Tag Archives: Tottenham 2.0

The power of incentives and why Spurs are finally in a position to achieve success

poch3_etihad

Over the interminable international break, I’ve been thinking a lot about two things — Spurs and politics.

In politics, I’ve been following the US election avidly and trying to understand why, despite everything we are learning each day, tens of millions of perfectly sane and patriotic Americans will vote for Donald Trump on November 8th.

For Spurs, I’ve been thinking about the success the club is currently experiencing, and trying to understand if there is some deeper explanation than merely an outbreak of managerial competence and a couple of decent signings.

In these two divergent trains of thought, strangely, I’ve found myself coming back to a similar place: the importance of incentives, both good and bad, in shaping outcomes and behaviour.

To a neutral observer (at least as neutral as anyone can be given the impact the US president has on the whole world), Trump’s rise has been baffling. Trump appears to be a sociopathic, predatory conman whose hiding-in-plain-sight brazenness and questionable sexual history has more than a shade of the Jimmy Saville about it. His evident emotional, intellectual and political shortcomings threaten a dangerously volatile presidency, and this could have all manner of devastating consequences given the power of the office (like, you know, commanding the US armed forces).

However, if you’ve spent the past eight years and more watching Fox News and listening to US talk radio, it will have seeped into your subconscious that America is changing for the worse, you are the main loser from that change, and that the current political establishment, embodied by one Hillary Clinton, is creating that change. I’m generalising of course, but you can see the incentive is now there to vote Trump: If you believe the current system is the problem, you have the incentive to vote for the one guy who appears to be from outside it and is talking very loudly about destroying it.

The rest — the ability to ignore facts about Trump and believe lies told by Trump — is an unparalleled epidemic of cognitive dissonance, and will be studied by psychologists and political scientists for generations to come should, as the polls suggest, Clinton limp pathetically to victory.

If that’s an example of a “bad” incentive — although philosophically speaking an incentive is just an incentive, immune to such subjective labelling — then Spurs currently are an example of the “good”.

Arguably the most famous example of incentives in football is the other lot. For years, Arsene Wenger has been told to deliver a Top 4 finish and Champions League football, and been strongly incentivized to do so through ongoing employment on increasingly lucrative terms. Arsenal fans no doubt wonder, if Wenger had been incentivized to win a title — through either the offer of more money or the threat of the sack — he may have done more to seriously challenge for the title in the past dozen or so seasons.

Chelsea are another example of how incentives can have a fundamental impact on a football club. Despite investing millions and being a dominant force in youth football, Chelsea have failed to see an academy graduate (barring the expensive Matic outlier) given an extended run in the first team since John Terry. The problem has been that a succession of managers have been so concerned about satisfying Roman Abramovich’s thirst for trophies that none has been able to risk the inevitable ups and downs that come with blooding young players.

In North London (yeah, take that, any Arsenal fans who read this), Spurs have been having some incentive problems of their own through the ENIC era. Specifically, the “buy-low, sell-high” business model that powered Spurs up from the middle of the Premier League pack to the “best of the rest” may have inadvertently created the incentives that prevented the club from taking the next step.

Think of that giddy time when Gareth Bale was beginning his metamorphosis, or Luka Modric was making Harry Redknapp’s team hum in central midfield, or Dimitar Berbatov was oozing class up front. There was always that fear we had as fans: “If he keeps playing this well, we’ll never be able to keep him.”

And this wasn’t mere pessimistic terrace talk — this was simply a statement of fact, given the financial model of the club at the time. This model created perverse incentives — success in player development and coaching could mean instability and the loss of key players, and what could be a step forward in fact turned into a step back. Little wonder, then, the club churned through a succession of managers.

The debacle that was the post-Bale reboot brought into full view the flaws of this strategy. The vision for how the club was supposed to be run hasn’t changed on a strategic level since Daniel Levy decided to move on from Harry Redknapp: an ambitious young manager committed to playing dynamic football and running the club in a modern, professional way.

Andre Villas-Boas, for all his personal shortcomings, was hamstrung by conflicting incentives and objectives: he had to sell his star player, yet somehow mould a collection of cheap replacements into a winning team without a sustained dip in performance. There were many reasons that AVB failed, but the incentives were never right.

I’m pretty sure that AVB was supposed to become what Mauricio Pochettino is now, but for Pochettino the incentives now are perfect.

He is charged with building a team that is greater than the sum of the parts, without the need to sell key players but accepting as a consequence that there are limited funds to acquire new ones. Instead of trying to compete with the moneybags clubs in the transfer market, Spurs are forced to do things in a different way, and are benefitting from doing so through squad unity and a vibrancy other clubs lack. Pochettino and the club have every incentive to develop young homegrown talent, especially since Harry Kane has shown how worthwhile it can be. Crucially, with no need to sell, there is no upper limit now on what can be achieved — when Pochettino talks about building the “project” and competing for titles, he means it, because that is the aim.

No doubt the club’s ability to resist cashing in on star players will be tested in years to come. But curiously, the new stadium, while hindering the ability to spend, creates a further incentive not to sell.

Spurs will be borrowing a lot of money to build the stadium, but the success of the investment ultimately rests on selling the 25,000 extra tickets each match and filling the lush new hospitality areas. This will be much easier with a successful and appealing team — as the ability of the club to sell out Wembley against three deeply uninspiring Champions League opponents this season attests. Spurs, therefore, have every incentive to keep Kane, Dele Alli and so on, no matter how easy Manchester United fans seem to think it will be to eventually tempt them away.

There are many reasons why I’m excited about Spurs at the moment, and there are many explanations about why the club is now moving forward even at a time it is increasingly financially disadvantaged compared to cash-rich rivals. This isn’t to take away credit from the remarkable job that Pochettino is doing, and the contrast with AVB is stark. Pochettino has immense sway at Hotspur Way now — a strong manager has the power to shape incentives.

A lot of things have to go right for a football club to succeed, but if the incentives aren’t right, change is just going round and round in a circle.

Think of the current team, if the old problem of selling star players reared its head again. Instead of building a single, ongoing project, Pochettino would be facing the challenge of replacing departing talent with cheaper, younger alternatives. You can’t defy footballing gravity forever, and Pochettino wouldn’t have the incentive to risk this damage to his reputation. Eventually he’d would walk away, reputation enhanced, like he did at Southampton (or, if he left it too late, leave sacked and heading back down the managerial pyramid, like most of his predecessors at Spurs).

There are many ways to describe the state of affairs at Spurs currently, but when we talk about stars aligning, virtuous circles, everyone pushing in the same direction or whatever expression it is (i’ve used a fair few…), key to it all is that the incentives are right.

Long may it continue.

And now, having written all that, I’m off to put a fiver on Trump to beat Clinton and West Brom to beat Spurs on Saturday.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

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Godspeed, Ryan Mason — One of our own

mason koala

The announcement that Ryan Mason has joined Hull City brings an end to the midfielder’s 17-year association with Spurs. Mason is player I have immense affection for, and I’ve rarely felt such pride as a Spurs fan as I did when seeing him step onto the pitch at Juventus Stadium in March 2015 in an England shirt.

Of all the prospects to have emerged from the academy in recent years, Mason’s development as a player has been the most surprising, and most inspiring. That he needs to move on from Spurs to find regular football at the age of 25 isn’t a mark of failure, but rather a success story that should be celebrated by the club and fans.

Young footballers face an extraordinarily rocky road, and few capture the randomness that awaits once a player signs a professional contract as Mason. In the past seven years, Mason has been an academy prospect and loan traveller, fringe talent and midfield mainstay, England international and rarely-used squad player.

Aged 23, after mixed loan spells in which he flashed both talent and susceptibility to injury, Mason found himself back at Hotspur Way in the summer of 2014, but firmly in the departure lounge. He’d made just five first-team appearances in a Spurs shirt, in the Europa League and League Cup, and this was surely destined to be his limit. The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino offered one final chance to impress.

Mason did enough on the pre-season tour of North America to secure a place in the first-team squad, but remained an afterthought for everybody, with the exception of the head coach. In late September, with Pochettino already growing exasperated by the expensive but underperforming midfield options such as Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, Spurs found themselves a goal down to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup third round with an hour played. The Argentine sent on first Harry Kane, and a minute later Mason, and the impact was almost immediate. Within eight minutes Mason had slammed home the equaliser, and Kane would tap in the third to wrap up the win.

“It’s a cliché,” Mason told the Telegraph. “But I had dreamt of that. I had always dreamt of scoring at White Hart Lane and to score a screamer…”

Such was the paucity of options, that cameo was enough to persuade Pochettino to give Mason a chance in the league. It was a daunting first assignment — away at the Emirates — but Mason performed with immense credit.

“It was weird,” he said about making his debut. “But, in my head, I’ve always felt I deserved a chance. I’d done well, I’d done well in training and I scored that goal. Still I think 90-95 percent of managers would not have put me in, they would have shied away from it and gone for someone with a lot more experience. But he showed faith in me.”

Mason went on to play 37 times for Spurs in 2014/15, and on March 31 he made his debut for England. In total, he played 70 times for Spurs, scoring four times.

But as much as his appearances, Mason was a symbol of what was changing at Spurs off the pitch.

