On Sunday, one day after Tottenham Hotspur pressed Chelsea out of Wembley Stadium in a 3-1 Premier League win, Dele Alli had some glowing words of praise for his manager, Mauricio Pochettino.
One of the best players on the pitch on Saturday, Dele noted that Spurs’ ability to perform at such a high level despite being without a few key pieces had a lot to do with the way Pochettino sets up his tactics, and also trusts his players to make good decisions.
“I think working with Poch you know how good he is. He’s an amazing manager tactically. A lot of it was the work we did tactically: on the front foot, pushing up high.
“He’s managing the squad well, rotating when he needs to, picking the players that he feels are best on that day. That’s important for the team, to have players that are fresh and ready to go. Everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.
“He makes it very clear what you have to do. So going into the game, you know your role and what you have to do. You don’t have to worry about anything else, your football is natural, it’s what you’ve been doing for a long time. As long as we’re clear on our roles and responsibilities, we can enjoy playing.”
We think about Pochettino as being a “system manager” — he has an established way that he wants his player to play, and he finds players that will fit well into that methodology. But in talking to the media, Poch regularly says that his tactics are less about the formation and more about how he wants his players to approach the match — high line, limit the effectiveness of this player, look for these triggers and react accordingly. It doesn’t really matter whether Sky Sports says that Spurs are lining up in a 4-2-3-1, or a 4-3-3, or a 3-1-4-2. What matters is how his players adjust to the scenarios they find themselves on the football pitch.
If we are to believe Dele, this gives Pochettino’s players an enormous amount of freedom, and a means to express themselves through their football. It’s not about what not to do, it’s about putting players in the positions to recognize situations in football, and allowing them to make a choice. It’s more structured than Harry Redknapp’s “FRAAB” formations, but less dogmatic than that of, say, Sarriball or that of Tony Pulis.
Spurs assistant manager Jesus Perez echoed a lot of what Dele is hinting at in a fascinating interview with football.london last week.
“There are two ways in football to coach. You can coach with fear or you can coach the will to try. It’s risk with knowledge. So if you say to a right-back ‘be careful with this pass, don’t do this pass, don’t do that’, then this guy will try to choose the other three options you didn’t say and it’s dangerous.
”But if you say to this guy ‘be in a good position, be in a good angle and then you try, try because it’s you on the pitch, I give you a position and then it’s up to you’. Now we have one guy playing who has good skill and takes a risk in possession. We don’t tell him to be careful, but to try to read the situations. Sometimes you need to pass and go back and offer support.
“He doesn’t teach players. He proposes to the player a scenario, a platform to improve. If they take it they will improve. It’s just practising and having the backing of your manager. That’s how you improve.”
Of course it doesn’t always work — no tactics do 100% of the time. Still, in the comments from Dele and the explanation from Perez you can start to understand why Pochettino’s players love him so much, and perhaps even why they tend to stay at Spurs when they could earn three times their salary elsewhere. Pochettino’s tactics require smart players and rely on good decisions, but they also have trust in the player as a bedrock principle.