Pochettino’s Impact On Spurs: Remarkable Barely Covers It

 

History will have the last word, as it always does, but if Mauricio Pochettino’s managerial career gets any better than this, he’ll have one hell of a life. Whatever he may win in the future, sustaining Spurs in the title race is nothing short of remarkable.

 

I avoid sweeping statements or premature judgements. By nature I am cautious. In life as in football my dash towards a conclusion is slowed by the friction of nuance and doubt. With Poch, he’s currently receiving a great deal of credit from Spurs fans and the media, but that’s still not enough.

 

He’s a steadfast, reassuring presence, an anchor keeping us steady during a time of change and uncertainty. The ground’s still not ready, transfer policy lacks purpose or direction and all around us at Wembley familiar faces are replaced by tourists or empty seats. The chairman is content to fade into the shadows, Pochettino steps up and into the spotlight.

 

He has instilled courage and resilience into players who have come to believe they are capable of scoring at any time up to the very final kick. I had given up hope against Watford and Newcastle but the players hadn’t. We’ve run out of defensive midfielders, so let’s concentrate on players who can get the ball and get it forward quickly. Poch turns adversity into strength.

 

And the players. Sissoko, for over two years a waif and stray, who not so long ago approached a football with the suspicion and disdain of a toddler presented with a plate of vegetables, who could eat it but just as easily it could end up all over the place, now a dynamic, muscular deep midfielder. Vertonghen, who at the age of 31 produces against Dortmund the performance of a lifetime in a position he’s actively avoided. Son, who has played for about 18 months straight, often carrying the burden of a country’s expectations on his shoulders, and has become a better player for it instead of asking for a rest, better because he believes he has a duty to be the best he can be for his club and his country. And they say the modern professional doesn’t care. At Pochettino’s Spurs, they do.

 

It’s interesting how a few pundits and managers have said our top four rivals have had a bad run with injuries, unlike Spurs. It’s foolish but in reality, a compliment to players and managers that they haven’t noticed our absences.

 

Injuries. An absence of squad depth and player investment, the latter in stark contrast to our competitors. Playing every match away, when in the last season at the Lane we were unbeaten. Often a lack of atmosphere. These things are being said so often, they are in danger of becoming clichés, but their significance cannot be discounted. These are the disadvantages Poch deals with before he begins each day.

 

Pochettino and his team fashioned one of the great European nights against Dortmund with a second half performance that’s up there with anything I’ve seen Spurs produce in Europe since the late sixties, save the first half versus Feyenoord in 83. The first 45 minutes set the scene – tight, tactical and full of tension. Half-time was spent muttering about how we couldn’t see a way out of this impasse.

 

But Poch could. Vertonghen’s run and cross emerged from the dark depths of inertia, Son’s volley shimmered under the lights and Wembley shook. An unforgettable moment. I hope the latecomers who missed it enjoyed the popcorn and doughnuts they proudly clutched as they straggled to their seats.

 

We pushed up, just a little but enough to make a difference. Poch went for it, going for the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom. I followed Aurier’s cross, didn’t see that Vertonghen was there where he had no right to be, to get on the end of it. Out wide, he saw the game ahead of him, went for the space and moulded it to his wishes like a sculptor creates beauty from a lump of clay.  And for goal celebrations, less is more.

 

Pochettino inspires his players to believe they can be better than they ever thought they would be. They don’t stop and are resilient enough to battle back when games seem lost. More than that, under pressure, knackered, running on fumes in front of our eyes, they keep thinking, keep being creative. Anyone who has done any work, of any type, when tired knows that is the most difficult feat of all.

 

However, Spurs’ recent success is more than that. Pochettino has upped his game too this season. Developing his in-game intelligence, he makes better use of substitutions and changes tactics mid-game, often several times a match. Given the limits of his bench, that has made a huge difference.

 

But no silverware. It’s a genuine shame, and at times I feel like celebrating the heady days of finishing top of the London Combination. It’s tough. Our points total might have won the league on several occasions in the last decade, but competition is fierce.