Italy v England - International Friendly

Along with Nabil Bentaleb, Kane, Andros Townsend, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Mason was part of a core of young players that were creating a new feeling of togetherness at the club. It was, so the story goes, Mason and Kane who faced down the “Kaboul cabal” after the dismal home defeat to Stoke in the autumn of 2014, creating a new spirit of unity and commitment that would allow Pochettino to begin to implement his methods and changes without resistance.

The “one of own” chant is sung for Kane, but Mason was every bit as important in reconnecting fans and players. There is nothing more satisfying as a fan than seeing local boys out there on the pitch. It scratches that itch we all feel — that part of our support that rests on the fantasy that it might be (or at least could have been) us out there. Mason was out there living our dream, and the fact he’d got there as much through perseverance as God-given talent made it resonate even more.

Of the group that emerged under Pochettino, Walker and Bentaleb were the only ones who had previously shown the talent levels required to become regular starters for Spurs. Like Rose, Mason was having to adapt to a new position and more defensive responsibilities, but instead of having a year to mature at Sunderland, Mason had to learn on the fly, starting at the Emirates. The ability of Mason to adapt to both a new position, and a new system, is a testament to his footballing intelligence and Pochettino’s coaching ability. The Bentaleb-Mason midfield partnership wasn’t pretty, but it proved — just — sufficient for Pochettino to emerge unscathed from his first season in charge.

The third of Mason’s four career goals for Spurs came against Sunderland at the start of the 2015/16 season. Spurs had failed to win the first four games before the international break, and the failure to bring in players in the summer window meant the fanbase was simmering with frustration.

For 80 minutes, Spurs had played well but failed to score against a highly beatable Sunderland team, and the temperature was starting to rise. But with the game drifting to a draw, Mason exchanged passes with Erik Lamela, then set off towards the box, arriving at the perfect time. He chipped the ball over Costel Pantilimon to win the game, but in the process sustained a knee injury.

By the time he returned in late October, the Spurs midfield had changed. Eric Dier had emerged as a holding midfielder par excellence, Dele Alli had emerged as a superstar in the making, and Mousa Dembele, finally, had discovered a way to harness his immense natural talent. After starting four of the first five league games, Mason started only four more the rest of the season. Talk about the vagaries of football.

Mason did little in his sporadic appearances last season to suggest he could break back into the starting XI. Particularly harrowing was the Europa League outing in Dortmund, where Mason and fellow academy graduate Tom Carroll were hopelessly exposed by a Champions League calibre German outfit. It was a clear signal that better midfield options would be needed with Champions League beckoning for Spurs in 2016/17.

As a holding midfielder, Mason lacks strength and height, meaning he will never be the defensive option Spurs need alongside Eric Dier, that Victor Wanyama now is. As a box-to-box midfielder, Mason’s finishing has never been good enough — think of that guilt-edged chance at Stamford Bridge that would have kept Tottenham’s title dreams going for another week. As a playmaker, Mason’s passing is too mechanical and pedestrian.

But, mentally, Mason is as strong as they come. His high footballing IQ enabled him to understand the system, and earn Pochettino’s trust. He is a leader, and was selected as captain against Fiorentina last season in the Europa League. He is also a fighter — his Spurs career, short at is it, should by all logic have been shorter, had he not stuck at it so doggedly.

If you watched the preseason games, you saw the Mason conundrum as clearly as crystal. Against Atletico, Juventus and Inter Milan, Mason knew exactly what he was meant to be doing, offensively and defensively, but he couldn’t always execute it. Chances were spurned, passes were missed, the pressing was not quite tight enough. Simply put, Mason isn’t quite good enough at football for a team that is aiming for the title and competing in the Champions League.

That means Mason is open to criticism by fans, and to being sold by the club. This is the Premier League, and it’s a tough environment. But when I see comments on social media like “I never want to see Mason in a Spurs shirt again”, it makes my skin crawl with embarrassment.

Mason is a homegrown player, a local boy who came good. Few players in recent Spurs history have been so visibly proud to wear Lillywhite, and he has been a pivotal part of the transformation in the club’s culture since Pochettino took over. It would be wonderful if he was a better player, but he has maximised his talent and is a symbol of so much of what is right about the club. If he was 0.1 percent better, he’d still be with us; if he was 1 percent worse he’d be playing Sunday League and watching Spurs from the stands. These are the margins. If you find yourself hating a guy like this, you fundamentally misunderstand what is happening at Tottenham. You may be happier supporting Manchester City.

If you want to know how much Spurs means to Mason, you only have to Google it. It’s clear in pretty much any interview he has given. This was to FourFourTwo:

“I’ve been at the club since I was seven. I’m from north London and so, yes, the club is very much a part of my childhood. At first the football is just fun but as you progress it becomes a dream to try to reach the first team. From the age of about 14 you want to walk out at White Hart Lane on a Premier League matchday. I had to wait a very long time for my chance but it was worth it, and maybe the wait made it sweeter.”

Few clubs match Spurs in the ability to produce footballers. The Premier League and lower divisions are littered with former Spurs youngsters who have thrived away from White Hart Lane. The club is able to raise millions through the sale of academy graduates such as Alex Pritchard, Townsend, Jake Livermore and so on. This funds future development work, and creates a virtuous circle.

The fact that Spurs have secured a large fee for Mason — believed to be around £10 million — and his place in the squad is being taken primarily by Harry Winks, another homegrown player four years his junior, shows that Spurs as a football club is working. This is what is supposed to happen.

Mason is one of our own, and always will be. While the current eight-year-olds entering the academy will dream of being Harry Kane, the example set by Ryan Mason is just as important, and arguably more realistic. Persevere, work hard, maximise your talent, and you might get to play for Spurs and England.

I hope he goes on to achieve great success at Hull and beyond. If his body holds up, I have no doubt that he will.

Godspeed, Ryan Mason.

Curtain raiser: The case for Spurs in 2016/17

By Charles Richards / @spurs_report

Tottenham v Arsenal 2015

A new season means a blank slate, and a chance to forget about what happened last time around. For the five wealthiest clubs in the Premier League, there is plenty to forget.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool experienced varying degrees of misery in 2015/16. Three of them missed out on Champions League football, and two on European football altogether. Four of the five clubs have changed managers in the past 12 months, while a large section of the fifth’s fan base wishes they had too.

Leicester’s title was so unexpected, and so out of keeping with the status quo in the Premier League since Manchester City struck oil, that it can be shrugged off. The big boys will return to their position at the top of the table, while Leicester will slip back down to their rightful place in the pyramid with a pat on the head. “Doing a Leicester” is something for lesser clubs to dream of, but now dominance will be reasserted.

If last season was “Jamie Vardy: The Movie”, the 2016/17 campaign is shaping up to be “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Inconveniently, however, it wasn’t just Leicester who gatecrashed the party.

Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant Spurs side defied expectations to emerge as Leicester’s closest challengers, keeping up the pressure until the 36th game of the campaign, long after everyone else had given up and expected Spurs — of “Spursy”, “Lads It’s Tottenham” fame — to give up too.

Judging by the early raft of previews and general tone of the conversation, this awkward turn of events is just another thing to be forgotten. You won’t see Spurs in a “Who Will Qualify for the Champions League” prediction by any self-respecting journalist or pundit. The bookmakers and punters agree, listing Spurs as fifth or sixth favourites. The UK broadcasters have little belief that Spurs will be involved in any early top-of-the-table clashes, having selected just two of Tottenham’s opening six games for live coverage.

The narrative ahead of the 2016/17 Premier League season goes as follows:

  • New managers and blank cheques at Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea mean a return to the top.
  • Arsenal’s Champions League place is guaranteed as long as Arsene Wenger remains in charge.
  • Liverpool, reinvigorated under Jurgen Klopp and not afraid to spend, are the most likely challengers if anyone falters.

As for Spurs, the failure to win in the final four games of last season, plus unconvincing performances by Harry Kane and Dele Alli at the European Championships, are unarguable precursors to a year-long drop in form that will return Spurs to their signature, revenue-linked sixth position. Any success for Spurs in the previous season was in direct correlation to the lack of success by bigger clubs. Leicester winning the league was a fluke and will never happen again, ergo Spurs finishing third. Enjoy the Champions League nights at Wembley, Spurs fans, because it’s back to the Europa League in 2017/18 and beyond.

I mean, why do we even bother?

Here’s the thing though: rival teams never look stronger than they do before you’ve actually seen them play. Pep Guardiola’s tactical wizardry, Jose Mourinho’s psychological magic sponge and Antonio Conte’s manic energy are at their most impressive when they exist solely in your imagination. These dreams fuel football, and justify the billions ploughed into the game, not just by oligarchs but also fans.

The problem, once the season starts, is that reality intrudes on these dreams. Injuries, luck, form, inspired opponents, sulking strikers, fallings out, defensive errors and greedy agents can all conspire to make Pep’s tactics look naive, Conte’s energy wasted or Mourinho’s mind games misdirection rather than magic.

Don’t forget that Spurs are good

As James Yorke, a Spurs fan and therefore not one to succumb to a bout of the 2015/16 forgetsies, wrote in his excellent curtain raiser on Statsbomb, there is a six-into-four dynamic this season that means something has to give. But reading and watching the early previews, a curious logic appears to be emerging: the teams that most “need” to finish in the top four are identified as the teams that are most likely to do so. Klopp and Pochettino are less likely to lose their jobs if they fail to secure a top four finish, therefore Liverpool and Spurs are less likely to secure one.

