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The Evolution of Mauricio Pochettino

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One of Europe’s most promising managers is hitting new heights as a tactician. And he’s bringing Tottenham with him.

Tottenham Hotspur v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images

After the 2015-16 season, the narrative surrounding Tottenham Hotspur was that the club had taken major strides under Mauricio Pochettino, but they had also been lucky. Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United were all weaker that year and Arsenal was continuing their long-term decline. Probably, the club would slightly improve in 2016-17 but because of major improvements at other clubs they would still finish lower in the table.

That’s what we predicted would happen here at Cartilage Free Captain: Many of us thought the 2016-17 edition of Tottenham would both be marginally better than 15-16 and probably finish in fifth anyway.

That didn’t happen. Chelsea massively improved, of course. But City went through growing pains under Pep Guardiola, Liverpool never fixed their defense, and United was laughably unlucky in a number of fixtures. But those weren’t the only surprises: Spurs also improved even more than expected relative to their 2015-16 form, thanks in part to Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, and Harry Kane all establishing themselves as elite attacking players.

The result: Spurs finished second.

Going into this season, you could hear similar concerns being voiced amongst Tottenham fans. Liverpool added Mo Salah. Chelsea brought in Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko. City fixed their defense. United added Romelu Lukaku.

The preseason wisdom was that unless Dele, Kane, or Eriksen made another leap then 2017-18 would be the year that Spurs slipped, regressing back down to the position you’d expect them to be in given their financial limitations: fifth or sixth. They may still finish there, of course. But if they do it won’t be because they are appreciably worse than their other top four rivals, City excepted. The statistical differences between a much luckier United, stable Chelsea, much-improved Liverpool, a better-than-expected Arsenal, and Tottenham are basically nil. So how has Tottenham managed to stay in touch with these wealthier rivals, even as they spend far more money each summer?

Well, Harry Kane seems to have made another leap this year and is now genuinely in the conversation as being one of the top 3-5 strikers in world football. But there’s another leap being made that hasn’t been talked about nearly so much. It’s not Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen. In fact, they’ve both struggled in key fixtures.

So who is making a potentially career-defining leap?

It’s manager Mauricio Pochettino, who has matured beyond the one-trick tactician of his earlier days and become a tactically versatile manager who knows how to adapt systems to get the best out of his players and who still seems to have the unique man-management abilities that made him such a success earlier in his career.

To see Pochettino’s evolution from beginning to end, we should start with his arrival in England when he came to promoted Southampton in January of 2013.

Background


Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - The Emirates FA Cup Semi-Final Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

In considering recent developments in soccer tactics, we can probably bracket the two most recent eras as running from 2004-2012 and 2013 to the present. 2004 is when José Mourinho arrived in England and shattered the classic English 4-4-2 with a rugged, defense-first counter-attacking system built on a 4-3-3 that packed the midfield and used advanced wingers as inside forwards who supported a lone central striker. 2008 saw the arrivals of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund, both of whom in different ways introduced new more attack-focused systems that took their respective divisions (and Europe!) by storm, while also providing an alternative to the counter-based system favored by Mourinho.

The era ended in 2012. That season saw Guardiola leave Barcelona, shutting the door on the spectacularly successful Guardiola-Xavi-Iniesta-Messi era at the Camp Nou. It was also the year of Klopp’s second and final league title at Dortmund.

In different ways, each of these three managers transformed the game during this window. Mourinho favored a muscular, counter-attacking style that was results-focused and pragmatic, but also more tactically sophisticated than the hoof-and-hope style commonly associated with managers like Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis.

Guardiola is an ideologue who believes in a right way of playing soccer. He favors a possession-oriented style that emphasizes constant player movement built around the position of the ball and phase of play rather than static positions.

Klopp, meanwhile, is the mad German who incorporates the muscle of Mourinho with the attack-mindedness of Guardiola, and does it all in a style consistent with the overall revolution in German football following the 2000 Euros disaster.

Mauricio Pochettino belongs to the generation that broke through in the years after 2012, a group that includes German manager Thomas Tuchel, Atletico boss Diego Simeone, and arguably current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. All four bosses got their first big jobs in 2011 or later, with Simeone and Conte arriving at their clubs in 2011, Pochettino coming to England in 2013, and Tuchel breaking through at Dortmund in 2015. All of them show obvious influence from Mourinho, Guardiola, and Klopp, but also have put their own spin on the game as well.

