Although the move to Wembley stadium might suffocate their momentum this season, in the context of their recent history, Tottenham Hotspur are still very much a club on the rise. Mauricio Pochettino has been the defining catalyst behind the Lilywhites’ transition from Champions League qualification hopefuls to Premier League title chasers; he’s championed the belief in youth that has seen Dele Alli and Harry Kane become key players for club and country, and his philosophy of energetic high-pressing has diminished age-old accusations of a soft underbelly. Sir Alex Ferguson’s fabled three-word team-talk – ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ – wouldn’t apply these days.
But as the architect of Tottenham’s rise, the ultimate question after an underwhelming start to the season is quite simple – what level can Pochettino take north London club to? Will they become English football’s greatest force, or another also-ran institution like their local rivals? Of course, there are more factors at play than the talent of one individual – the level of investment in the squad, the quality of players coming in and out, the improvements or declines of the teams around them – but Pochettino remains the most significant as the man in the driving seat.
While it’s hard to fault the work the Argentine has done so far – when he arrived at White Hart Lane, they’d finished 17 points off the top of the table and 10 away from a Champions League spot in sixth place – his limitations are becoming more obvious, and the draw with Swansea City on Saturday represented a prime example. Although Pochettino has proved himself adept at creating a defining philosophy and developing promising young talent into top-class stars, the failure to successfully manage single games does let him down.
That’s evident enough from Tottenham’s limited progress in the cup competitions, where tactics, selections and substitutions particularly come under the microscope. His win rate in Europe for Spurs is just 45% – hardly high enough to successfully maraud through the many double-legged knockout stages.
Perhaps the continent is still a relatively new experience for Pochettino, his players and Tottenham throughout Daniel Levy’s tutelage, one that may require a few more seasons to truly appreciate the demands of. But even domestically, barring a League Cup final during his first season, Pochettino has lead Spurs past the fifth round of either competition just once – the FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea last term.
That was a telling moment as Pochettino stacked up against a slightly more senior, slightly more experienced and slightly more successful counterpart in Antonio Conte. Tottenham produced a good performance at Wembley that required Chelsea to find the pinnacle of their cutting edge in a clinical 4-2, but the difference was how well Conte managed his resources. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, usually the first names on the team-sheet, came on as substitutes and changed the game. Pochettino, in contrast, had already ran out of surprises to spring on the champions in waiting and the Blues consequentially pulled away.
At the time, Tottenham’s squad depth was questioned more than Pochettino’s decisions and justifiably so. Having only a defender in Kyle Walker and a youngster in Georges-Kevin N’Koudou to bring on during arguably the biggest match of Spurs’ season at that point, also on the backdrop of a title race with Chelsea, told its own story.
But that same excuse won’t work this season. Spurs’ squad may still be a little light compared to the two Manchester clubs, but the summer arrivals of Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente have given Pochettino more depth and options, especially alongside Harry Winks and Marcus Edwards who represent some of the most exciting young Englishmen around at the moment. It’s still slimmer pickings than some of his counter-parts, but enough to change games with if utilised in the right way and at the right times.
The scoreless draw with Swansea on Saturday raised the most significant doubts yet over Pochettino’s ability to do so. Wembley may still be a factor – Tottenham have picked up just two points there in the Premier League this season with all three opponents looking to spoil the match rather than take the game to the Lilywhites – but from the early exchanges, it was obvious Paul Clement had set up his side to nullify Tottenham; a 3-5-2 lining up against a 3-4-3 to suffocate the midfield, much like Chelsea back in August.
Yet, Pochettino didn’t make any changes until after the hour-mark, when he moved Son Heung-Min further forward, strangely switched Kieran Trippier to left wing-back and brought on Moussa Sissoko. Striker Fernando Llorente didn’t enter the fray for another 15 minutes and after that, Pochettino elected not to use his third substitute. Spurs therefore finished the match with three centre-backs and a holding midfielder against a side who had just four efforts at goal and just one after half-time.
Accordingly, Pochettino’s tactical nous must come into question, as must his loyalty to certain individuals. Should Trippier have started over Aurier? Were Dier and Sanchez really needed? Why was Son utilised as a wing-back? And most crucially, why did it take so long for Pochettino to acknowledge the need to change the dynamics of the game? A young Jose Mourinho famously made a triple substitution at half-time during his first season at Chelsea and even during his catastrophic final few months, he took the audacious step of subbing off Nemanja Matic after bringing him on from the bench – because it was what the game needed.
If Pochettino is to make Tottenham a true top-end Premier League force that can compete with Chelsea, City and United, that kind of ruthlessness is essential. And the Lilywhites boss need only look to the other side of north London to consider a future where belief in philosophies and individuals isn’t matched by shrewd and clinical tactical calls.
Arsenal are a house built on Arsene Wenger’s ideals, but the stubbornness with which he’s stuck to them and the softness with which he’s made selection decisions has pushed the club into the dormant state it’s currently stuck in. Wenger too, has always struggled when it comes to tactical double-leggers in Europe, while 20 years at the helm have never seen him lift the League Cup.
Pochettino is a young manager who is still learning the finer ins and outs of his trade, but currently, Tottenham are on the edge of following a similar path to their London neighbours. If the Argentine wants Tottenham to win trophies and titles rather than becoming simply the next serial also-rans, he needs a dash more of Mourinho and a few dashes less of Wenger.