I can understand how this conclusion is reached. But if we learned one lesson from last season, just one, it’s that you don’t get what you need, want or deserve in the Premier League. You just get what you get.

Watching the Manchester clubs spend hundreds of millions on flashy new players, and Roman Abramovich underwrite yet another mammoth Chelsea rebuilding, is intimidating to other teams and fans. And it is supposed to be that way. We’re still David standing there with our slingshot, but Goliath is back on his feet and he’s even bigger.

However Spurs fans (and Liverpool fans after watching their club repeatedly “do a Spurs”) know better than anyone that spending isn’t anything. While it makes you look strong, normally the need to spend is born out of a weakness. You can look at the history of transfers and see that 50 percent work out, 50 percent don’t. Smarter clubs do slightly better, stupid clubs do slightly worse. Not every weakness that dragged the Premier League elite below expectations last season is going to be fixed, and even fewer are going to be fixed immediately.

No club has needed to spend less than Spurs this summer. Sure, we had to buy a second striker and increase the midfield options, but the same starting XI that finished third last season is in place and ready to go. There is no need to adapt to new tactics, understand a new philosophy, or learn how to play together. Spurs walk out at Goodison Park on August 13th knowing exactly what they are meant to be doing.

Last season, Spurs conceded the joint fewest goals along with Manchester United, and five of those 35 goals came in the shitshow at Newcastle. We had the best goal difference (+34) and second best expected goals difference (+29.3, behind Arsenal’s +34.4, per Michael Caley). A bunch of other metrics looked good, if that is your thing. Mauricio Pochettino’s side equalled the club’s highest Premier League points haul, and in six of the ten prior seasons, 70 points would have secured a top four place. Spurs didn’t ride a hot streak, a single superstar or a freak set of results. Spurs were just plain, old-fashioned good, and had the youngest starting XI in the league to boot.

The “Spurs are good” genie is out of the bottle, and it would take an extreme set of circumstances to blow Spurs off course. Do you think Spurs are going to forget how to press? Are Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen going to forget how to play together? Are Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembele going to wake up one morning as the ineffective players they were two years ago? Is Christian Eriksen going to stop making smart passes, and Harry Kane stop finishing them off? As I have stated repeatedly in the past six months, the success Pochettino has created at Spurs has been built on extremely solid foundations. There is a plan, and it is working.

Instead of taking the dismissal of Spurs’ chances as a slight, or as a precursor to a return to the Europa League, we should embrace it.

Spurs are dipping back below the radar, ready to surprise the league by once again not being the Spurs everyone expects us to be. There is a chance to quietly build momentum while the talking heads fawn over Pep and Conte, and the press covers every waking move by Zlatan and Mourinho, the Premier League’s Kanye and Kim. Less pressure means more space for young players like Dele Alli and Eric Dier to grow, for emerging talents like Josh Onomah to find their feet, for new signings like Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to bed in.

Fueling the fire

What seemed so egregious last season was the relish that greeted every Spurs mistake in the run-in from fanbases who’ve forgotten what it is like to see local boys wearing the shirt, or whose teams had never seriously challenged Leicester for the title. This was only compounded when the same Spurs players formed the core of the England team that flopped at the Euros.

Because we have to explain everything, and connect everything, these two storylines merged into one. Spurs were mentally and physically exhausted, the subtext of which was weakness.

But Spurs didn’t “lose” the title to Leicester; we were only ahead of Leicester for 13 minutes last season and couldn’t chase them down. England didn’t flop because the Spurs players were shattered; England flopped because Roy Hodgson and Gary Neville, in a gross act of footballing negligence, sent the players into battle devoid of tactics and a game plan.

If others want to interpret this confluence of negativity as a precursor to doom, so be it. But do you think, for one second, that Pochettino will let the players dwell on what happened at the end of last season and over the summer, and indulge a hangover? Do you think, for one second, that the anger at falling short last season and the outbreak of schadenfreude will do anything other than drive this team on?

Make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title this season.

“We want to win it, and we will go for it,” Alderweireld said towards the end of last season. “I think we now have a different mindset from the one we had at the beginning of this season. Then we were thinking the top four would be brilliant, now we are thinking more than that, we want to go one better.”

Over the past 12 months, Spurs fans have been slower than the players in believing what can be achieved, a caution born out of bitter experience. We are still looking at possible scenarios and bargaining with ourselves as to what is possible, trying to find the balance between hope and realism, mentally hedging against disappointment by lowering expectations.

A sliding scale of acceptability emerges: If not second, then third; if not third, then fourth; if not fourth, then at least win a cup; if no cup win, at least reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League; if we don’t finish above Arsenal, let’s at least finish above Liverpool or Chelsea or West Ham or someone.

But for Spurs, it is no longer about trying to define success in this way: this is the old way of thinking. For Pochettino, the only target is to win the title, and his whole ethos is about continually improving his team until that happens. Finishing in the top four accelerates the building process because Champions League football helps recruitment, increases the budget, and aids player retention. But it isn’t the goal in itself for Pochettino, no matter what the bean counters say. There’s a world of difference between something that is good enough, and something that you really want.

What does progress look like?

Measuring progress is difficult, because it can be counterintuitive. It is possible to improve as a team but still finish lower down the league. We only have control over our opponents’ results twice a season.

So how will Pochettino measure progress, and how should we?

There will be statistical measures that we may or may not see, assessing the quality of things like the press, attacking build-up, set-pieces and fitness, as well as the increase in mental strength that Pochettino considers so crucial yet is so hard to define.

But more visibly, Pochettino will be looking to fix the areas where Spurs fell short.

That means more single-goal wins, whether they be late winners, rearguard actions to protect an early lead, or simply greater control when we’re not playing well. That means fewer dropped points at White Hart Lane, particular against teams such as West Brom who come and sit deep. That means better performances in Europe, because our Europa League displays have been consistently mediocre and we need to raise our game in the Champions League.

Crucially, that also means better results against the other “big” clubs. Spurs improved results in these matches last season, taking 15 points from 30 compared with just seven from 30 in 2014/15, but there is still room for improvement. We’ve not beaten Liverpool yet under Pochettino, and we still need to overcome our Stamford Bridge hoodoo.

These are all yardsticks to measure Tottenham’s progress against. We may solve all the problems, or we may not. The extent to which Spurs manage to do this will determine the strength of the title challenge. But the problems are clear, and they are fixable, and Pochettino has consistently shown the intelligence and ambition required for the task at hand.

If I have one concern, it is a lack of an alternative or supplementary midfield creator to Christian Eriksen. But there is nearly a month left in the transfer window, and plenty of money in the kitty after the relatively light investment since Pochettino took charge. Every other club has a weakness that is just as glaring — in central defensive for Manchester City and Chelsea, the right flank for Manchester United, in most defensive positions for Liverpool and up front for Arsenal. We’re just as likely to find our missing link, if not more.

We’ll know if Spurs are making progress because suddenly our games will be on TV, the players will be in the papers, Mourinho will start his mind games and Chelsea will begin baiting us. Articles describing Spurs as the “surprise package” will be written, glossing over the fact that Spurs being good again really shouldn’t have been that much of a shock if you’d only paid attention.

I’m not going to predict that Spurs are going to win the league — as anyone who follows me on Twitter or has read this blog for a while will attest, my predictions are beyond hopeless.

But make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title. Just a shame you had to read it here first.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

The Pochettino Revolution: How Tottenham were transformed from also-rans to title contenders

By Charles Richards/@spurs_report

Poch_cover

Sky Sports, via Google Images

As a Spurs fan, you can pick your nadir.

Maybe it was Lasagne-gate, or the night when Chelsea snatched our hard-earned Champions League spot in 2012. Perhaps it was the sight of Arsenal celebrating the league title on the pitch at White Hart Lane, Sol Campbell among them. For some the pain predates the Premier League era, while for others each new misstep supersedes the last and it is the final-day faceplant against Newcastle in May that stings more than anything.

For me, rock bottom came on March 8, 2014:

Chelsea 4 Tottenham 0.

I had some things going on in my life at that time, and more than ever before or since, I needed my team. I needed that temporary uplift, that two hours of escape, that feeling of togetherness that a good Spurs performance brings. Instead, I witnessed one of the most abysmal displays in recent memory.

The BBC summed up the shambles in its match report:

“Spurs fell behind to Eto’o’s 56th-minute strike, which came after Jan Vertonghen’s slip and aimless pass, before more mistakes – from Sandro and Kyle Walker – led to Chelsea’s third and fourth goals at the death. Chelsea’s second came from Hazard’s penalty after Younes Kaboul fouled Eto’o, a challenge that also saw the French defender sent off.”

That Tim Sherwood, parachuted into his first managerial role mid-campaign, was out of his depth tactically was already clear. But as he appeared before the TV cameras and lambasted the players, it was becoming evident that he wasn’t psychologically suited to the task either. It wasn’t what he said — the performance was gutless, the squad did have players who didn’t care — but rather the way that he said it. As he lost control, he lashed out; his attitude appeared to be, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me.” There was a real risk that his interim appointment could cause lasting damage, and the few positive legacies from the lean preceding years, such as Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen, would seek a departure as the club stumbled blindly into the next false dawn.

