Cartilage Free Captain is reviewing each of Spurs' first team players and evaluating their season. The series concludes today with Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Cup finals: 1
Record vs. the Top Four: 2-4-2
Dismissive facial expressions directed at José Mourinho: 1
What Went Right?
Let's be magnanimous and fair. A lot of good stuff happened on Mauricio Pochettino's watch. Despite 2014-15 being, by all accounts, a "transitional season," Pochettino took a squad of hold-overs from the Harry Redknapp and Andre Villas-Boas eras, moved to a different tactical system, and got some very good results. Along the way Spurs saw the meteoric rise of Harry Kane, played in a Cup final for the first time since 2009, thumped eventual champions Chelsea 5-3 at home, and ended the season in fifth place behind Manchester United.
There's an argument that a lot of the good things that happened this season look even better in the context of what Poche had to work with. He took a squad of AVB misfits that never lived up to expectations and had nearly been ruined by Tim Sherwood and adapted them as best he could to his high-pressure system. He also reportedly put down a near-rebellion in the squad that resulted in the exiling of three prominent first team players to the very fringes of the squad, including his chosen club captain. This probably necessitated putting some squareish pegs into round holes, but even though the results were somewhat erratic at times, when things clicked the football was absolutely glorious.
Poche also deserves a tip of the hat for the way he developed Danny Rose, who started off the year as a player we wanted to sell for a bacon sandwich, who with the addition of Ben Davies as both competition and foil turned into one of the better attacking left sided fullbacks in the league.
And finally, Poche deserves a great deal of credit in how he worked with and put faith in Tottenham's youth academy and home-grown players. Tim Sherwood may have given Harry Kane and Nabil Bentaleb their starts, but it was Poche who (eventually) trusted them enough to put them, and keep them, in the first team. You can argue about Ryan Mason's effectiveness in the pivot for Spurs this year, but there aren't that many managers that would've given a 24-year old academy graduate who was playing for L1 Swindon last season a chance. Spurs are now churning out more talented academy grads with real opportunities to make it in the first team than at any time I can remember. It's an exciting time to be a fan.
Tottenham had a new manager after a season of upheaval and ended up finishing fifth place, six points behind Manchester United. For a club with such a large monetary and resource disadvantage compared to its Champions League competitors, these are hallmarks of a good season, should be treated as such, and celebrated.
What Went Wrong?
But we're Spurs fans, so we don't just focus on the GOOD things that happened. And as good as Pochettino did this year, there were just as many times when we as a collective writing staff wanted to chuck him off the roof of White Hart Lane. For all that we know about Pochettino's tactical system and how well it worked at Southampton, it didn't work to the same degree at Tottenham, and that can't come down solely to having the wrong players.
For a good chunk of the season we watched Ryan Mason ineffectively played out of position in the pivot paired with Nabil Bentaleb, and Pochettino did nothing to help mitigate the massive holes in the midfield that led to Spurs' defense being carved open again and again. Not fixing the midfield when there were multiple options that didn't include playing Ryan Mason in the headless-chicken role made Tottenham Hotspur play actively bad football when it certainly didn't have to.
Likewise, we saw how well playing Mousa Dembele as a defensive #10 worked in Pochettino's system, and then watched aghast as he yanked him from the position after two games, seemingly without any real reason. When Kyle Walker went down with an injury we saw Pochettino play Eric Dier and Vlad Chiriches shifted out of position instead of taking a chance on DeAndre Yedlin, an actual right back who was on the roster.
And finally we were frequently left baffled by Poche's sometimes bizarre substitutions, like bringing in Roberto Soldado for Christian Eriksen and shoving Kane to a withdrawn striker position, or bringing in Emmanuel Adebayor as an inside forward. These subs, when players like Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli, and Paulinho weren't getting minutes at all, might have been the difference between failure and success.
These are not the marks of a manager who makes good in-game adjustments; these are the decisions made by an inflexible tactical ideologue, and these decisions hurt the team. They were frustrating to watch, and it was even more frustrating to see the same issues crop up over, and over, and over.
All of the above, the good and the bad, combine to make 2015-16 a hugely pivotal season for Mauricio Pochettino. It's certainly possible to hand-wave the bad parts of last season away by suggesting that Pochettino hasn't had enough time to get in "his guys," and there's some truth to that. With a year under his belt, Poche now has had an entire year to evaluate his team and find the players that he can work with, and the ones that he's ready to offload. If you're an optimist, you'll figure that Poche was making do with the best players at his disposal last season, and that with a solid offseason of acquisitions and sales he'll be able to tweak this Spurs squad into something more along his philosophy. If you're a pessimist, last season will have disabused you of any belief in Pochettino's competence in managing a roster and setting appropriate players in his preferred tactic. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.
But either way, Spurs must show improvement next season under Pochettino. That's not to say that they should be expected to finish fourth or higher; Spurs are still at a competitive and financial disadvantage compared to their competitors, at least until the new stadium is finished. Qualification for the Champions League, while undoubtedly the goal, will still be extraordinarily difficult. However, if Poche can take the best parts of their roster, improve the quality of the football on the pitch, and still finish fifth place, that should hopefully appease the segment of the fan base that has been frustrated with the at times dour and tactically naïve they've seen from Tottenham this past season.
We've seen Pochettino's 4-2-3-1 work beautifully at times, and we've seen it fall on its face. None of the writing staff are ready to give up on Poche after only one season, but the season was frustrating enough to all of us that we're no longer as high on him as we were coming into the season. In short, Poche has done enough for us to keep us wondering what he can do with a little more time, but not enough to keep us from wondering whether he's the right guy for the job long term.
Grade: 3 Chirpys