Although Southampton’s Ronald Koeman and Burnley’s Sean Dyche remain the front-runners for the Premier League’s Manager of the Year award, Mauricio Pochettino certainly deserves an honourable mention.
Despite a summer spend of just £28million, he’s completely transformed the philosophy and mentality of Tottenham’s squad, swapping the club’s more mercurial high-earners, such as Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Emmanuel Adebayor, for young, energetic academy products, injecting some much-needed passion and velocity into the Lilywhites’ game.
It’s created a refreshed sense of identity at White Hart Lane – further amplified by the ever-presence of locally born duo Ryan Mason and Harry Kane this season – something the North Londoners struggled to find under Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood.
Tottenham’s sudden dependency on young, developing players, however, does leave me concerned for the sustainability of Pochettino’s philosophy – especially in central midfield.
Mason and Kane were granted five-year contract extensions last month, but their form right now, in addition to Bentaleb’s, can’t simply last forever; all aged 23 or younger, it’s inevitable the inconsistency of youth will eventually catch up with them – it would hardly constitute the greatest shock in the history of world football if all struggled to rekindle their magical displays of recent weeks during the 2015/16 campaign.
Indeed, if Pochettino’s high-pressing mantra is to succeed long-term, it’s essential Tottenham begin making signings that encapsulate it perfectly, a front they failed on during the summer window, whilst improving the quality of their first Xi – starting with a central midfielder.
Enter Everton’s James McCarthy; an all-action box-to-box whose relentless energy has earned the moniker ‘Duracell McCarthy’ from the Goodison faithful – not very original, I know.
Much like Ryan Mason, he’s a midfielder insistent upon touching every blade of grass, supporting both the back and front lines as much as possible. Check out the heatmap below from his Man of the Match performance against Sunderland, for example, where you can see McCarthy touching the ball in both boxes, on both flanks and absolutely dominating the right-central hub.
That makes the 24 year-old ideal for Pochettino’s high-pressing game, blessed with the recovery speed to close down defences without leaving pungent holes in Tottenham’s midfield. More than simply a work-hose however, McCarthy’s technical qualities – competent enough to make him the dynamic centre-piece of tiki-taka enthusiast Roberto Martinez’ sides at Goodison and Wigan – also stand out, particularly in possession, with a pass completion rate of 88% in the Premier League this season.
Injuries have curtailed McCarthy’s game-time this season, just 14 starts out of a possible 25 in the Premiership, but Everton’s perpetual struggles in his absence are further testament to the former Latics star’s ability and his importance within the Toffees’ starting Xi, as the industrious glue linking their departments together. Last term, the Irishman’s energy made 33 year-old midfield partner Gareth Barry look like a world-beater and drove the Mersey club to their best league finish, 5th, since 2009; this year however, Everton are 12th and Barry has been amongst their worst performers – an isolated, unprotected weak link in the heart of midfield.
As with any transfer, McCarthy’s potential price-tag remains the biggest issue the Lilywhites face. The Daily Mail documented their interest in the Ireland international last month, but having signed him for £13million just 18 months ago, the third-most-expensive acqusition in their history, it would take a rather sizable fee to convince Everton to sell this summer, regardless of their lowly league standing come the end of May.
The Mail quote a figure of £25million, which would be the second-largest signing in Tottenham’s history, and clearly Daniel Levy is feeling a little once-bitten-twice-shy about overspending in the market after the vast majority of his £110million spree in summer 2013 went on three players, Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela, that sparely feature under Pochettino.
But a midfielder that perfectly epitomises the Argentine’s philosophy, and still just 24 years of age, in my opinion, McCarthy could prove worth every penny over a three-to-five year period. But whether Levy holds enough faith in Pochettino to spend that kind of money just yet, especially whilst Mason and Bentaleb are proving competent enough options for now, remains to be seen.