettino expresses himself in the dressing room rather than in the media, then he lets his players do the talking for him. It’s an old-fashioned attitude from a thoroughly modern manager and long may it be that way. When he does speak, and he has been more forthcoming in press conferences over the past few weeks, he gives voice to the intensity and passion that fire his footballing imagination, recognising in the next breath that the club means as much to him as it does to supporters. In contrast, the borefest that is Jose Mourinho chunters on, taking sole credit for the wins and blaming everyone but himself when things go wrong. The only mind games he plays are those to massage his ego.
This has been a good week for Pochettino and for Spurs. The statements go hand in glove, such is the influence he has at Spurs. Some managers and their clubs are a snug fit, others chafe themselves red raw as they rub up against each other. I hear Mourinho is treated with disdain by many Old Trafford veterans, for example. He may bring success, or not, but somehow it’s not right. Chelsea was and is his spiritual home.
Pochettino on the other hand gets it, and we get him. He plays football the right way, the Spurs Way, with total commitment. In return he expects the same from his players. He takes personal charge of player development. This week Jack Pitt-Brooke wrote in the Independent about Harry Winks, describing how if Pochettino sees something in a young player, he does not send them out on loan but personally oversees their training and development, rather than delegating primary responsibility to a coach however trusted they may be.
Making it in Pochettino’s eyes is fast becoming the highest accolade at the club. All of this squad clearly want to play for him. They’ve been queuing up this week to sign new contracts, pictured one by one next to a beaming manager with his protective, welcoming arm round their shoulders. It’s good business too – never forget it’s a business. Those that stay are rewarded while players on the fringe like Tom Carroll come at a higher value because of a longer contract. There’s consistency and security at the Lane, and before he came it’s a long while since that could be said about any of his predecessors.
Interesting phrase, wanting to play for the manager. It should go without saying but it is far from being a given at any club. Yet this lot play to their utmost – he’s improved the performance of every single one of this squad. Dembele transformed, Rose from nowhere (Redknapp said of this former winger that he had to play him at full-back because he wasn’t good enough to play anywhere else) to a top-quality left back. Dier from prospect to international, Lamela, Walker, the list is as long as the squad numbers. Spurs don’t pay top dollar, not by any means. They are here for the club, for the man and for their team-mates.
Goal celebrations reveal a lot. Josh Onomah was delighted when he scored his debut goal on Wednesday. His team-mates rushed to congratulate him, every one of them knew what it meant, and they did so in front of the fans. None of this self-indulgent choreography that you see so often. Warm, natural, shared, together. That’s a team.
As well as the signings, this week has offered more insights into Pochettino’s thinking. The traditional fans’ pre-match pastime of predicting the team has become relatively easy over the last year, with changes made only through injury aside from the interchangeability of one of the wide forwards. A surprise then on Sunday to hear the pre-match chat was all about the manager. The back four and the shape reassuringly the same, and why not. One of the best defences last season and this, until Monaco that is. Vertonghen a sound centreback, Dier the best English defensive midfielder. Until Sunderland that is.
Sunday’s warm-up included a routine I’ve not seen before. Dier and Toby lined up in the box. The ball started with the full-backs in turn, who knocked it forward to the wide midfielder,. It was then played back to the full-back who crossed to Kane waiting in the middle. All at three-quarter pace, the drill looked as if the centrebacks were having some very late practice. Every cross was a duff one by the way, but the changes delivered a victory, the narrowest possible scoreline but Spurs were streets ahead of a dismal Sunderland side, well-organised but devoid of ambition or skill. The interest though is in the medium and long-term. Vertonghen at left back, Dier at centre half, Alderweireld on the left of the centreback pairing. The shape of things to come?
As a rule, the best players should play in their best position, so Dier and Toby should stay where they were. Jan doesn’t like full-back, apparently, but plays there for Belgium and will presumably do as he is told for Pochettino because that’s the way he stays in the first team. What Poch wants, he gets, and that too is the way it should be.
It’s hard to imagine he did this to counter anything the Sunderland attack might do. Suffice to say that when Januzaj was sent off late on, no one noticed he had gone. Against Monaco our left side of Lamela and Davies were exposed. Vertonghen hung back and allowed Son the freedom to move forward. He rewarded us with his best game for Spurs, consistently involved in the action and always a threat. Not a natural winger, as the second half progressed he stayed wide and both took on defenders and cut inside. On the other side, Sissoko gave the right midfield more stability, perhaps at the cost of his enterprise in attack but Walker could get forward and wide at will. The selection looks ominous for Davies’ long-term future but that’s one for the future.
Still musing on his intentions, maybe he thinks Dier’s best long-term position is at centreback, or he just wants some options. Whatever, he clearly has faith in Wanyama as a DM, and with Dembele back that’s a solid defensive spine to enable him to do his thing further forward. He’s a colossus in the middle. No one player in the league makes such a difference to his team’s play as Dembele does to ours.
One small but important point. Spurs made many chances versus Sunderland and missed a fair few good ones, but that’s not the only way to win matches, Sometimes persistence pays off. We kept pressurising their defence and in the end their centre half made the mistake. One was enough.
It’s going to be a long, tough season. Rotation, plan B (or C or D), whatever you call it, here’s another one from Pochettino’s fertile tactical mind. His ingenuity will be further tested by Kane’s injury. Janssen has a different style but judging by the promise he showed against Gillingham, he can provide the goals we crave if not the same link-up play. Watching him from a different vantage point at Wembley, in line with the penalty box, he pushes up tight on the back four, right on their shoulders. Fine margins and he needs the right service to make that work.
Versus the Gills, lower league maybe but they packed the defence yet he always found space. He’s restless, constantly on the move, hustling and bustling to make something happen. Ball played to him, body position ready, one touch then shoot. Just what you want and need in a striker. Like him, like him a lot.
Many changes for Gillingham, Winks and Carter Vickers first starts, Gills had everyone back. Spurs sides of old would have faltered, this lot weren’t hesitant in the slightest. Pochettino has hem playing the same way, right through the club. Lamela and Eriksen took on the role of older pros. They could have taken it easy – neither took that option, not for a moment. Movement, pace, creating space, all outstanding. It was a real pleasure to watch. Special note about Winks. First time I have seen him play a full match in the flesh, impressed. Takes responsibility as the team played through him, upright, looking for the pass, short and long within his range. Ran the midfield at 20 and looked as if he was born to it. You could see why Bentaleb, a player I really like, was let go. Right now I wouldn’t swap Pochettino for any manager in Europe.