Pochettino liked the frantic, muscular Argentine style he learned from his former manager Marcelo Bielsa. His emphasis on aggressive pressing famously earned Pep Guardiola’s praise back when the two were both managing in Spain, with Pochettino at Espanyol and Guardiola at Barcelona. But in many ways Pochettino’s approach actually shares more with Mourinho.

Pochettino wants defensive solidity built on rugged, bruising midfielders and an attack that combines speed, power, and directness such that the opposition is simply worn down over a full 90 minute match. Pochettino, then, is perhaps the natural evolution we should expect to see in the current era. He is a manager who emphasizes defense first along with robust midfield play — like Mourinho — but who prefers to play the match in the attacking third — like Guardiola — and believes the best way to defend is to win the ball back quickly when it is lost and to deny the opposition time and space to play with it when they are in possession — like Klopp.

Pochettino at Southampton


Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Pochettino’s Southampton teams used a 4-2-3-1 formation that kept a narrow shape up top so the attacking players could hunt in packs and win the ball quickly in advanced positions. They also featured marauding fullbacks that played more like wingbacks to supply width in the attacking third, and had a strong emphasis on compactness across the field in order to make the press work. This system was effective, but also fairly specific in what it asked of each player, which made it inflexible and vulnerable when key players were injured.

When his preferred XI was available, Pochettino’s Southampton could be a fearsome opponent. But they tended to be very limited tactically. Pochettino attempted some modifications early in the 2013-14 season with the acquisition of Dani Osvaldo, who he had previously managed at Espanyol. Unfortunately, Osvaldo’s temper led to many issues within the squad and his time on England’s south coast was limited. Thus the key XI and system that Pochettino adopted immediately upon arrival in January of 2013 would continue to be the normal system at St. Mary’s through the summer of 2014 when Pochettino and many of those players left the club.

Year One: 2014-15 Tottenham


Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There’s no other way to say it: Year one of the Poche era at Spurs was very, very bad. If Tottenham had finished eighth or ninth in the table they could not have complained. Due to the deficiencies in midfield we never really saw Poche’s vision realized on the pitch in a consistent way. The result was a horrific defensive record and an attack that never really got on track because of how dependent it was on the (misfiring) press to set up the attack.

The chief problem with the press was the Spurs midfield. Ryan Mason’s poor positional sense meant that the team was almost never in the right shape and once Mason broke the shape, it had a domino effect as other players had to move to compensate for him, which only broke the shape more. In hindsight, it is probable that Nabil Bentaleb also contributed to the problem, as he did not provide the kind of ball retention and defensive work-rate that Mousa Dembele does.

This was a widely known problem with Spurs. Brett Rainbow diagnosed it in the article linked above. Michael Caley wrote about it for the mothership. Mike Goodman covered it for Grantland. Richard Whittall wrote on the same thing for Paste.

There were some hopeful signs in that first year. The emergence of Harry Kane was encouraging, as was the improvement of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela. Hugo Lloris also had a spectacular campaign. But Jan Vertonghen’s form in defense was indifferent, Eric Dier looked like a man needing a position, Kyle Walker was hurt most of the season, and Danny Rose looked very raw at left back. And then there was the disaster that was the team’s midfield, and Pochettino’s bizarre refusal to play Mousa Dembele.

While it wasn’t a year devoid of any positive developments, it also was not a year that suggested Spurs had anything special in their young manager. If anything, the recently departed Andre Villas-Boas had a far better first season, even if that was largely aided by the form of Gareth Bale.

Going into year two, it was apparent that something needed to change at Spurs or the revolving managerial door at the club would be taking another turn.

Year Two: 2015-16 Tottenham


Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Beginning in year two, something changed. Specifically, Pochettino figured out his midfield. In a sign of things to come, the Argentine fixed his team not by spending big on new players, but rather by looking at the squad he already had and identifying the players who could fix the tactical issues affecting his team.

He shifted Eric Dier, who had played right back and center back the year before, into midfield. He also restored Mousa Dembele to the first team. The result was a defined first XI that took the league by storm, led by a revitalized midfield that unlocked the potential inherent in Pochettino’s system. He also brought Dele Alli, who had been signed the previous January from MK Dons, into the first team, a move that provided the missing piece in Tottenham’s attacking four.