 

Here’s the thing though. I spend time talking with fellow fans about what it means for them to be a Spurs fan. A lot of this made its way into A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, some is for some research I’m doing. Ask people what being a Spurs fan means for them, and they talk first about how it is part of them, their identity, who they are. Being Spurs runs deep. They talk about their pride in being Spurs, even if they aren’t happy with the way the club is run, and the experience of being with fellow fans to get behind the team, whether this be in the ground or as with, say, US based supporters, in the pubs they’ve made their own. In the place they’ve made home.

 

It’s the experience they talk about, who they go with, the faces (seldom names) they met along the way, their pre- and post-match routine. They speak fondly of the memories, the moments that lifted them from their seats, 30 or 40 years ago sometimes yet they feel it as if it were yesterday.

It’s only then that that fans mention trophies. I’ve talked with perhaps 30 or 40 supporters, for extended periods. Nobody says, I’m a Spurs fan because I want to win something and all my memories are worthless because in the 21st century we’ve only won one League Cup.

What Spurs fans want first and foremost is pride and dignity in their team. This why so much twitter fan dialogue is instantly disposable. Being a supporter is not primarily about winning things. It’s about loyalty, about caring whether you win or lose. Success is a bonus. Anyway, playing the Pochettino way is the way to win something in the current era. It’s not one or the other.

Managers are football tourists. They come and go, although sometimes they don’t stay as long as they might like. Pochettino understands the club’s heritage. He is not in it for as long as we are, but he’s not using Spurs as a career stepping stone. He’s stayed when others would have moved on, taking their reputation to somewhere with a more generous chairman. His paternal pride in his players is deeply touching in an era where money and greed justify any expediency. In return, they exude the loyalty and the passion we fans take pride in, which is why this team are closer to the fans than ever before.

The atmosphere against Dortmund was fabulous. The singing lacked variety, though. There’s come on you Spurs and marching in. The third big chant on the night was Mauricio Pochettino’s name. That’s how much he means to Tottenham fans. He cares as much as we do.

 

 

 

No Stadium, No News. Spurs Play the Waiting Game

International breaks drain the enthusiasm of supporters and sap the mental and physical energy of overworked footballers. Those entrusted with the game’s well-being instead pummel elite players into the ground with wanton determination.

Tottenham Hotspur internationals: a case study. Vertonghen, Eriksen, Dembele and Dele out with muscle and sinew wear and tear. Dier, Rose and Lloris lack focus at times in a game that requires 100% concentration. I swear Kane’s legs are getting shorter, worn down by the hard yards he unstintingly puts in.

Maybe this time England have done Spurs a favour. Kane was absolutely terrific in last night’s exhilarating victory over Spain, Winks got another 90 minutes, while Dier had his best game for some time. In the process, overnight his calculated cleaning out of Ramos has evidently surpassed World Cup penalty shoot-out heroics and overcome brainless fan tribalism to win over the hearts and minds of a grateful nation.

Let’s hope this is the boost Spurs need. We’re fifth, two points off the top, without playing consistently well. The familiar flow and balance of Pochettino’s Spurs is missing. Not that we needed convincing, but the value of Eriksen and Dele in creating opportunities and finding space has been underscored in their absence.

The contrast between our opponents in successive games, Barcelona and Cardiff, could not be greater, but we gave both undue time and space. Neither had to work hard to get the ball because we gave it to them time and again. Stocks of mental energy seem depleted.  Against an organised but ordinary Cardiff side, we ran out of ideas early on. No one took control of the game. Three free second half free kicks, we lined up zonally. Their centre half from Land of the Giants moved away, no one picked him up. Late on against Brighton, we were criminally casual and nearly lost three points. Players not thinking for themselves.

Spurs are a match for any side if everyone is on their game. I’ve written that sentence so often over the last few years that it comes up on my autocorrect. Any side would be hamstrung by the absence of so many high quality players but Spurs have not invested in high quality cover. Dembele’s powers are waning. He gets caught on the ball more frequently and opponents have sussed this, descending on him en masse to stifle our attacks and gather possession. while Wanyama struggles to overcome a debilitating, long-term injury that may permanently remove that important element of his game, power.