Spurs as a club wasn’t just fractured, it was broken. Daniel Levy’s schizophrenic switching between “continental” and “English” strategies had gone into overdrive, bordering on parody, with the transition from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” vacuity of Andre Villas-Boas and Franco Baldini to the cartoonish footballing provincialism of Sherwood.

When Levy, rebuffed by Louis van Gaal, turned to Mauricio Pochettino in May of 2014, this was an appointment that simply had to work. The club’s “best of the rest” status, that ambition of Champions League football that could be sold to potential recruits even if it wasn’t quite achieved, was threatened as Spurs drifted back towards the mid-table pack. The stadium project was stalled, while the new training ground was an expensive new facility that no-one appeared to know how to make the most out of, like an iPad only used for playing Angry Birds.

I don’t think, in hindsight, we can overestimate the scale of the job that faced Pochettino when he first joined. Aged 42 and with little more than five years of managerial experience, he became the 10th Spurs manager in 12 years on the strength of a hugely impressive, if low-pressure, spell at Southampton.

Two years on, Spurs are back in the Champions League, playing vibrant football, and have a young and united squad with a strong homegrown core. The success appears sustainable, and I can’t recall ever feeling that the future was so bright. Only the most attention-seeking of contrarians will argue that Pochettino hasn’t succeeded in every respect.

Which begs the question, how on earth has Pochettino prospered where so many of his predecessors have failed?

Heading into the Argentine’s third season in charge of Tottenham, now is the perfect time to look back at what Pochettino has achieved, and the work that still needs to be done.

 

The Kaboul Cabal and a dressing room revolt

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For the first 11 league games of Pochettino’s tenure, it had all the hallmarks of another trademark Tottenham false dawn.

Eric Dier’s late winner against West Ham and a thrashing of QPR raised expectations, only for a crushing defeat by Liverpool to send Spurs back down to earth. A point at the Emirates was fine, another inept thrashing at the Etihad a sign that nothing had really changed.

The real problems occurred once the Europa League campaign kicked in, and those early Sunday kick-offs at White Hart Lane, fans and players equally unenthusiastic, returned. First was a narrow defeat to West Brom, which happens, then a farcical defeat to Newcastle in which Alan Pardew’s side scored seven seconds into the second half, which really shouldn’t. When Stoke went 2-0 up within 33 minutes on November 9, with Spurs devoid of ideas and any clue how to defend, for the first time the atmosphere turned mutinous.

There’s a story, which I heard from THST Co-Chair Martin Cloake on The Tottenham Way podcast, about the Spurs dressing room after the Stoke match. Returning down the tunnel, the boos ringing out after a 2-1 home defeat, it was business as usual for the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor. At this point, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason stood up and took control, informing the dressing room that this wasn’t acceptable. There was a rebellion, and Pochettino needed to decide who to back.

This match would prove to be a watershed, above all in Pochettino’s understanding of his squad’s willingness and ability to carry out his instructions. Adebayor, who didn’t care, was cast aside, as were the likes of Kaboul and Etienne Capoue, after being deemed inadequate technically and tactically. The “Kaboul Cabal” was born — even if the term was harsh on Kaboul himself, a committed player for whom injury rather than attitude had been the (primary) downfall.

Others would find themselves pushed to the sidelines. Aaron Lennon, the club’s longest serving player, was a walking, talking (and rarely playing) version of the “needs a new challenge” cliche. By February he’d be at Everton on loan. Paulinho continued to appear, occasionally and never effectively, while Roberto Soldado’s crisis of confidence deepened. New signings like Federico Fazio and Benji Stambouli were evidently sub-standard. In their place, the young guns led by Kane, starting to embark on his rise to national prominence, would be given their chance.

In hindsight, Pochettino’s biggest achievement at Spurs may have been surviving his first season. He inherited an unmotivated, fractious and poorly assembled squad, but one that was expensive enough to raise expectations. Ditching the “Kaboul Cabal” was the right move, as was turning to the likes of Kane, Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. But there was also an element of luck that these players were able to step up. Was it good management, or just good fortune?

This “lucky vs good” question would be an issue through the 2014/15 season. All those late Eriksen or Kane winners that kept the campaign afloat — was that the mark of enhanced fitness stemming from superior training methods, or just the rub of the green? The Pochettino pressing game wasn’t just poorly executed, it was positively dangerous, with Spurs shipping 53 goals. Southampton conceded just 33, yet we finished fifth while they finished 7th.

If the dismal Stoke defeat was one milepost, another would come on New Year’s Day against Chelsea. For the first time, Spurs fans witnessed the sort of performance that we’d allowed ourselves to dream about in the most optimistic moments when Pochettino was appointed. A young Spurs side descending on Chelsea’s league leaders like a pack of wolves, ripping them apart and scoring five.

For many fans, this was seen as a turning point, the moment when the Pochettino project found its feet and the club kicked into the next gear. But perception is a funny thing, especially when it comes to gauging success. Even though we all felt that performances were finally improving, and revelled in the thought that a brighter future was starting to take shape, actually results didn’t really improve much. In the 19 games before we played Chelsea, we averaged 1.63 points per game, in the 18 games after we averaged 1.66. The reality was Spurs were playing a bit better, had one or two excellent performances (notably against Arsenal), but were still a flawed unit with huge holes in the squad (and in the defence).

Ultimately, Pochettino did enough in his first season. Spurs got enough points, there was enough hope about the future, enough signs that his methods were working, enough understanding that a lot of the failures could be laid at Baldini or Levy’s doors. But going into 2015/16 there were precious few hints of what was going to come.

“I hear people say stuff about Tottenham and I don’t like it”

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After a familiar slow start to Pochettino’s second campaign in charge, and a frustrating summer where key areas of the squad (central midfield and striker) were not strengthened, it soon became clear that something was happening at Spurs.

It wasn’t like the previous season, where, rightly or not, the 5-3 win over Chelsea could be seen as a visible turning point. Instead, after there was a steady drip of events, information, quotes and social media buzz that pointed to a more positive dynamic emerging.

After losing narrowly at Old Trafford, Spurs were unbeaten for the next fourteen games. The defence was miserly, and for the first time in years we had a proper central defensive partnership in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. In front of them, Eric Dier was starting to demonstrate that he was much more than a centre-back slotted into midfield due to a shortage of options. Dele Alli was proving that the impish nutmeg of Luka Modric in pre-season really was the precursor to greater success that we’d hoped for. Even Erik Lamela, so lost in his first two years and nearly shipped out on loan to Marseille, was starting to get it. Harry Kane, after a slow start, rediscovered his shooting boots.

Above all, the penny had appeared to drop about the type of play Pochettino wanted. The pressing was notably better, the way the centre backs split and the fullbacks zoomed forward was smoother than a Swiss watch, while Dele Alli’s ability to get beyond defences unlocked space for Eriksen and Kane. The passing became crisper, the ball and players fizzing around menacingly.

After his first season, Pochettino diagnosed two primary problems with the squad he inherited. First, there were the players who weren’t up to it, for a variety of reasons; second, the squad was simply too big. It was counterintuitive, given how widely accepted has become the Mourinho doctrine of two quality players in each position, and how Spurs have struggled with Europa League demands in the past. But Pochettino wanted a more united and cohesive squad, and placed faith in the quality of his fitness work and injury prevention record to withstand the rigours of the schedule.

“Character” is a tainted word in football, thanks to the Proper Football Men’s overuse of the word to describe a myriad of situations and problems. But anyone who has followed Spurs in the past two years will agree that a greater emphasis has been placed on identifying the “right” sort of player. Call it character, mentality, psychology, attitude or personality, the dressing room at Spurs hasn’t come together by accident. Pochettino and has staff have created an atmosphere of hard work and common purpose, and on the recruitment side, more attention has been paid to finding players who buy into this.

There were softer touches too. The club invested in improved social media over the summer of 2015, bringing in The Times journalist Henry Winter to advise players on how to communicate. Unlike other clubs, the players were always on message, but nonetheless it felt natural and not contrived PR fluff. The Dier-Alli bromance blossomed, photos of the squad eating together were shared, a mid-season trip to Barcelona was a roaring success, and created an impression of harmony. Even Pochettino and his staff got in on the act, larking about on a jog around Baku before the match against FC Qarabag, brightening what could have been a long and boring trip. The players genuinely seem to get along, and be happy at Spurs.

In previous years, the leaks out of Hotspur Way were negative, the internal politics spilling out into the open and undermining the attempts at unity from whichever manager happened to be in charge at the time. Gone were the stories about strikers falling out with managers over beanie hats and and transfer blame games, now it was all positive — little vignettes such as the players all joining in board games, shooting competitions after training, the tough fitness work seen as a badge of honour, not a cause for complaint.

This shift in mentality, the new toughness and determination emanating from the camp, was summed up by Eric Dier after Spurs thumped Man City at White Hart Lane:

“I don’t think we get the credit we deserve. We are an extremely young squad. I hear people saying stuff about Tottenham and I don’t like it. I don’t think the other boys like it either.”

I hate it, but the term “Spursy” was coined for a reason — too many sloppy goals, weak performances, decades of prioritizing style over substance. “Spursy” became a catch-all term to explain how it felt for success — however you cared to define it — always being just out of reach. We were Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football, and maybe, just maybe, things were starting to change.

