A lot has already been written about Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to bench Son Heung-Min and start Fernando Llorente against Real Madrid in Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 Champions League draw on Tuesday. But until today, we hadn’t yet heard from Pochettino about that decision.
In a press conference ahead of Spurs’ tie against Liverpool at Wembley on Sunday, Pochettino admitted that most people second-guessed his decision to start the Spanish striker up top alongside Harry Kane, even people who were very close to him and to the club. And he admitted it by very nearly dropping an F-bomb.
"It was amazing because some people very close to us said to us, 'Can I be honest with you. When I saw the starting XI, what the f—? 'What happened? What's going on in his mind?'
"Ten minutes after the end of the game, they said, 'You are a genius!' It's so difficult to explain every single game what we are trying to do and translate it to the fans. That is about trusting that the manager decides the starting to always try to win. Sometimes it works. But I feel the same after the game if I win or lose about my decision, because I cannot regret my decisions."
Here’s how it went down verbatim in the press conference.
Straight talk? That exact phrase was literally the first thing out of my mouth when I saw the starting lineup an hour before kickoff. But as we have written on this site a couple of times, the decision was tactically risky but also a canny and smart decision against the two-time champions of Europe, and Llorente ended up being one of the key players in Spurs’ 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu.
We (i.e. writers at Cartilage Free) have definitely criticized Pochettino in the past for being tactically dogmatic and lacking a backup plan when things didn’t go according to plan. Pochettino, to his credit, addressed that concern head on, saying that his goal with his squad has always been to be tactically flexible, and to adapt to on-field conditions when appropriate. Spurs showed that on Tuesday.
"In the last few seasons, I hear a lot that Tottenham don't have Plan B and plan C. It's most important that we have a plan. Now we're flexible because we think of different ways to play, keeping the philosophy, idea and identity of the team. You need different players because they provide you with different characteristics and different options to play.
"It's a risk to play the same, be obsessed with playing only one way. The team believes, the team needs to accept that you can change not only from one game to another but during the game. I am so proud, our players accept that and believe we can play different ways."
With Spurs nursing a great deal of injured players already this season, Pochettino has almost been forced to innovate and be tactically creative with his lineups. Tuesday’s match was just the latest example of how he has built a team that may look crazy when they line up but has the wherewithal and the confidence to compete even with players in crazy positions and a number of key pieces missing. It’s pretty awesome to see, and makes me less likely to second guess Poch the next time he does something that makes me want to say, well... “What the f—, Poch?”.