That said, the progress was slow and didn’t really reflect any changes in Pochettino. Really, all he had done was find an XI that allowed him to play basically the same way he did at Southampton. And they performed better because the quality of the players was higher — Christian Eriksen is better than Adam Lallana, Mousa Dembele is better than Morgan Schneiderlin, Harry Kane is far superior to Rickie Lambert, etc.

But this Tottenham had the same problem as Pochettino’s Southampton. They had basically one way of playing and only 15 guys that could be trusted to play it—and the four non-starters were all clear steps down from the preferred starters. The best XI in 2015-16 looked like this:

Lloris
Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose
Dier, Dembele
Lamela, Dele, Eriksen
Kane

Off the bench, the only reliable players were Kevin Wimmer, Ben Davies, Kieran Trippier, and Son Heung-Min. But in all four cases, each player represented a significant downgrade from the regular starter.

  • Wimmer did not have the recovery ability of Vertonghen and Alderweireld.
  • Davies and Trippier lacked Rose and Walker’s pace and experience in Pochettino’s system.
  • Even Son was risky because he hadn’t yet picked up Pochettino’s pressing style, as we saw when Spurs gave up a late lead against Arsenal after Erik Lamela was withdrawn and the press stopped working as a result.
Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Pochettino had a system. But that was kinda the problem: He had a system. If Spurs could play 4-2-3-1 with their preferred XI, they were lethal. But remove any one of the 11 pieces and they suddenly looked pedestrian. That problem mostly didn’t hurt the club in 2015-16 because they enjoyed an absurd run of luck with regard to injuries and suspensions to that best XI.

But luck runs out eventually.

If Tottenham was going to take the next step, they would need to figure out how to win when their best XI wasn’t all available. And after Mousa Dembele gouged Diego Costa‘s eye (LOL) late in the season during the Battle of Stamford Bridge, earning a lengthy suspension, it became clear that Pochettino would have to figure that problem out sooner rather than later.

Year Three: 2016-17 Tottenham


Tottenham Hotspur v Millwall - The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

After a year in which Spurs’ best XI started almost every league fixture, 2016-17 was the year that tested Tottenham’s flexibility. The team opened the year without Dembele, who was suspended. He was replaced in the normal first XI by summer signing Victor Wanyama. By the time Dembele returned, Harry Kane was out with an ankle injury that saw him miss 12 fixtures. Shortly after Kane went down, Toby Alderweireld would sustain an injury and miss 11 fixtures.

As a result, Spurs had to reshuffle their entire XI. Kane’s injury forced the team to start new arrival (and eventual flop) Vincent Janssen or winger Son Heung-Min up top as a striker. When Sonny was used up top, that took away the team’s first rotation player in the attacking three. With Alderweireld out injured, Dier also had to shift back into defense, which meant that Wanyama had to partner Dembele in midfield.

The problems this created were multiple. Let’s start in midfield. The “Dierbele” midfield duo did several things well, all of which were vital to the way the 2015-16 Spurs team played:

  • Mousa Dembele did normal Dembele things in midfield, showing a god-like ability to retain the ball while also providing excellent defensive work, decent range, and the ability to progress the ball thanks to his incredible dribbling ability.
  • Eric Dier sat at the base of midfield, shielding the defense and, in possession, dropping in between Vertonghen and Alderweireld. This allowed the Belgian center backs, both elite ball-playing defenders, to push high and wide and support the attack, providing another reliable method of progressing the ball.

Wanyama does not have Dembele’s ball control or progression ability. So a midfield of Dier and Wanyama (“Dieryama”) could strangle the match, but was unable to progress the ball consistently. As a result, Tottenham’s attack struggled.

Wanyama also lacks Dier’s ability to comfortably drop deep, split the center backs, and play as a de facto center back with sweeper-like responsibilities. So a Wanyama and Dembele midfield (“Wanbele”) could progress the ball through midfield, but it also dramatically limited Vertonghen and Alderweireld’s ability to influence the attack from deep. This took away a primary way of progressing the ball into the final third. (It also didn’t help matters, of course, that Alderweireld missed a number of fixtures.)

The absence of Harry Kane up top also meant that Spurs had to figure out how to accommodate a winger-cum-striker leading the line, or to work around the severe limitations of Janssen.

Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

In other words, all the sorts of problems that we knew existed in 2015-16 but never had to answer because of luck with player fitness were now forced on Pochettino in year three. Did the Argentine actually have a Plan B when he couldn’t play his high-press narrow 4-2-3-1? Could he adapt his system to his players? Could he find creative solutions to his tactical problems?