The balance of the squad and therefore the team isn’t right either. We don’t have players naturally suited to a left and right midfield, able to both attack and drop back and defend. Moura sparkles on the ball and works hard, but while I admire Pochettino’s attacking instincts, playing him in advanced positions leaves gaps behind. Sissoko is not as bad as most would have you believe, but again both Cardiff and Barca sought to exploit a perceived weakness on our right, with Trippier keen to come forward and left exposed and unprotected.

It’s hard to see how Hugo can be the same player after his drink driving abomination. He’s a proud man, focussed, hugely admired in the dressing room. The man is the player, the player is the man, able to deal with pressure, make the right decisions, a respected leader. Such a rank error of judgement cannot be entirely banished from his mind. As he tries, rival fans will remind him for the rest of his career. It must affect his self-image and therefore his self-confidence.

On the bright side, Lamela has been more effective than at any point in his Spurs career, and Toby is showing why his departure should not ever have been considered for a flicker of nano second. And Harry Winks is back. He is a key player because of his ability to get the ball forward from deep accurately and early, and because he always makes himself available, ready, able and willing to take a pass under pressure, part of Dembele’s role in the midfield. If Dier, the worst culprit in terms of needlessly giving the ball away, can regain his mental fortitude, then he and Winks can really get something going.

Spurs are fifth, and I’m grateful. Not on song, more games away than at home, yet our best ever PL start. Then again, this feels like an odd season all round. High expectations of a stadium fit for a marvellous team. Something to enhance the present and secure the future. Disappointment became impatience, now given way to lethargy and weariness. Wembley feels less like a stepping stone, more a deadweight dragging me down.

Maybe why I’ve written so little recently. I’ve nothing much to say, if I’m honest. Spurs are there, and so are my mates in the stand, and watching Spurs is still the best thing in my life after family. And I go with my family, so that’s good. But it’s a long while since I enjoyed a match less than the Cardiff game.  There’s always a day when summer fades and autumn begins, yet it caches us unawares each year. Overcast and wet, one less layer than needed.  A roof, sitting well back, rain visibly slanting away from us, yet the seat’s soaked. My bones ache with the chill and the anxiety of a single goal lead, one goalmouth scramble away from dropping points against a poor team.

Waiting. Waiting for the ground. Waiting to sit in a seat I’ve paid a fortune for. Waiting for news from a club always reluctant to communicate unless it’s about something we can spend our money on, now more afraid than Theresa May to commit to anything. Waiting for trains that exist on a timetable but not apparently in reality. Waiting for a full team. Waiting for new players. Waiting for news about where we are going to play next.  Waiting to go home. Home is a feeling and it feels like a long way away.

In the normal scheme of things, that is since Tottenham Hotspur existed, there’s another game soon enough. To come, four games in an absurd nine days. Two home league games between now and November 24th. The chat in the queue after Cardiff was along the lines of at least that’s over with. That’s not why I go to watch Spurs. This is not like me, but that’s how it is.

We’re two points off the top. In the grand scheme of things, the stadium delay is a tiny blip in our grand heritage. Soon come, and something to look forward to by the looks of it. I’ll cope with the delays but the uncertainty hampers Pochettino’s best efforts. My imagination or are his energy levels depleted too? He seems more tetchy in his press conferences, looks more anxious on the touchline. He said a while back that he had been assured we’d be in by Christmas. He can’t be happy at his chairman’s failure to deliver a new ground or new players for that matter. I hope Levy is properly looking after our biggest asset.

 

Spurs Last Two Games a Watershed: the Most Important of Levy’s Era

Spurs final two games, at home to Newcastle tomorrow and Leicester on Sunday, are arguably as significant as any since Daniel Levy became chairman. Two wins and a top four place is guaranteed. Anything less and it’s Thursday nights on the BT channel that nobody subscribes to, but the ramifications could reverberate long into the future.

Playing in the Champions League is enticing, exciting and a source of pride. It’s not the Holy Grail, as many would have us believe. I’m an old-fashioned soul. I think we should push for third, because third is better than fourth. Finishing second is good, because we’re better than all but one of the other teams, and because it’s better than third. I want Spurs to be contenders, not also-rans.

