If you made a list of the traits that define Mauricio Pochettino’s era at Tottenham, it’d probably look like this:
- Every player has to be committed to the amount of running required by his system. If you don’t run, you won’t play.
- Giving youth team players a chance to feature in the first team and promoting those who earn a spot in the squad.
- Being patient with player development and letting the players willing to work hard have ample time to establish themselves in the team.
You saw all of these qualities on display in the opening goal against Real Madrid earlier this week.
Harry Kane’s running made the goal.
The goal came off a deep throw-in won by Harry Kane. But the way Kane won the throw-in is worth noting. The buildup is simple: Hugo Lloris plays the ball long to Dele Alli. Dele then overhit a through ball intended for Kane that looked set to run out of bounds for a Madrid goal kick. Madrid’s center back, Nacho, comes over and tries to half-heartedly run along with Kane to shepherd the ball out of play. Kane sees this and then sprints toward the ball, trying to win it. Nacho panics and puts the ball into touch to avoid a Spurs corner. Here is the clip:
We were talking about this in the writer’s room: How many strikers of Kane’s level would run this out like that? I think Peak Diego Costa probably does. Maybe Luis Suarez does. Super-motivated Wayne Rooney might. But the list is short. The only other one who comes to mind is Sergio Aguero and I’m not convinced he would. The point is there aren’t a lot of players at Kane’s level willing to work that hard on a play like the one above. But Kane will—and that’s a tribute to the work ethic Pochettino has instilled in the club.
Now let’s talk about the goal itself. There are three players involved in it: Midfielder Harry Winks, an academy grad who is coming good on the promise he has shown for some time, right back Kieran Trippier, and Dele Alli. Dele, of course, is a super star and would walk into just about any first XI in the world. Winks and Trippier are worth talking about more though. First, let’s see the goal. Winks makes the initial pass to the wing to Trippier and then Trippier hits it on the volley to cross for Dele:
So the opening goal scored against the reigning champions of Europe comes through an academy grad’s ambitious ball to the wing and a cross from a much-maligned right back purchased from a relegated team who has spent several seasons maturing and now is starting to look like a genuinely solid right back.
You would not read a sentence like that about any other Premier League club. No one besides Spurs gives their youth the opportunity that Pochettino does. Think about the number of academy players who have been given appreciable minutes with the first team since his arrival:
- Ryan Mason
- Nabil Bentaleb
- Harry Kane
- Josh Onomah
- Cameron Carter-Vickers
- Harry Winks
- Kyle Walker-Peters
True, only Kane and Winks have really broken through and become established players in the first team. But the point is we can think of seven academy players who have gotten time in first-team matches where they had a chance to prove themselves with the real possibility of becoming a first-team regular if their performance merits it. You can still find the odd academy grad breaking through at other clubs—Jesse Lingard is a contributor at United and long-time academy member, Andreas Christensen joined Chelsea at age 16, and Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold joined the club at age 6. And, of course, Arsenal club legend Jack Wilshere joined the club at age 9. (HAHAHAHA)
But these rare exceptions aside, most elite English clubs do not give youth the opportunity that Pochettino does at Spurs. Winks is simply the latest example of an academy player who has been given a fair chance to prove himself with the first team.
Trippier is a similar story. Bought from relegated Burnley for a low fee, he was a rotation right back playing behind established veteran Kyle Walker. As Walker and Pochettino began to drift apart, however, Trippier began to play more. This was... not popular with the masthead for reasons I’ve discussed in the past. That said, like Ben Davies, Trippier has taken significant strides this season. One trait we have observed many times in Pochettino is that he is exceedingly patient with players who he sees as having the right kind of attitude. If your attitude is wrong, Poche will banish you to Siberia faster than you can say “Younes Kaboul.” But his patience with Mason, Bentaleb, and Trippier says a lot about Pochettino’s willingness to give players ample time to prove themselves.
The financial disadvantages facing Tottenham are well known. We can’t pay our players market rate and we can’t spend a small country’s GDP to fix a problem area in the squad. This means that we have to find other ways to make up for that deficit. A big part of that is luck, of course: Having a player like Kane develop out of your academy is a one-in-a-million thing. Likewise if Steven Gerrard isn’t napping when Dele Alli visited Liverpool, it’s possible that we never sign arguably the best young attacking midfielder in England for £5m.
But it isn’t all about luck. After all, you never find value in your academy if you don’t give academy players a fair shot at breaking into the first team. And you don’t find value in players already in the squad if you give up on them too quickly. And you don’t get a team performing above expectations if you don’t have players who believe in the manager’s vision and are willing to work as hard as required to make that vision a reality.
This is a remarkable time at Tottenham Hotspur. It’s hard to say if it can last. But in the meantime, we can enjoy shock results like a 3-1 home victory against Real Madrid because of the work done by Pochettino and the squad’s belief in their manager.