The EPL season ended with Tottenham Hotspur in fifth place, which to many fans may seem a bit generous considering the transitional nature of Spurs' season. As Spurs prepare to take on Malaysia XI in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, Tottenham head coach Mauricio Pochettino made some comments to the media about his tactics and his current squad as the offseason begins.
Some players arrived a week before the start of the season and it was very difficult for the pre-season. Then we started in the Europa League and so developing your philosophy is never easy, but I think the main group now understand us and share our philosophy and management. For the future this is very important.
What's interesting about these comments is that Pochettino seems to confirm what we more or less suspected for much of the season: he has a smallish group of Tottenham players whom he has identified as being able to implement his system. In that light, it's perhaps no wonder that Spurs have continually put out more or less the same lineup over the past couple of months: these are the guys who Poche thinks "gets it."
Defender Eric Dier, who played a pivotal role in Spurs' defense over the course of the season, seemed to agree with the tenor of Pochettino's comments.
This was the first year with a new manager so everyone's learning his ideas, and I think that's all set in stone now, so we can kick on straight from pre-season. Everyone knows where they're at, everyone knows what the manager wants. We'll go into it very positively and try our best.
So then, let's have a thought experiment and extrapolate out a bit from what Pochettino and Dier said. If the 14-16 guys that Pochettino has used frequently in the last third of the season are the ones that he believes are capable of picking up and implementing the intricacies of his tactical system, then it implies that much of this season has been about figuring out which players are ones he wants to keep around, identifying problem areas, and working out a plan on how to find players to fix them. His comments also seem to imply that he didn't have the preseason time that he wanted to begin to implement his methodology before the start of the Premier League season, which could explain why players like Etienne Capoue and Younes Kaboul featured early on, but not at all in recent months.
We at Cartilage Free Captain have been frustrated at times by Pochettino's tactical inflexibility at times. Why, for example, if things aren't working well in the 4-2-3-1, doesn't Pochettino just adapt the system to his existing players? Why adhere to a dogmatic tactical system that isn't working? What we can take from these tidbits is that Pochettino may just be a tactical ideologue. He has his system. His job is to get his players to play his system, and if they can't, to find replacements who can. Hence, in his first year we've seen Phase 1 of Pochettino's plan: identification of his core players. Phase 2 is presumably going to take place this summer in the transfer window as players depart and are added. Phase 3 is implementation, and hopefully, improvement much like what we saw under Poche at Southampton.
Based on the evidence of this season I think we can take away that Mauricio Pochettino is not going to be the kind of manager who is going to be prepared to make key tactical adjustments on the fly. We probably won't see a three-at-the-back formation anytime soon at White Hart Lane. That will be frustrating for many of us to watch when things aren't working, but it could be glorious if all the pieces are in place and things start to click. This makes this summer and next year pivotal to Poche's success at Tottenham Hotspur. If we as fans are willing to write off this season as Poche trying to fit a squarish peg into his tactical round hole, then it's critical that he be given every opportunity to identify and bring in the players he needs to play his system.
Having a system manager can be a dangerous thing if the system doesn't work, as we've seen. However, it's too early to draw any solid conclusions as to Poche's long-term viability based on his first season at Spurs. If what Poche is saying is true, and his core players have finally laid the tactical foundations for future success, then we should expect a fairly active offseason, an intense pre-season of training, and a lot of on-pitch improvement in 2015-16.