Because he had to play Wanyama due to these injury and suspension problems, Pochettino was forced to figure out a system that maximized what Wanyama did well — shield the defense and break up play — and minimized his already mentioned weaknesses. Initially, he tried a 4-1-4-1 system with Dele and Eriksen ahead of Wanyama in midfield and some combination of Lamela, Moussa Sissoko, or new signing Georges-Kevin N’Koudou flanking Son Heung-Min up top.

This system ultimately didn’t pan out because the wingers tucked in narrowly, as they ought to in Pochettino’s system, but now there was a fourth midfield attacker in that area. So the attack got clogged up. Midfield was also too open and Vertonghen and Alderweireld could not get forward to support the attack as much as they had the previous season.

In December, Pochettino hit on the solution: a switch to three at the back. He had used the system earlier in the season against Arsenal, but that had been more a desperate gamble to mask our absences due to injury or suspension. Against Hull it was a different kind of move and the results were immediate.

Spurs scored three goals, created 27 shots, had an xG of 2.98 (second best of the season up to that point), and won in comfortable fashion. Then, using the same system almost three weeks later, Spurs beat Watford 4-1 with an xG of 3.3 (its best of the season) and an average xG/Shot value of .17.

That said, in these games Dembele had not played — Spurs played a 3-3-3-1 that looked like this:

Lloris
Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen
Walker, Wanyama, Rose
Sissoko, Dele, Eriksen
Kane

That was the squad that faced Hull. Watford saw Kevin Wimmer rotate in for Vertonghen, Trippier in for Walker, and Son in for Sissoko. The system worked, but it was also quite aggressive. It used a single midfielder — Wanyama — and relied on the defenders to progress the ball into the attacking third. It then used the superior numbers in the attacking third — two wingbacks, three attacking midfielders, and a striker — to keep the ball there.

When possession was lost, Wanyama’s freakish range allowed the team to win the ball back quickly and pump it back into the final third. But such a system was far too aggressive and risky to try against teams that weren’t mired in a relegation battle. So how would Spurs handle those fixtures? The answer came on January 4, three days after the win at Vicarage Road.

The next fixture was a home date with Chelsea, the final time Spurs would face their west London rivals at White Hart Lane. Pochettino trotted out a new lineup that hadn’t been used all season, but basically fit the personnel Spurs had available:

Lloris
Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen
Rose, Dembele, Wanyama, Walker
Eriksen, Dele
Kane

It was the best XI from the previous season only with Wanyama swapped in for the injured Erik Lamela. The swap meant that the 4-2-3-1 couldn’t work. But with Wanyama shielding the defense, Dembele doing his normal work in midfield, and Dier playing in defense with the Belgian duo of Alderweireld and Vertonghen, the team had a workable solution: The defenders could be more active in the attack, the fullbacks had license to get even further forward, and both Dele and Eriksen had the freedom and space needed to be at their best supporting Kane. Though the 2-0 result might have flattered Spurs a little, no one could say the team hadn’t done enough to win.

Most notably, both goals were direct results of the new system. The 3-4-3 allowed Christian Eriksen to have a creative runner role, dropping deep to receive the ball but also with license to get into the attacking third. Dele Alli, meanwhile, played like a second striker, making runs into the box and looking for quick exchanges with Kane. Both goals came from Eriksen receiving the ball in deep areas and finding Dele in the box for headed goals.

The Chelsea game was the 20th match of the season, conveniently making it the first match of the second half of the campaign. During those 19 games Spurs would go 15-2-2, accumulating 47 points out of a possible 57. The team scored 49 goals during those 19 fixtures while conceding only 12, giving them a positive goal differential of +37.

Projected over a full 38 game season, that would be a 30-4-4 record for 94 points with 98 goals scored, 24 conceded, and a goal differential of +74. To put those numbers into context, 30 wins would match Chelsea’s record for most wins in a single campaign (set in 2016-17 because OF COURSE IT WAS), 94 points would be one point behind the 2004-05 Chelsea team’s record of 95 points, 98 goals would be only five behind the record set by the 2009-10 Chelsea team, and 24 goals conceded would be only nine goals worse than the record set by that same 04-05 Blues squad.

All of which is to say: In the second half of the 2016-17 season, Spurs were really freaking good.

