The Pochettino Revolution: How Tottenham were transformed from also-rans to title contenders
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 underestimate 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
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”
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”
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”
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”
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.
Originally published at thespursreport.wordpress.com on July 26, 2016.