This time last week, Mauricio Pochettino was being hailed as a tactical genius, the architect behind one of Tottenham’s most impressive results on the European stage – a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu – and a 4-1 demolition of Liverpool that suggested his side would be far closer to the title race than the scrap for Champions League qualification this season.
But fast forward seven days and Pochettino finds himself facing the media’s proverbial pointed finger, a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on Saturday raising questions over his poor run of results away to divisional rivals – just one win in his last 16 visits to the big six – and his ability to select the right team for the right occasion.
The relentless pace of change in opinion is a hyperbolic by-product of the modern game but United’s last-minute win did show up Pochettino in some respects. Mourinho ensured the gritty, intense, pragmatic game everybody anticipated yet Tottenham struggled to keep up and the Argentine failed to find a solution that would put his side on the front foot at Old Trafford.
Although it required poor positioning from a Spurs backline that has otherwise been exemplary under Pochettino’s rule, there was a bizarre sense of inevitably about Anthony Martial’s late winner. Spurs squandered their chance as Dele Alli hit wide and Mourinho’s teams always become more confident the longer those attritional encounters go on for; the whole second half felt like a countdown, one that Pochettino couldn’t find a way to stop.
Eric Dier’s involvement in the late concede, coupled with Tottenham’s failure to impact at the other end in the absence of Harry Kane, has put Pochettino in an unflattering light. Davinson Sanchez has been exceptional since arriving in the summer, so the decision to bench him for arguably Tottenham’s biggest test of the domestic season thus far lacked obvious intuition.
Llorente’s absence too, seemed short-sighted. Manchester United were never going to allow Heung-Min Son the kind of space behind he’s so effective in on the counter-attack, especially while employing an uncharacteristic back three, but Llorente’s height and power could have provided the foothold to bring Alli and Christian Eriksen into the game.
And yet, it feels harsh to criticise Pochettino, even if his two biggest selection calls backfired on Saturday. For starters, knowing Dier and Son didn’t have the desired effect isn’t the same thing as knowing Llorente and Sanchez would have. The summer signings have their flaws as well and claiming they would have made a significant difference in a match decided by one mistake is purely an assumption.
Perhaps more importantly, though, this time last week Pochettino was enjoying the managerial equivalent of a purple patch. Playing a midfield three of Alli, Eriksen and Harry Winks was a huge gamble at the Bernabeu, lacking a traditional anchorman of physicality and defensive prowess, but it paid off against reigning European champions.
Using a similar counter-attacking game-plan against Liverpool was a risk as well considering how a slow start could have affected a crowd still feeling uneasy at Wembley. But once again, the ploy paid off as Spurs twice netted on the break within the first twelve minutes. Even Serge Aurier featuring on the left of defence for the first time since 2013 and tasked with caging one of the Premier League’s most potent attacking threats this season in Mohamed Salah proved to be a stroke of genius – the Egyptian’s goal representing his only real impact on the ninety minutes.
Thus, there’s a far simpler explanation for Pochettino’s questionable selection calls – his most daring decisions have all bore fruit, so why not try a few more? When a striker’s in red hot form, you expect him to shoot whenever he gets the ball around the penalty box; shouldn’t we expect similar behaviour from a manager when all of his tactical ploys are proving right?
No doubt, there are lessons to be learned from the defeat at Old Trafford and perhaps a more seasoned manager, like Mourinho, would sense when his luck is about to run out. But Pochettino’s calls showed his self-confidence, particularly the decision to start Dier over Sanchez, and with so many proving right in the last few weeks, it would be unfair to focus on the few he got wrong.
In many ways, the 1-0 on Saturday epitomised how fine the margins are for managers. If Tottenham’s defence hadn’t uncharacteristically wandered a few unnecessary yards forward and Pochettino had come away with a draw, the current criticism would instead by acknowledgement for a decent result. If Alli had scored not long before Martial’s winner, Pochettino would still be hailed as a master tinkerer. Instead, Tottenham find themselves lagging behind in the title race, and Pochettino faces a mini-inquest.
Perhaps that’s just football, but to criticise Pochettino for the impact his selections had at Old Trafford would be to ignore how effective they were against Real Madrid and Liverpool.