Gary Neville, before embarking on an annus horribilis that would see his reputation in tatters, declared Pochettino his favourite manager in the league. “There is not one negative word I could use,” Neville said of the Argentine’s work. “There is nothing I dislike.”

A lot has gone right at Spurs in the last two years. Recruitment has improved with the arrival of Paul Mitchell and Rob MacKenzie, the return of Ian Broomfield and (unofficially) David Pleat, and much-needed investment in the scouting network. Assistant manager Jesus Perez is a sports scientist, and the standard of physical training (and injury prevention) has improved remarkably. A pathway for youngsters fostered by academy guru John McDermott has been established.

Perhaps most important is the relationship between Pochettino and Levy. In his rare media or public outings such as the Q&A with fans last year, the chairman has appeared unusually relaxed. He even undertook the “Ice Bucket Challenge” — remember that? — although the two players who soaked him didn’t last long. Pochettino revealed he’d watched one of the Leicester games at his house with Levy in last season’s title run-in.

It seems, more than anything, like Levy has finally “found his guy” — a manager who offers middle ground between the continental and the English styles. Levy is able to focus on non-football things — things that arguably he is far better at — such as the stadium project and other property ventures, as well as the money side. There is a balance of responsibilities and a structure that has previously been lacking at the club. Pochettino’s title change from head coach to manager reflects the extent to which he rules the roost at Hotspur Way, and the trust he has earned from a chairman with a reputation for micro-management.

It isn’t all handshakes and hugs at Hotspur Way either. Pochettino has shown he can be tough, and will treat expensive imports and homegrown talent equally firmly if the situation requires. When Andros Townsend threw a tantrum during a warm-down after the match against Aston Villa, Pochettino’s response was swift and firm: “When you behave in the wrong way, you have to pay.” Townsend was suspended, and left the club a few months later.

According to Toby Alderweireld, the key change under Pochettino was the team spirit: there were “no longer any heroes” in the Spurs team.

“When one makes a mistake, the other one picks it up. We have a togetherness. We want to achieve something this season and I think you can see that on the pitch. There is confidence and self belief — not arrogance — that we can beat everybody. We know that if we don’t put the effort in, we are a normal team.

“He [Pochettino] only puts in guys who work very hard. A lot of guys have left the club. If you do not follow the path, you don’t belong in Tottenham.”

Pochettino doesn’t seek credit, and when he signed his new contract, he made sure his team of coaches were signed up too. But, undoubtedly, when looking at the progress made by Spurs in the past 24 months, the Argentine is the common denominator.

“When your face isn’t smiling, your feet aren’t smiling”

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Pochettino doesn’t court publicity and he keeps his opinions to himself. There are no mind games, no taking of the bait, and rarely any insight into how he goes about his business.

On a personal level, two years on, we know practically nothing about him. We know Pochettino works incredibly hard — arriving at Hotspur Way very early and leaving very late. We know his son Maurizio is in the youth set-up. We know nothing about Mrs Pochettino — beyond the fact she thought he’d put on some weight last season forcing him to spend time on the treadmill over lunch. We know he insists on organic meat. We know Marcelo Bielsa is the dominant influence, from the day El Loco signed Pochettino up on the strength of his legs.

The contrast with Jose Mourinho, whose PR blitz for the Manchester United job would have made Kim Kardashian blush, couldn’t be starker.

The lack of soundbites and storylines from Hotspur Way frustrates journalists covering the team, and there have been communication problems with fans. Comments appearing to de-emphasize the importance of finishing above Arsenal last season, while reasonable, did not come out quite as intended and added to the frustration of slipping down to third.

We have rarely seen Pochettino flustered. About the only time last season was after comments about him wanting to manage his former club PSG in the future, again reasonable, emerged and took on a life of their own. His subsequent announcement that he had agreed a new deal with Spurs seemed impromptu. The sense above all is that he sees media duties as an obligation, not an opportunity. Because of his still-limited English, it is the one part of his fiefdom where he doesn’t have the degree of control that he would like.

But despite this, we all know what the Pochettino mantra is. Performance in training is crucial, fitness is paramount, the process of improving mentally is continual. Homegrown talent must be given the same opportunities as expensive imports, players are treated like adults and expected to behave as such. The sum of the parts must never be greater than the whole.

Over the busy Christmas period in 2014 and with three days before the next match, Pochettino was asked by a TV reporter if his plan was to “rest, rest and rest.” He replied, quick as a flash and with a smile, “No. Train, train, train.” Not every footballer will like this approach, and those thinking of joining Spurs will know exactly what is in store. It’s like the Spartans leaving out their newborn boys — it filters out the weak.

Rare insight into the way Pochettino works was given by John McDermott in a talk in California that was transcribed and posted on Reddit.

McDermott revealed that he spent several hours a day working with Pochettino. He considered Pochettino by far the best manager he had worked with, and described him as the “best strategist in terms of how he got the club working.”

“Pochettino is a leader of people, a very warm, Latin, touchy feely man, he has got something about him, an X factor. If you took Pochettino from Tottenham right now, they would not be half as successful. Pochettino will often say something doesn’t ‘feel’ right, he uses his intuition. For example, (he said to) Bentaleb, ‘When your face is not smiling, your feet are not smiling’. It is an intuition allied with statistics.”

For McDermott, who has spent years trying to work with Spurs managers, some of whom have shown no interest in the young talent he is developing, he now has a very different problem keeping him awake at night.

“How do I make sure our academy keeps up with Pochettino? He has taken it to another level.”

“We are ready to compete against any team”

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I have always thought captaincy is a good indication of the health of a squad. When a squad seems united, potential captains, vice-captains and future captains abound. When a squad seems short on “character” — perhaps Man United in recent years — there appear few, if any, choices.

If Pochettino could have one mulligan from his time at Spurs, it would be appointing Kaboul as captain and Adebayor as vice-captain. In hindsight, it was a horrible decision, but it was also an indicator of the extent to which the lunatics had taken over the asylum. The artful way that Pochettino buried the likes of Kaboul and Adebayor for the rest of the campaign was testament to his man management skills and the way a previously leaky club was starting to tighten up.

Now, you could happily see any of Alderweireld, Danny Rose and Dier joining Lloris, Vertonghen and Kane among the Spurs leadership group.

No-one speaks in more positive tones of Pochettino than Lloris. The France and Spurs captain revealed to the Guardian not only how close he had coming to leaving the club, but also how immediate Pochettino’s impact was.

“I had some concern and I question a bit myself two years ago, after AVB and Tim Sherwood were in charge. I think the first meeting with Mauricio Pochettino was very clear for me, for my future. I think I trust him since the first second I meet him, and because I understand what he wants, fully agree about his football view. I can say we have the same football view and he’s brought a lot to the team and the players.”

“The credit is for the gaffer. I think he changed all, inside the training ground, inside the squad, it’s about his mentality, his personality. We can feel we improved a lot. We have a real identity now and, from outside, it’s very clear. We try to play good football but don’t forget that we need to be aggressive, especially in the Premier League.”

“If you’re not aggressive, it’s difficult to be competitive and so if you have a good philosophy of football, you add aggression, hunger, because of course we are young but we can feel the team is very hungry. It means a lot for me. It’s about competitive mentality. Now we can feel we are competitive, and ready to compete against any team.”

“We show this season a lot of character. Of course, it will be interesting what will happen next season but I think in the way we work, we are improving every month so it’s not about this season. It’s also about the next season and the project of the gaffer.”

Mentality. Hunger. Aggression. Project. These are the new buzzwords at Hotspur Way.

For decades, I feel we’ve misunderstood what Bill Nicholson was trying to tell us when he said “It’s no use just winning, we’ve got to win well.” For Nicholson, the winning part was assumed. In the Premier League era, Spurs have been so fixated on winning well that we’ve forgotten to win.

It turns out, winning matches and competing for the title is far more entertaining than playing pretty football and finishing 10th. We can add the flourishes in years to come, but first of all we must win.

I still believe the most exhilarating football that I have seen from a Spurs team in the Premier League era was for a short spell under Harry Redknapp. Gareth Bale was metamorphosing in front of our eyes from unlucky left back to world-class winger, leaving Aaron Lennon free on the other flank. With Luka Modric pulling the strings, the ball always seemed to find the right man.

Redknapp secured two top-four finishes, which sometimes gets forgotten, but his was a flame that burned brightly and then faded. Redknapp — you could imagine Levy cringing in embarrassment whenever the car window got wound down on transfer deadline day — carried so much baggage he needed a roof rack. Redknapp turned Spurs around, and history will judge him as a successful Spurs manager once his tiresome self-promotion fades, but it was never clear that he was able to put in the foundations for longer-term success.

At its best, the defining characteristic of Pochettino’s football has been the intensity, rather than the swagger.

There have been spells, usually in the biggest matches, when we’ve torn the opposition to shreds. Against Manchester United last season, once Spurs had the breakthrough, we savaged them. Likewise in the second half against Arsenal in 2014/15 when Harry Kane scored twice.

But to me, the peak Pochettino performance — not in result but in the manner it represented what the Argentine has been able to change in his two years in charge — came against Manchester City at the Etihad in February.