Central to that transformation was Pochettino’s move toward three at the back, which Spurs used in almost all 19 league fixtures in the second half. The system is worth discussing in more detail. It shared a number of things with the 4-2-3-1 but also with the aborted 4-1-4-1 Spurs used for a short time earlier in the campaign.

The bedrock principles of Pochettino football were still there: a sturdy defensive shape, muscular midfield play, and direct attacking into the final third. But the move from 4-2-3-1 to three at the back did several things that improved Tottenham’s attack.

  • With Eriksen as a creative runner shuttling between midfield and attack, he suddenly was getting the ball in new areas and had new passing angles.
  • Dele Alli provided a close partner to Harry Kane who could play quick passing exchanges with the English striker and work off of his exceptional hold-up play. As the year progressed, we started to see more and more of Dele getting the ball in advanced central positions and playing clever chips and through balls to set up Kane.
  • Using wingbacks allowed Spurs to pack more players into the attacking third without clogging the central area, which had been the problem with the 4-1-4-1.
  • Finally, with three at the back, Spurs could always flare the wide center backs out into the channels, allowing them to participate in the attack and also have new passing angles.

Essentially, 3-5-2 preserved all the distinctives of traditional Pochettino football while creating new passing lanes and opening up space for Christian Eriksen to dictate play. It is no surprise that the move saw the team continue to strangle opposition attacks while producing much improved attacking numbers.

There was also one other significant benefit to moving to three at the back: It made the team more adaptable when they were missing a key player. The added defender plus Wanyama’s range in midfield masked some of Ben Davies’ and Kieran Trippier’s limitations defensively when they were in the lineup. Pushing the fullbacks further up the pitch also allowed both of them to exert more influence going forward through their good and occasionally great passing ability.

Finally, the back three was deceptively versatile. Jan Vertonghen always played on the left side of the trio, but could either sit deep and spray long passes or play what almost looked like an inverted wingback role, but with more of a box-to-box brief than a midfield pivot role. This was similar to the role Phillip Lahm played at Bayern Munich.

The central and right-sided defender roles were even more interesting: Both Dier and Alderweireld can fill either role. So Spurs could sit Dier in the middle and allow Alderweireld to push forward and hit the crossfield vertical balls he loves to play. These balls routinely open up defenses by simultaneously progressing the ball and flipping the field. Or Spurs could play Dier on the right in a role somewhat like Vertonghen’s on the left and have Alderweireld sit deep as a last line of defense and occasional libero when on the ball.

The key, then, is that Pochettino had found a simpler way to play his style of football. The 2015-16 team had a single way of playing and needed all 11 of their best players for it work at its best. By the time we got to the end of the 2016-17 season, however, Spurs could adapt to various circumstances with different personnel while retaining the same basic system.

Year Four: 2017-18 Tottenham


This brings us to the current season. So far this year we have seen Spurs set up in a 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 with Dele Alli as a second striker, a 3-5-2 with Dele and Christian Eriksen in midfield and Son and Kane up top, and a 3-5-2 with Fernando Llorente partnering Harry Kane up top. We have also seen a true Mourinho-like performance at the Westfalenstadion in Tottenham’s 3-1 Champions League group stage win over Dortmund, a match that saw the team play with a low block and looking to counter attack.

Though there have been shades of differences between these systems, the underlying principles have stayed fairly constant, the Dortmund game excepted.

That said, because of this new-found flexibility, there are 17 or 18 players in the Spurs squad genuinely capable of playing meaningful minutes in important fixtures:

GK: Hugo Lloris
Defenders: Danny Rose, Ben Davies, Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertongen, Toby Alderweireld, Kieran Trippier, Serge Aurier
Midfielders: Harry Winks, Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama
Attacking Midfielders: Christian Eriksen, Son-Heung Min, Dele Alli, Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko
Strikers: Harry Kane, Fernando Llorente

That list leaves out unproven youngsters Juan Foyth, Kyle Walker-Peters, and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, all of whom may yet contribute this season. But even leaving those three out of the equation, Spurs now have 19 players that can play significant minutes without completely wrecking our overall style. And that also doesn’t include the addition of Lucas Moura, signed from Paris St-Germain on deadline day of the January transfer window.

This newfound depth exists not necessarily because Spurs have improved their squad by leaps and bounds in the past two years, but because Pochettino has figured out a way to implement his system within a less rigid overall structure. Put another way, he has figured out how to make small adjustments in the system that compensate for a player’s weaknesses and, in the process, introduce new wrinkles into the overall tactical scheme.

