Cartilage Free Captain is starting its annual series of reviewing the players of Tottenham Hotspur and how they performed in the last Premier League season. Today's subject: manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Trophies won: 0
Record against the top six: 4-3-3
EPL Manager of the Month awards: 1
What went right?
Like we wrote in the team wrap-up, a whole heck of a lot went right for Pochettino this season. Like last year, he got nearly full buy-in to his methods and tactics from his club. If last season something clicked into place with his players, this season that understanding blossomed and matured. Poch was blessed to have the best defense in the Premier League combined with an offense that scored the most goals in the league. The build-from-the-back, counterpressing, high tempo style suited this group of Spurs players very well, and Pochettino was able to get the most out of them.
The clearest example of that is Victor Wanyama, whom Poch groomed from a foul-prone defensive midfielder at Southampton to one of the best midfield destroyers in the Premier League. It took a while to figure out how best to utilize him in Spurs’ midfield, but by the end of the season Wanyama was playing some incredible football and had also improved his passing in the attacking third. That can be credited as much to Pochettino’s training as to Wanyama’s skill.
Likewise, Poch got surprisingly good performances out of his backups. Ben Davies and especially Son Heung-Min played well after injuries to Erik Lamela and Danny Rose. The depth needed to mount a serious challenge in multiple competitions still isn’t there, but you get the feeling that it’s close.
Finally, Pochettino actually figured out a Plan B by switching to and implementing a back three formation that utilized Eric Dier’s ability to drop into defense and gave additional attacking freedom to the wingbacks. Much of Spurs’ nine game winning streak in 2017 came about in that new 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 formation, and it was a beautiful thing to watch.
The end result was the best Tottenham Hotspur season since the mid-1960s. Winning, good football, happy players. That should be enough to hang your hat on.
What went wrong?
If a manager is (rightfully) judged by how well his team performs, then Pochettino got things mostly right. But there are still areas that could use a little touching up. For starters, Poch’s lineups are still sometimes a little questionable and sometimes seem a little detached from the expected tactics of the opposition. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was the 2-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. Pochettino started the match with his side in a 4-2-3-1 and watched poor Ben Davies get torched by Sadio Mane over and over again, when switching to a back three was the clearest way to mitigate this obvious tactical mismatch.
Likewise, much like we said last season, some of Pochettino’s substitutions have been a bit baffling at times, as has his penchant for waiting to make tactical substitutions until late in the match instead of making adjustments earlier. This has led, it seems, to situations where Spurs have either needed to make comebacks to earn points, or hold on to leads while using players with obviously tired legs.
The other frustration we’ve seen with Pochettino this season, ironically, is his reluctance to play youth and reserve players in less meaningful matches. George-Kevin N’Koudou and Josh Onomah haven’t been great this season, but neither have they been given the opportunity to play, make mistakes, and grow at the Premier League level. It’s hard to know if they have promise if we rarely see them on the pitch.
Finally, despite Spurs having their best season in decades, they still didn’t win anything, falling out of the FA Cup in the semifinals and disappointing in both the Champions League and Europa League. Winning things is hard, but gosh darn it, this Spurs team needs to start as soon as possible.
But let’s face it — I’m quibbling. Any manager that can take a young team like Spurs operating on a different financial plane from the rest of the league and get them working together well enough that they finish second in the table with 86 points is doing a heck of a lot right.
Pochettino has set the bar for next season extremely high, perhaps a bit unfairly so. Should fans expect Spurs to compete for the title for the third consecutive season? Will there be backlash if the club backslides a bit while in their season in the wilderness?
Like last summer, everyone expects the clubs around Spurs to spend big to improve big. Spurs do not have that luxury, so again they will have to out-smart their rivals in the transfer market. With Spurs’ scouting and player identification systems in what looks like a bit of a shambles, more responsibility has fallen to Poch to identify talent, and with the Janssen and Sissoko moves he hasn’t proven thus far that this is a wise decision. The prospect of playing at Wembley next season is another force that is working against Poch, but one that he has little control over.
Instead, the best thing Poch can do is keep the band together as much as he can, bring along young players to be future Tottenham starters, and stay as close to the top of the league as possible while the new stadium is finished. If Poch can pull another rabbit out of his hat, then the game really changes.
Poch is the darling of the football world right now and could probably have any job he wants. He is now an elite manager. Thankfully, he appears committed to Tottenham and to the project. Long may that continue.