No trophies for finishing third or fourth but there will be lots of money. In the past, the sense is that Levy does not budget for CL qualification and presumably he took this approach into negotiations with the banks offering the loans that pay for the stadium. I suspect the banks looked harder at season ticket sales than the league table, and those have gone very well despite the insufferable price rises.  So the club finances won’t fall apart if we fail to qualify – Levy would not let his vision hang by a thread as flimsy as a place or two in the table.

However, although with Levy there’s no apparent causal link between CL qualification and the transfer and salary budget, the CL money gives him more room for manoeuvre in a summer where Spurs must invest heavily in the squad in order to stand still, let alone make progress. As I said last time, Pochettino faces a new challenge – having built a side, he now has to rebuild one. Rose and Alderweireld seem certain to go. Dembele too – he will never be the same force again – Wanyama possibly. The squad needs to build muscle. Kane has no reliable cover, four years of this now. Sissoko and Lamela are given responsibilities by their manager who seems to see things in their overall play that have escaped many of us, including dependability and creativity, not to mention goals. And so many goals have escaped Sissoko this season.

Money will come from sales but we still have to buy. A perfectly reasonable scenario is that we have to replace four high quality players in the summer. That’s digging deep into the team’s flesh. And deepen the squad on top of that. And can we wait for players to mature to fill the boots of the class players that went before them- we need to pay extra for experience.  These feel like big changes, on a scale greater than Pochettino has had to face before.

In a cut-throat market where everyone is climbing over themselves to buy success, Spurs choose to operate at a disadvantage. As a counter-balance, we have Pochettino and his reputation for playing the young men and making them better players. We also have the CL. Poch plus playing regularly plus the CL equals, what, 20k less a week on the salary? 30k? Some won’t even think about it, others will listen.

Levy relies on this and the patience of his manager, in order to keep down the budget, but for how much longer? Walker, Toby and Rose grew tired of the disparity. For now, Spurs are less of a draw if we’re out of the CL, and perhaps the ties to their manager, genuine though they clearly are, might begin to loosen if the big offers come in this summer for Eriksen, Dele and – I dare not speak his name out loud.

Next season, with the league the way it is, with other sides in what is effectively a top six getting their act together, competition will be intense. CL qualification means more than I can ever remember. It feels like a watershed. On one side, continued improvement, Levy willing (big if). On the other, half a squad leave, are not replaced adequately, we fall backwards, even slightly, and players and fans alike become unsettled. And manager?

Enough of the balance sheet. We need to finish in the top four for the fans’ sake. We want this. Not a trophy, but it means something. Means we finish above London rivals. Means we’re not bottlers. Means we have achieved something without playing any home matches.

Means the pride we have expressed in our team is justified. To me, fans have shown faith in the team. Spurs are good and we want to be able to tell people that. No league or cups but look where we finished. Above you. May not be much but that’s what we’ve got. We can tell people this is what good football gets you. That feeling is always around but again it feels more important that ever before. We’ve endured Wembley, no trophies, considerable expense – two wins mean something. This matters. Wish we had something more tangible to cheer, but right now, this matters.

Like a blunt knife, just ain’t cutting. Spurs are off the boil. Simmering or has the gas been turned off completely? Son has gone back to kicking the ball straight at defenders. Kane’s back on his heels. Dele drifting. Marking at corners helps too. And not giving stupid fouls away.

I was going to identify Eric Dier as the key man, the Dier who cleans up the midfield, not the Dier who loses concentration and gives the ball away. Like the others, he looks weary. But he’s sick, so Wanyama has to step up. Take charge, take our chances, take the top four.

Pochettino seems worried that he’s not getting through. He relies on players taking responsibility for their performances, as opposed to a ranting captain or manager berating them into action. Too late to change that – they must find motivation within. And maybe, ultimately, they need to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to win under pressure. Whatever they say to the media, the niggles must be there.

Glory, stagger over the line, I don’t mind which. Two games, two wins.

 

 

 

Spurs – My Semi-Final Anxiety Dream. And the Day Tony Galvin Shook My Hand

Watching Spurs in a semi-final is like an anxiety dream. That’s where you try to do something, something ordinary usually, but you suddenly find you’re unable to perform the simplest task. You can’t walk, run, find your way home, you’re late for work. You wake in a cold sweat, only for a sense of unease to remain with you long into the daylight hours.