Manchester City, embarrassed by a thrashing at home to Leicester the previous weekend, were desperate to bounce back. An inconsistent team even before Manuel Pellegrini’s regime began to run out of steam, they were fired up against Spurs. For 80 minutes, Spurs absorbed City’s blows and got a few in of their own. Aguero buzzed around like a hornet and Yaya Toure strode forward like he used to in his prime, none of the old-man shuffling that was seen so often last campaign.

In the 81st minute, score 1-1, four Spurs players surrounded Toure like muggers in a dark alley, stealing first the ball, then the three points. Pochettino celebrated like we’d not seen before, because he must have known that this was not only a huge moment in the title race, but also a vindication of his methods. All that hard work on fitness and mentality, the drilling of the press so tired players could still execute it effectively late in a top-of-the-table clash, had come to fruition.

It was the clearest indication that the plan was working, even if Spurs would eventually come up just short.

“Going down like Tony Montana”

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Ultimately, while the match at the Etihad would be a high-water mark, the match that will be remembered last season is the Battle of the Bridge. It showed how far Spurs had come, but also the room for further growth.

Fans of other clubs say Spurs bottled it, ignoring with standard footballing myopia that Spurs were still in the title race with three games to go, unlike everyone else. Some Spurs fans were critical of the performance, considering the aggression unattractive and indicative of a team that had lost its head.

Comparing Spurs’ disappointment to Manchester City’s limp defeat against Real Madrid, the (brilliant) Rob Smyth wrote one of those pieces which seemed to capture my every thought at the time:

“Spurs and Manchester City both missed out on major prizes this week; one went down like Tony Montana, the other closed the door quietly behind them. As a neutral or a fan, what would you rather watch? … Spurs stood up to Chelsea in a way that would never have happened in the past, and that burst of aggression is intrinsically linked to other qualities that make this the best Spurs side in decades. It is almost impossible for a team to excel in the Premier League without those qualities. In their darkest hour, Spurs looked like winners.

“If that happened every week it would be an issue, but these were unique circumstances. Spurs gave a human response to crushing disappointment; as such, they deserved a bit more sympathy and a lot more empathy. They had been battling for the title all season, and saw it disappear, at a time when they were being goaded by 40,000 fans, not to mention a number of Chelsea players. What were they supposed to do, smile sweetly and take a selfie?”

I’ll view every game at Stamford Bridge through the prism of the misery of March 8, 2014. Watching Spurs go down all guns blazing made me feel proud. I can live with disappointment, I can’t live with surrender.

What the Battle of the Bridge showed, however, was that fighting and togetherness wasn’t enough. I don’t buy the argument that inexperience was the problem that night, given it was more experienced players like Mousa Dembele and Kyle Walker who lost their discipline first. When HMS Dier went into Destroyer mode, the game was already gone.

The 2-2 draw, more than the two defeats of an emotionally exhausted team that followed, highlighted what Spurs lacked, and offer the blueprint for what needs to happen next.

Spurs need better squad options when players are injured, rested or suspended. We need reliable impact players off the bench, both defensive and in attack. We need to get better at controlling games we are leading, and seeing out the close ones. When teams like Chelsea, who have world class players and who hate our guts, throw everything at us, we need to be able to withstand it better. We didn’t lose that night, even though it seemed that we did — but we needed to win.

In his first season, Pochettino got by with a makeshift central midfield of Bentaleb and Mason, who’d made a combined 24 senior appearances for Spurs before he took over. In his second season, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, combined Premier League midfield appearances zero, became first choice for club and country. Dembele, seemingly destined to see out his career at somewhere like Sunderland, finally found a way to fulfil the potential he’d flashed for the past ten years.

Can you imagine what Spurs will be capable of as the quality of the squad improves, with a squad that is a year older and a year wiser, and motivated by the anger of how the season ended? There are still a thousand things that can go wrong, not least given the unprecedented arms racing taking place among the big-money Premier League rivals while Spurs are forced to cut the cloth more conservatively while the stadium is financed. But optimism is no cause for embarrassment.

I wrote last season that Pochettino has an opportunity to build a dynasty at Spurs, and what encourages me more than anything is that he knows it too.

“When you compare Tottenham with big sides people can see our approach is for the long term. We have the youngest squad in the Premier League yet here we are fighting for the title. The project is fantastic, because we are ahead of the programme – we are only going to get better. This is true because for a lot of players this is their first season in the Premier League and next season they will be better because they will have more experience. In football you always need time to develop to your full quality.”

“It is impossible to set limits. It is also important to improve our squad because this is always our idea to improve. Our idea is to keep the main group for the next few years and to try and build and add players that can help us.”

I love the line about it being impossible to set limits. It’s going to be tough for Spurs to take that next step and win a title, but we will never have a better platform. Let season three begin of the Pochettino era begin.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

Did Spurs leave points on the table? Lessons for 2016/17 from the failure to keep pace with Leicester

SpursWBASandro

Spurs were sucked into the Tony Pulis vortex on Monday night, and the failure to emerge with three points means that the Premier League trophy is almost certainly heading to Leicester. The Foxes only need three points from their final three games, and even that is assuming Spurs win their remaining three.

After the game, Spurs fans were understandably downbeat. Spurs have not seriously challenged for the title in the Premier League era, and it hurts to fall short.

It should be remembered, Spurs led the league for a grand total of 13 minutes all season. The title was always just out of reach, as Leicester rolled remorselessly — and freakishly — on. Spurs clung on longer than anyone else, an impressive enough feat. We didn’t “lose” the title: it was never our title to lose.

Once the initial disappointment fades, cause for pride and optimism abounds. This Spurs team is just scratching at the surface of what it can achieve. Does anyone seriously think we’ll be back to contending for fifth of sixth next season?

A key to success in the future is learning from the failings of the past. You can be assured, Mauricio Pochettino and his staff will be looking back at certain moments and certain decisions over the course of the season with a view to improvement next time around.

So, did Spurs leave points on the table? And what lessons can the team take to ensure the title challenge is even stronger in 2016/17?

I will sketch out some of the scenarios that I believe may be in play. As you will see, there is overlap — it would be wildly oversimplifying the situation to claim there was one reason, and one reason alone, why Spurs came up short.

The “second striker” shortage

While Harry Kane has banged in 24 Premier League goals (and counting), proving conclusively that he is a world-class centre forward, the rest of the goals have been spread around the team.

The next highest scorer in the league is Dele Alli with 10, followed by Christian Eriksen with six. No other player has scored more than four.

This is no great surprise, given Kane is the only out-and-out striker in the squad. The other players identified as forward options — Son Heung-min, Clinton N’Jie and, at a push, Nacer Chadli — have five goals in the league combined.

I was curious to see if any recent Premier League winners have been as reliant on a single goalscorer as Spurs are with Kane. The following table shows the champion’s top scorer, “second scorer” and others who notched more than 10 goals.

Second Scorers

As you can see, every Premier League champion, going back to Arsenal in 2003/04, has had at least two players score more than 10 goals. The majority have at least three, and more often strikers than midfielders (although the names “Ronaldo” and “Lampard” appear repeatedly).

Spurs are more like last season’s Chelsea, or the 2003/04 Arsenal team, with their reliance on one striker and one goalscoring midfielder. Leicester are similar, although Mahrez’s 17 goals makes him the joint-second most prolific “second scorer”. Alli’s 10 — and that may well be it given a potential suspension — makes him the least prolific “second scorer” on the list.

WIth the best goal difference in the league, a whopping +39, it can be argued that this lack of a second banana up front hasn’t been an issue for Spurs. But, there have undeniably been games — Everton at home, West Brom home and away, Swansea away– when another forward option may have been the difference between one point, and three. Per The Telegraph’s Matt Law, in 19 games Kane has failed to score, Spurs have failed to win 13 times.

Monday night was a case in point. With West Brom lining up with four centre backs and three defensive midfielders, they built a formidable wall. After a while, Spurs’ attacking play became predictable, and West Brom were very comfortable in the final 30 minutes.

Once the equaliser was conceded, Spurs had no need for a defensive midfielder given West Brom’s lack of attacking intent. Another out and out striker, while Kane went deep and wide in search of space and the ball, may have posed a different problem for the West Brom defence. Pochettino simply doesn’t have the sort of goal poacher he may want to call on in this situation. You don’t think an in-his-prime Jermain Defoe wouldn’t have bagged a dozen or so goals in this Spurs team?

Spurs evidently were unable to identify and secure a second out-and-out striker in the summer, most notoriously Saido Berahino. Pochettino opted to keep his powder dry in the January window — laudably refusing to compromise future recruitment for a roll of the dice on a face that may not fit.

But, if Spurs had been able to secure another striker, that may have made the difference in a number of tight games.

Struggling to grind it out

Leicester’s ability to grind out narrow wins was extraordinarily. Out of 22 wins (with three games to play), Leicester won by a single-goal margin 14 times.

By contrast, just six of Spurs’ 19 wins have been by a single goal. When Spurs win, the wins come in some style — hence the +39 goal difference.

A common complaint this season has been that Spurs draw too many games, but is this true? Spurs have drawn 12, but Leicester have drawn 10, a fair number. Both teams are very hard to beat — you rather suspect the settled centre back situations (both teams have only used three each all season) may have an impact here. By contrast, Manchester City drew seven while losing nine — Leicester and Spurs have lost seven combined.

This ability to see out narrow games will surely be a focus of Pochettino’s tactical training over the summer. This Spurs team is fundamentally an attacking one — it’s what the fans demand — but being able to see out 1-0 win is something every champion needs in its locker.

