When Tottenham Hotspur were going through their managerial hiring process this summer, no one looked like a perfect candidate. There were drawbacks to hiring everyone that was linked with the job, and I thought that one drawback to hiring Mauricio Pochettino was that he didn't quite know how to adapt to game situations and varied opponents.
His Southampton teams struggled against the big sides and even got embarrassed by some not-so-great sides that knew how to pack it in deep and counter quickly, most notably Aston Villa. When the Saints were at their best, they played exactly the type of football that Spurs supporters want to see their team play, but it wasn't clear if he was up to winning chess matches against England's elite.
On Saturday, it's fair to say that he did just that. Arsenal fans and players alike gushed about their possession numbers and, as per usual, stated plainly that having 72 percent of the ball meant they deserved to win the game, but that doesn't tell the story at all. Spurs let them have the ball, prioritizing shape over possession, and attempting to get Arsenal to over-commit going forward, opening up lanes to counter into. This strategy was mostly a success, as Arsenal's possession didn't look very dangerous at all for the majority of the game, while Spurs should have scored well before they did.
Sitting deep and compact, letting Arsenal have a lot of the ball and countering quickly isn't exactly a new or innovative strategy for getting results against the Gunners, but it is telling that Pochettino decided to use it, instead of going into the game with a naive or arrogant attitude about imposing his own style. Pochettino talks about possession play just as much as Arsene Wenger does and it wouldn't have been surprising to see Spurs try to play with Arsenal, but it wouldn't have been smart. Spurs could have come away with 45-50 percent possession from that game without much of a problem, but it probably would have resulted in a multiple-goal loss.
At no point during Pochettino's reign at Southampton did his team look as well-organized and suited to executing a defensive-minded, counter-attacking strategy as Spurs did on Saturday. And as long as it's used sparingly, and not really a part of the team's overall philosophy, it's a good thing for Spurs to have in their back pocket to use when necessary. Everyone loves to gush about Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, Rinus Michaels' Netherlands and Pele's Brazil, but the vast majority of the successful teams from all of recorded footballing history knew how to play more than one way. Knowing how to park the bus is a great thing if it's only busted out every once in a while.
It'll be great to see Spurs get back to their high-pressing, stuff-trying, possession-having best against Southampton at the weekend, but I can enjoy what they did against Arsenal too. I'm happy that it appears my concerns about Pochettino not being able to change his team's style to suit different types of matches appears to have been unfounded.