Supposedly the most vivid and memorable occasions in the calendar because of what’s at stake, frankly they have become a bit of a blur, all melded into a mush of an anxiety dream, where Spurs turned up but couldn’t perform.

I’ve been to six of the eight successive semi-final defeats. Intensely disappointed at the time to miss Everton and Newcastle, it was probably a blessing that I could hide behind my sofa instead of suffering on the terraces. As time has gone on, bile and bitterness have given way to a sense of numbness and inevitability. As it was on Saturday – too anaesthetised by failure for anger, although I would be justified in such a reaction.

The semis against United and Chelsea showed we could not consistently play at our best on the big day. For a while, there’s been no margin of error in these big games. Spurs at their best can beat anyone but we have to have everything firing on all cylinders for that to happen. No room for off-days. I say it’s all a blur, except I can recall those moments when your heart sinks, where you think, this time, it can’t go wrong, and it does. Dawson’s slip against Portsmouth, Alderweireld’s error last season or Son’s reckless tackle on Moses, Docherty putting us a goal up at Old Trafford offering some hope…Losing to a better team I can manage, enough practice over the years, not doing our level best is always much harder to take.

Law of averages anyone? Not that I’m desperate. I’m desperate. On Saturday they did it again. Hopes raised came crashing down from a dizzying height. On top early on after taking the game to an uncertain United side, Dele scored a fine goal to give Spurs a deserved lead. We were determined, industrious and well-balanced.

Don’t give the ball away – my epitaph. Whoops we did it again. Dembele this time, a goal well-taken by Sanchez but he should never have had the opportunity. Then, a Dembele-sized hole opened up in our midfield. No off-days allowed, especially for the mighty Moussa. His ability to hold the ball sometimes slows our attacks down but it enables any player to have a moment of respite. Under pressure, give it to Moussa and he’ll hold it while everybody adjusts, usually from defensive formation into attack. The transition I believe the young people of today call it.

On Saturday, he was a shadow of himself, Superman playing with a ball made of kryptonite, David after a haircut. United sensed weakness like a lioness stalking her prey. They pressed him hard and we could not find a way round it. The team wilted from then on, as if the palsy spread to their bones and muscles. Vorm too – I thought he was weak in his dive and too far over to stop Herreras’s drive.

Also, that cross, not a particularly good one, stretched us more than it should have done. The goalscorer wasn’t tracked, and throughout the match we had a couple of midfielders drifting about in no man’s land when United attacked, instead of getting goalside. I realise Poch wants to attack but there’s no alternative sometimes, especially to get our wide men to cover Trippier and Davies out wide. We ask too much of our full-backs too often. Trippier is prone to drift up field and inside.

United didn’t do much and sadly didn’t have to. We had no creative ideas or impetus, nobody to turn the game around and regain the initiative. Kane faded but had little support. Son peaked last month and is slightly off. Eriksen did well but was forced deep where he’s less dangerous. Fine margins. Vertonghen was excellent once more. Outstanding season – it’s a pity his drive and determination couldn’t inspire his team-mates.

Nobody pinpointed what had gone wrong, and without that we can’t put it right. That worries me.

As a writer about Spurs, I am duty bound to have an Alderweireld Angle, so here it is. It doubles as a Rose Reflection, just change the names. Spurs do not pay the market rate for top-class footballers. It is a remarkable testament to Pochettino’s powers of motivation and team-building that the so many have stayed for so long because of their belief in him, what he has done for their careers and where they think he can take the club in the future. That and Levy’s allegedly fat bonus system that adds a substantial whack to quoted basics.

I’ve said repeatedly in the past that Spurs should increase their self-imposed ceiling on the top earners. Not break the bank, not make them the best payers or anywhere near it, but enough to be an incentive both to stay and to encourage new talent to join. That fits with the club’s circumspect financial planning and is sound investment planning. Without top quality players, we won’t challenge for the top four, or encourage consistently high crowds. Even win something for goodness sake.