While Spurs lack attacking options, they also lack defensive midfield options off the bench. Monday night was a good example where this may have been needed.

In the second half, Spurs struggled to create, but with West Brom posing a limited attacking threat, if ever there was a game to take a 1-0, this was it. The danger from West Brom was always physical, fielding four centre backs, and there was always going to be at least one set-piece where the delivery was perfect. Another tall central midfield player, capable of contesting aerial balls, may have made a profound difference.

From a different viewpoint, this may be an area where “experience” — or rather Tottenham’s lack of it — comes into play. The way Spurs ran out of ideas and ceded control against West Brom carried a sense of deja vu, as it was almost identical to how things played out against Newcastle. West Brom’s Darren Fletcher certainly thought experience was an issue, and he is clearly an intelligent player.

Pochettino has always spoken about trying to kill the game through scoring a second goal, rather than locking down the defense and midfield and seeing it out. I’m sure he would like to be able to do both, depending on the situation.

Slow start

Spurs opened the campaign with a narrow defeat at Manchester United, followed by draws against Stoke (H), Leicester (A) and Everton (H).

Spurs may not have been expecting 12 points from these fixtures, especially in light of what Leicester would become, but the home draws against Stoke and Everton were disappointing, as was failing to secure a point at Old Trafford. These fixtures warranted more than just three points.

Spurs are often labelled slow starters. Is this fair? And are there any underlying reasons for this that can be addressed?

I’ve pulled together some data to try to illustrate this. You can see the number of points dropped in the games before the first international break, how many points we finished behind Arsenal and/or the top four, and any major signings Spurs made between the opening day of the season and deadline day.

Leaving it late

As you can see, for more than half of the campaigns, we’ve finished a long way short and have had all manner of problems. We’ve had our fair share of bleak moments in the last decade.

But in 2005/06, 2011/12 and 2012/13, we started poorly, without key signings in position, and finished within a win of where we needed to be for Champions League football.

2011/12 is the one that sticks in my memory — we took a hammering at Old Trafford and at home against Manchester City, shipping eight goals, and then decided we needed to bring in Scott Parker to stiffen the midfield. The blame for failing to finish third that season gets laid at Harry Redknapp’s door due to his flirtation with the England job and the failure to strengthen in the January window, but we’d given everyone else a head start in August.

By contrast, in 2009/10, Spurs came flying out of the gate, and secured Champions League qualification by three points. That season, the only late arrival was Nico Kranjcar — who was only ever a squad player, albeit a handy one.

This time around, we started the season with zero striking alternatives to Harry Kane. Son Heung-min and Clinton N’Jie would arrive after opening day. Would this have made a difference? The team was still in the early stages of its evolution at that point. But it wouldn’t have hurt.

One thing we shouldn’t forget: In the week before the match at Old Trafford, we played two games in two days versus Real Madrid and AC Milan. In hindsight, this was utterly insane. No amount of commercial income can be worth the cost to preparedness for the Premier League opener, surely?

I appreciate, it is not always simple to bring in targets early in the transfer window. There is a chain, just like in the housing market, and Spurs are never at the top due to the financial constraints. But, without wishing to disappear too far down the rabbit hole, it’s not so simple as just saying “it’s not so simple”. Spurs could bid relatively more aggressively, Spurs could take more risk in terms of bringing in new blood while outgoing players were still on the books.

Ultimately, the financial benefits of having the squad ready for the start of the season may outweigh the financial gains of the extreme prudence typically shown by the club.

If ever the calculation tipped in this direction, it is this summer coming up. With Man City and Chelsea starting new eras, Spurs have a chance to come flying out of the blocks while other challengers find their feet. It bears considering, at the very least — although, I say this more in hope than expectation.

The curse/mild irritation of the Europa League

Earlier in the season I looked in some detail at the impact of the Europa League on Premier League performance.

In the past three seasons, Spurs averaged 1.50 points per game after Europa League matches, compared to 1.91 without. While home or away matches made no real difference, the distance travelled for away matches did (albeit in very limited sample size). After Spurs travelled further than the median distance of 2,280 miles, the record was appreciably worse than when Spurs played closer to London.

The table below shows our record after the Europa League this season.

Post Europa

Spurs average 2.0 point per game after Europa League games, compared to 2.13 point per game without Thursday night football. This is only modest underperformance — but, Baku aside, we didn’t have any long trips, while our slate of Sunday games was generally very soft.

Why does the Europa League make a difference to league form? There are two reasons above all: long distances mean fatigue, and also the Thursday to Sunday cycle always means that there is less time to prepare for the upcoming Premier League match. In the Champions League, half of your games will be Tuesday to Saturday (if not Sunday), meaning more preparation at least half of the time.

Does preparation time make a difference? Just look at West Brom on Monday night. After a rough outing at the Emirates in midweek, they arrived at White Hart Lane in perfect order and drilled to perfection. Those two extra days on the training ground with the game on Monday rather than Saturday had been put to productive use by Tony Pulis — the shape and pressing were superb.

More time between European and Premier League matches also means more rest. Against Arsenal at the Emirates, Spurs played superbly for 70 minutes before tiring. Against Chelsea, after the long trip to Baku, Spurs were never able to find any intensity.

After years of struggling with Europa League commitments, the boot should be on the other foot next campaign. I have faith in Pochettino to put the extra time on the training pitch before Premier League games to full use.

Shit happens, and other explainations

There are a few other obvious areas where Spurs have lost points that need mentioning.

  • Our record against Leicester: We drew at the King Power, despite scoring a late goal, and contrived to lose at home despite dominating. If we end up five points behind the Foxes, there’s your margin right there.
  • Our record against “bogey teams”: Spurs failed to beat Arsenal and Liverpool this season, and lost points at home to a struggling Chelsea. There is room for improvement still against our bogey sides.
  • An inconvenient truth about our captain: Hugo Lloris is, by a margin, the finest Spurs goalkeeper I have seen (I date back to Erik Thorstvedt…), and he has led this young team with aplomb. But he has also made some errors. In both North London derbies, he conceded “soft” late equalisers. They weren’t howlers, due to the way the ball bounced, but he would have liked to keep both out. Against West Brom on Monday, while he was impeded, he would have expected to do more on the cross. For the late Newcastle winner in December, that was just an old fashioned clanger the likes of which all keepers let through now and again. Lloris makes very few mistakes, but the ones he did make this season were very costly.
  • Shit happens: Spurs hit the woodwork against West Brom three times before letting the lead slip. Sometimes in football, we’re talking about fine margins, and it is understandable how a team can lose confidence if they feel the ball isn’t bouncing their way. We’ve only played “badly” a couple of times this campaign — against Newcastle at home, West Ham away — and when we have played badly, we have been punished. Leicester were dreadful against Southampton recently, but won the game regardless. There is skill in grinding it out, for sure, but there is luck too.

Thanks for reading. I welcome any suggestions on where you think Spurs lost ground. As I say, there is no right or wrong answer here, just a number of areas where Spurs can look to improve.

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Spurs do it on a mild Monday evening in Stoke

Paul Wells  FOX HUNT

Image: Twitter…

I have watched the highlights of Stoke v Spurs on Spurs TV twice, and on The Times once for good measure, and it is fair to say I am going to watch them a few more times before the week is out.

Monday night was pure footballing heaven for a Spurs fan. I can’t recall our attacking movement being quite so fluid, and our intent so lethal. It wasn’t just the result, but the manner of the performance. The hunt is on.

Some micro-thoughts, in no particular order:

1) What must it have felt like as a Leicester player watching that? If they didn’t know they were in a race, they will now. They will be feeling pressure on Sunday, without question.

2) Mousa Dembele was outstanding. He’s had a couple of tricky games of late, reverting to sideways and backwards movement and passing. Against Stoke, everything was forward. It makes all the difference to this team.

3) Legend has it that Nicola Cortese took an interest in Mauricio Pochettino because of his touchline demeanour. It was in full evidence at the Britannia, as a pumped-up Pochettino prowled the touchline and transmitted his hunger to the team. This guy WANTS it. Admittedly, it all got a bit Basil Fawlty after the Dele Alli miss — but that’s the price you pay for passion.

4) Harry Kane never lets a missed chance get him down, such as when he made a mess of an opportunity in the early stages after a poor first touch. Within minutes, he’d made amends. This ability to “forget” misses and treat every chance the same is invaluable. Who does it remind me of? Jermain Defoe. You wonder if Jermain’s mentality rubbed off on a young Kane.

5) Why were Stoke fans booing Danny Rose? As far as I’m aware, he’s never had his leg broken by Ryan Shawcross, or nearly broken by Charlie Adam. Rose responded with a marauding fullback performance, that would thrill Roy Hodgson as much as Pochettino.

6) The narrative around Erik Lamela has finally reached tipping point — his workrate and toughness is widely acknowledged, as is knack of performing in “big” matches. He was an attacking menace last night, and Stoke had no answer to him.

7) Christian Eriksen had a blip in mid-season, but he is on top form now. His assists against Man Utd and Stoke were things of beauty — he had a picture of the play in his head, and the technical skill to execute the passes to perfection.