The use of Davinson Sanchez early on is a good example. Due to injury issues in midfield, Spurs have had to play Dier in midfield more often than they may have expected. This, in turn, has meant that Tottenham’s record signing has been a regular starter since his arrival at the club in the summer of 2017. But the role he plays is not really a carbon copy of the role played by any other defender that has had success under Pochettino.

When Sanchez is in defense with the Belgian duo in a back three, Spurs push Vertonghen and Alderweireld wide and assign basically all of the deep passing responsibilities to them. If Sanchez gets the ball, he plays the simplest, safest ball he can — almost always to one of his fellow center backs. Sanchez’s responsibilities are simple: Be a stopper who doesn’t get beat one-on-one. In a high-risk-high-reward system like Tottenham’s, this is a major responsibility, of course. But compared to what is asked of Vertonghen, Alderweireld, or Dier it is fairly limited. Significantly, it is also closely aligned with Sanchez’s greatest strengths as a defender.

The result of this change is that Tottenham with Alderweireld in the center of the back three is a totally different animal from Tottenham with Sanchez in the center of the back three. These charts will illustrate. Here are two passing charts for Alderweireld playing as the center defender in a back three from last season. The first is against Everton, and the second against Chelsea.

Everton (2016-17):

Chelsea (2016-17):

In both cases, you see Alderweireld being trusted to spray the ball around a bit, even if the long passes against Chelsea were mostly lateral reverse balls rather than his signature diagonals.

Now, here is Davinson this season in the exact same position:

The above image is from the identical fixture against Everton, only for the 17-18 season rather than 16-17. But whereas Alderweireld was constantly looking for diagonals to either wing, Davinson is simply playing simple lateral balls to either defender flanking him.

The map against Huddersfield, shown below, is even more stark:

Sanchez basically does not play a single risky pass in this game despite it being played against a very weak promoted opponent. His brief is simply to get the ball to the Belgians and win one-on-one battles. And here’s the thing: For Davinson this is perfect. He has shown potential on the ball, but is still fairly young and raw in that area. But even last year at Ajax his skill in one-on-ones was apparent. By deploying him in this way Pochettino puts him in the best position to succeed by asking him to do the things he is already good at and removing responsibilities he is not ready to handle at this phase in his development.

Conclusion


This is the key skill that Pochettino has been developing over the past 12-15 months as a manager. The Pochettino of Southampton or his early days at Spurs had a system he wanted everyone to play, and if you didn’t fit in the system, he didn’t have room for you. Thus Dani Osvaldo’s odd stint at Southampton or, more relevant still, the records of Gaston Ramirez at Southampton and Clinton N’Jie at Tottenham. Both players came into the clubs with some level of expectation, particularly Gaston who was a club record signings. And in both cases, Pochettino mostly did not use the players and then quickly got rid of them. It wasn’t that either player was unskilled, but that the player’s skills didn’t map well onto Pochettino’s fairly specific system. Never mind the fact that both Gaston and Clinton represented useful depth in positions where his squad was thin. They didn’t fit the system and that was all that mattered.

What we have seen in the past 12-15 months is that Pochettino is becoming less insistent on a single tactical system and more adept at adapting underlying tactical principles to a variety of systems that allow him to rotate his squad more effectively and use a wider range of players. Victor Wanyama doesn’t have a place in the 2015-16 Tottenham team. Son Heung-Min barely had a place in it and he’s arguably been the club’s second best performer this season.

This new-found adaptability has been and will continue to be vital to Tottenham’s ability to keep pace with wealthier rivals. While the club can almost afford similar transfer fees to those paid by their nearest financial peer, Liverpool, they cannot afford the wages that even the Reds pay their players, let alone the fees and wages offered by England’s four wealthiest clubs. Thus the team’s transfer strategy and their use of their squad need to be different if the team is to keep pace with their wealthier rivals.

Doing that successfully, of course, requires a lot of things. All the managerial talent and adaptability in the world won’t be enough if you don’t strike unexpected gold in the form of players like Kane and Dele. But you also need a manager who knows how to use a different and more limited squad. The past year suggests that Mauricio Pochettino has become that manager. And if Spurs are going to continue their unlikely string of top four finishes, Pochettino’s growth as a manager will be a leading reason why.