So give Toby a substantial pay rise. And Harry, and Hugo and Jan and Dele. If that’s not enough, he wants more elsewhere, other teams will give him a longer contract than Levy would give a player of his age – nothing you can do about that, goodbye and thanks for everything. We can’t compete with the top payers without jeopardising the club’s future. We think of City, United and CFC as our peers, in terms of salaries they live in another world. Recent figures showed the gap in total spend between ourselves and the two highest payers, City and United, is greater than the gap between ourselves and the lowest payers, Bournemouth and Burnley. It’s just that we could, and should, try harder, and Levy saving money because his manager is so good with players is a false economy.

In the meantime, Toby is a Spurs player and he should play. I’m a huge Pochettino fan but I’m not blind to his faults. Managing contract niggles is part of every manager’s role. Excluding Toby sends a message to the squad that he wants 100% commitment. Fine for one player, but this is three now – Walker, Rose and Alderweireld. Players might think, well, so be it, I’ll go if the manager won’t respond.

Spurs need Alderweireld. We need his nouse and experience. Sanchez has learned fast and he’s a tremendous prospect, but time is on his side. It won’t harm him if Toby plays the season out or indeed if he had contributed his experience on Saturday. Excluding Toby with half a season to play has brought no discernible benefit. It feels like such a waste of all Pochettino’s hard work in making him and other individuals a better player.

Semi-final defeats focus the mind. It’s not a time for long-term judgements, except they force you to do just that. Spurs once again are not quite good enough. The ‘bottlers’ tag makes for easy copy, and certainly there’s some truth in the absence of a long-term winning mentality at the club.

But this is about Pochettino’s Tottenham and only that. Spurs have tended to fade around this period in the last few seasons, this after our Christmas charge. Last season, we kept going without being at our very best. In the short-term, we must push Watford and West Brom as hard as we possibly can.

At the end of this season, Pochettino has a new challenge to face. Team building gives way to rebuilding, which he must accomplish under restrictive financial conditions. The team and the individuals in it have improved immeasurably. That’s all down to his remarkable influence. Now, there are signs that progress may stall.

It seems highly likely that Rose and Alderweireld, two outstanding players, will follow Walker out of the club. Davies and Trippier (to a lesser extent) are able deputies but they are not as good as their predecessors. Many fans seem to forget how influential and dynamic Rose was for a season and a half. Seems a waste to me. If not exactly spent, Dembele cannot again be the force he once was. That’s four top class players out of the picture.

We must ease the burden on Kane. The current squad needs at least another centreback and a midfielder, plus a sub goalie. Have more alternatives available for long seasons ahead.

Pochettino seemed momentarily crushed if not by defeat then the manner of it, unable to lift them with the resources he had on the bench. Far too much has been made of this understandable reaction, but the fact remains, he’s vulnerable to an offer just like his players. Fourth – we deserve it. Third – Liverpool have other things on their minds. Fifth – for this team, this season – unacceptable. Watford and West Brom become big games. Let’s push on.

On Saturday we were in the Spurs end on the corner, ordinary seats in the lower tier. Ten minutes before kick-off, Pat Jennings quietly walks in and sits two rows in front of us. Looking around, he’s followed by a virtual team of old Spurs. Steve Sedgley and David Howells, Tony Galvin and Martin Chivers. John Pratt sat next to my son and complained about paying £65 for the seat and having to stand up for the whole game, but then again, his knees are shot because of the running he did for us. Graham Roberts down the aisle. Gents all of them chatting to fans and posing for pictures.

Second half under way, suddenly someone grabs my arm and shakes my hand. It’s Tony Galvin. Says he’s a fan of my work, loves the shows, and has always wanted to meet me. “Great to finally meet you – Danny Baker!”

Still pumping my hand vigorously, I had to let him down gently, I said I was a huge fan of Galvin’s – I was and am – and it took him a moment or two to be convinced that I was in fact Joe Schmoe from Kokomo. And that’s the day Tony Galvin wanted to shake my hand.  

And Danny has appeared before on TOMM https://tottenhamonmymind.com/2010/03/12/paul-gascoigne-and-the-ultimate-taboo/