8) Toby Alderweireld responded to his PFA “snub” with another rock-solid performance. We’ve not seen decision-making of this calibre from a Spurs defender since Ledley King in his prime. It was summed up when Stoke attacked in the first half and Jan Vertonghen drifted slightly out of position as a cross came in, leaving Toby with a 2 on 1 situation at the back post. He wasn’t distracted by the potential overload, and instead made sure he did the simple thing — reach the ball first and get it to safety. This doesn’t win you PFA awards, but it does win you football matches.

9) Before the match, Pochettino revealed that he’d spent Sunday with Daniel Levy watching the Leicester match with a bottle of red wine. This is a club in harmony — a far cry from the House of Cards style political snakepit it has reportedly been under previous regimes. Long may it continue.

10) Sky Sports had Cesc Fabregas as its guest on Monday Night Football, and it is fair to say it didn’t work. He was eloquent, but had little of relevance to say on the title race, beyond his honest admission that he’d hate Spurs to win. Jamie Carragher, on the other hand, was outstanding. His defence of Jon Moss was passioned and backed with strong evidence. After the match he hit on the truth of this Spurs team — this isn’t a “fluke” title challenge as some thought, Spurs could be good for many years to come.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat. Note, I’ve changed the credit for the image to a more generic “Twitter”.

The stars align for Pochettino and his swaggering Spurs

spursmanutd2

Those six minutes on Sunday when Spurs brought Manchester United’s house of cards crashing down were pure footballing joy — relief, jubilation, and finally delirium as Erik Lamela stroked home the third.

Cancel the demolition crew at the end of next season — another moment like that and the old roof of White Hart Lane will be lifted clear off.

In many ways though, with the match won and Spurs toying with a beaten United like a cat with a freshly caught mouse, I enjoyed the final 15 minutes more. It had the air of a changing of the guard — a young, ambitious pretender, snatching the crown from an old-timer who has grown tired and complacent after years on the throne. There was a swagger to Spurs in those closing moments, the like of which I can’t ever recall.

In previous years a tight game, such as it was for the first 60 minutes, would have only broken one way. United would have worn Spurs down, the mere presence of Sir Alex Ferguson enough to convince United players that they were going to win, and Spurs players that they were going to lose. The truth about the “Lads, it’s Tottenham” story is that, back then, Ferguson didn’t need to say anything at all — United would have beaten Spurs if he’d danced the Macarena.

Not any more. It was Spurs who found the resolve to win. It was Manchester United who shrunk.

Barring some surprising results, Manchester United are set to miss out on Champions League football, and the millions that come with it, for the second time in three seasons. It appears likely they will start the fourth year of the post-Ferguson era with a third manager, although Louis van Gaal does have a way of clinging on.

All about the club, there are signs of dynastic decline. The owners are pure carpet-baggers, shamelessly milking money without even the pretence of putting something back in. The directors failed miserably to recognise that no one man could replace a force like Ferguson, leaving a vacuum of football knowledge and placing far too much pressure on first David Moyes then Van Gaal. Transfer business has been all-but outsourced by arch noodle-sponsorship negotiator Ed Woodward to Jorge Mendes. Even the youth development, a sole bright spot, has had an air of randomness about it, a series of battlefield promotions rather than carefully planned pathways.

United still have an incredible advantage in their commercial reach, but this will shrink like territory on a map as the results deteriorate. They may be able to turn it around, but at this point, it seems far from certain. The stench of institutional drift, the same footballing virus that has laid low Aston Villa and Newcastle, is wafting out of Old Trafford with every week that goes by. “Doing a Liverpool” now seems a distinct possibility — a slow and painful fall from grace, and a fanbase that struggles to accept that the future may not offer the same guaranteed glory as the past.

There exists, right now, an extraordinary opportunity for someone to seize the mantle as English football’s next ruler.

The spike in TV money, coinciding with United’s decline, has created an illusion of a new equality, but all that is really happening now is flux. Leicester aren’t a new dawn, they are a glorious fluke. In the past 40 seasons, Liverpool and then United have won 23 of the titles — this is how modern English football works. One powerhouse, and an ever-changing cast of challengers.

The scary part: Is there a team that is better equipped, across the board, to be the next dynasty than Spurs?

I’ll let that sink it for a moment.

Of course I am biased, but I don’t think this is merely bravado. There’s a chance here, an aligning of the stars, that every Spurs fan has been sensing for the past 18 months. Increasingly it is being felt by those outside the fanbase.

In every facet, right now, Spurs are moving in the right direction.

In Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Eric Dier, we have the strongest young core of players in the league. In Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, we have found our defensive rocks for the next five years. Hugo Lloris is a world-class keeper in his prime, and the strong leader every great team needs. The academy is producing elite-level talent, with a route to the first-team squad. We have one of the finest training facilities in Europe. There is a footballing identity that will guide recruitment and reduce the buy-low, sell-high crapshoot that has been the transfer policy of the past. The new stadium, once built, will be state-of-the-art.

And then there is the manager. Mauricio Pochettino, in less than two years, has fundamentally altered the future of our club.

In his first year, he won the “Game of Thrones” contest with the likes of Franco Baldini, Emmanuel Adebayor and the Kaboul cabal. This year, he has laid the foundations of his vision for how the team should go about its business on the field. Spurs may not win the league this time — the squad is still missing one or two crucial pieces of a title-winning jigsaw — but we are going to take some stopping next season.

Based on everything we know about Pochettino at this point, do you think, for one second, he is the type of man who is going to settle for one good season, and then take the foot off the gas? Not a chance.

All this — the young team, the stadium, the manager, the training centre — have been built on sustainable foundations. Spurs have never been reliant on a sugar daddy or speculation: Daniel Levy has never had a problem making Spurs profitable. Levy’s issue throughout his chairmanship has been recruiting the right people to execute his vision. He got lucky with Pochettino, having instead wanted to appoint Van Gaal, but you watch him sit back now and ride this stroke of good fortune for all its worth.

At no other club is there such an alignment, across so many aspects.

At Manchester City and Chelsea, their success was bought, not earned. There is no sustainability in that, just the need to keep on pumping in millions after millions, until eventually the owners decide to stop. Chelsea, in particular, are anarchic with Roman Abramovich still treating the club as a plaything.

A Manchester City fan recently described the emptiness at the Etihad (and how he too thought Spurs could be the next big thing). It was in full view on Tuesday night in a limp contest against PSG when the only time the crowd was remotely roused was in the booing of the UEFA anthem. How big a step down are European nights at the Etihad going to feel for Pep Guardiola after Barca and Bayern? This lack of passion and identity inevitably drifts down to the players.

Furthermore, both clubs also face similar issues with their squads in years to come — ageing cores, too many mercenaries, and no clear route for the imported kids lured to the lavish academies.

At Liverpool, the dreams of a second dynasty, and a sense that they are entitled to it, will never dim. In Jurgen Klopp, they may have recruited a future-altering figure of their own, and the owners, despite the flak, put their money where their mouth is. Funds are always available for players, and when it came to expanding Anfield, they just wrote a cheque. But Liverpool rival Spurs in the “false dawn” stakes. There is no consistent proof, yet, that Klopp is able to shape a disparate team to his liking. And where are the young Liverpool kids? Liverpool haven’t produced a Scouse hero since Steven Gerrard.

At Arsenal, the mood is bleak. In the early 2000s, it looked like Arsene Wenger would be the man to break Ferguson’s stranglehold. He built one great team, the Invincibles, but never managed to build another. The 2006/07 squad, the first in the Emirates, is a who’s who of disappointments: Abou Diaby, Denilson, Alex Song, Johan Djourou, Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini, Philippe Senderos, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy. This was meant to be the next super team, Wenger’s vision of a homegrown crop hand-reared in his philosophy, but few made the grade and those that did were sold. The next generation, built around the likes of Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, has also never hit the heights and looks set to be dismantled in turn. Wenger has been forced to go against every instinct and buy stars, rather than create them.

The fan base now is mutinous, losing faith in the manager and unable to process the sight of Leicester (and Tottenham) above them. Nothing stings as much in football as the feeling that you have wasted an opportunity. Arsenal will eventually have to replace Wenger, one way or another, and can only look at the succession-planning debacle at Old Trafford with apprehension.

Can you see what I’m getting at? Spurs may not win the league this season, but for the next five years at least, with modest improvements in the transfer market and a bit of luck, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be challenging. That’s a dynasty in the making, all right.

What could go wrong?

Well, a bunch of things. Real Madrid or Barcelona could come calling, and they are very hard to turn down. Players could get injured, new buys could flop, the team could become complacent. The stadium may be delayed, or over budget, or fail to replicate the feeling of home. The club ownership could change, the youngsters may stop coming through, and worse of all, Pochettino may be tempted away.

There’s also the chance that another of the teams gets it together like Spurs. I fear Man City the most, with Guardiola and an unlimited budget. Liverpool seem like that finally have a perfect match of manager and club.

What comes next will be formidably difficult. Nothing is guaranteed. But you can sense a togetherness and hunger at Spurs the like of which I can’t recall.

Us Spurs fans have been remarkably measured about this season: there is little frustration that Leicester appear to be heading for the title instead of us. That is because we know that this is just the start. But we are Spurs fans, scarred by years of false dawns, and there is a fear of tempting fate by articulating what we feel inside.

To hell with that. Spurs are on the march, and the rest of the league had better watch out.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for the latest articles and more Spurs chat.