One of the most impressive things about Mauricio Pochettino this season has been his tactical flexibility. Proving he will not remain stubborn to a 4-2-3-1, as he was last season, the former Southampton manager has used a back three system to great effect. The defensive solidity has remained throughout, with the Lilywhites boasting the best defensive record in the league having conceded only 16 goals in their 24 matches.
Conceding two goals at the Etihad Stadium three matches ago saw Pochettino return to his favoured 4-2-3-1. Injuries to Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose will have contributed to his decision, with no natural left wing-back alternative in the squad and Spurs’ other central defenders being less comfortable bringing the ball out of defence.
The ability to adapt your team to the players available and, perhaps most importantly, your opponents, is what defines managerial careers. Making decisions not simply on results, a managers’ greatest task is to solve a problem in their team before it becomes a significant issue or, ideally, begins to impact results.
The tactical switch most talked about this season has been Chelsea’s. As well as that has worked – and Antonio Conte deserves all the praise he has received – it was almost forced upon him. After two harrowing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, a change to Chelsea’s setup seemed an inevitability and Conte seized the moment. The impressiveness of Conte’s decision has only grown as other top level managers have failed to drag their teams out of similar ruts of late.
Jurgen Klopp, for instance, has watched his Liverpool team suffer a torrid start to 2017, yet he has not changed anything significantly to rectify their leaking defence and becalmed attack. However, Klopp should not shoulder all the blame, as many of Liverpool’s failings have been down to individual errors. Arsene Wenger continues to make mistakes in his selection or setup that has cost his team too.
Pochettino, on the other hand, arrested an ugly run of form through October and November, which saw Spurs win only one in 10 in all competitions. Aided by the returns of Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld, since then Pochettino has adapted the team when necessary, both in their style of play and formation. The best example of this, naturally, was the success Spurs enjoyed against Chelsea. Unfortunate not to take at least a point from their match at Stamford Bridge, Spurs dominated against the Blues at White Hart Lane.
A willingness to change is necessary for a manager to be successful. While philosophies can create some of the greatest football, even the most stubborn of football ideologists are forced to change their ways. Pochettino works around a general framework that defines his approach to management, just as many managers do, but it has been his openness to altering things within his team that has made Spurs a different animal this season.
In the shadow of Leicester last season and yet to really astonish the wider footballing world in this campaign, Pochettino’s excellence as a manager is not receiving the acclaim it deserves. Some indifferent signings had clouded the general judgement of his season, but Spurs, despite their Champions League exit, are enjoying a very good campaign. At this point they are the only non-Chelsea team in the top six who are where they would have hoped to be at the start of this campaign.