Mauricio Pochettino knows his team is a little bit behind the 8-ball as the start of the Premier League season hurtles closer. His Tottenham Hotspur squad finishes their tour of the United States with a final International Champions Cup friendly match against AC Milan tonight in Minneapolis, a tour that was without nine of their best players thanks to the World Cup.
Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris, Dele Alli, and the rest of Spurs’ World Cup stars are likely to report at the beginning of next week for training, five days before Spurs kick off their league season at Newcastle United. That’s not a lot of time for the players to regain fitness and sharpness, and it raises the possibility that few if any of them will play in week 1.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is in a similar situation, but has spent most of United’s preseason complaining about his missing stars, grumbling about having to field a squad of developmental players beside Alexis Sanchez, and openly talking about demanding his World Cup stars report early for training.
Pochettino, along with managers like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, is taking a much different approach. Certainly he wants his best players back earlier, but he’s also using the preseason as an opportunity to evaluate promising youth players, giving them an opportunity for valuable minutes that could pay dividends down the road.
In an interview with Dan Kilpatrick in the Evening Standard, Poch says that of course he wishes that Harry Kane was back with his squad for preseason, but there’s no point in complaining about things that you can’t solve.
“We knew that this was going to happen if our players were involved in the World Cup semi-finals or final but it’s difficult to find the solution because the players need at least 20 days’ rest.
“They are not machines. You cannot negotiate. It’s against our interests but I think you must prioritise the health of the players, physical and psychological. It’s so important for them to rest, have some parties, spend time with friends and families.
“Then we try to help them to be fit as soon as possible and to enjoy football.
“After 10 months playing in different competitions and then the World Cup, it’s impossible not to give them holidays and then hope they arrive fresh and ready to compete under pressure.
“Of course, I understand Jose and he is a very good friend but I am not going to complain. When you cannot affect the reality, you need to adapt yourself to circumstances that are completely different from other seasons.”
This strikes me as being absolutely correct. With respect to Liverpool, United, and Manchester City, Tottenham is probably the club that is most hurt by England, Belgium, and France ending up in the World Cup semifinals. The nine missing Spurs players represent most of Pochettino’s first choice starting XI, and if they miss a match or two it could potentially hurt Spurs in the short term. But in the long term, pushing professional athletes’ bodies to the limit after a super demanding summer will do more harm than good.
Everyone needs a break, whether you’re a professional athlete or work in a cubicle. Poch knows this, and understands that his players need to not think about football for a little while in order to decompress and recover from a year of nearly non-stop football.
Mourinho is probably playing mind games. He’s combative with the media, but almost certainly knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure what the end game is, but drawing a stark contrast to Jose doesn’t hurt Pochettino in the slightest. If nothing else, comments like this will signal to his players that Poch has their best interest at heart, further solidifying his relationship with his squad. And as we know, a strong relationship between manager and players can be the difference between a successful season and a mediocre one.