The past few weeks were, in the end, a disaster. Who knew that after their sensational performance at Stoke in April, after which Tottenham Hotspur were hailed by some as the best team in the land, they wouldn’t win another game and finish behind Arsenal? But this shouldn’t obscure what a terrific season this has been for Tottenham: They challenged for the title for the first time in a generation, qualified for the Champions League and finished third, which was their highest finish since 1990.
All of this was achieved with a young, talented and attack-minded team, a vibrant manager who has just signed a five-year contract, and they have a new stadium on the way. The future remains bright for Tottenham, not just to repeat what they achieved this season, but to better it.
Undoubtedly the most important factor in their potential for growth is the manager. Probably the most surprising thing about the pictures of Mauricio Pochettino emerging from lunch with Sir Alex Ferguson last week was not the brief bout of speculation about his future, but rather that he wasn’t at the club’s slick, luxurious training ground. Pochettino, like most top managers, is known as a workaholic, spending hours on end at the club’s well-appointed Enfield HQ, planning not only for now but the future. His influence has already spread throughout the club.
Nothing at Tottenham is purely focused on short-term thinking, and if you listen to Pochettino over an extended period of time you’ll notice that one of the few things he is happy to discuss is the future. It’s clearly something he talks about with the players, too.
Even an hour or so after the calamitous final day defeat to Newcastle, Harry Kane, perhaps the symbol of Tottenham’s bright future, was enthusiastic about what’s ahead.
“Everything is in place,” he said, when asked by ESPN FC if Spurs had laid the foundations for the future this season. “We’ve got to try to stay positive — us, the fans, the club — because we are moving in the right direction. But we’ve just got to learn from the mistakes and days like today.”
When Pochettino signed his new contract in May, it initially seemed quite pointed that his title had changed from “head coach” to “manager.” “To succeed in the future, you need to coordinate, not only to be focused on the game,” he said after signing his deal, while accepting that he can’t control everything. “OK, you are head coach, you manage your team, you decide on your starting XI, but you need to be involved in signing players, for your style.”
Along with his trusted assistants Miguel D’Agostino, Toni Jimenez and Jesus Perez (upon whom he still relies for help with his English), Pochettino works closely with Paul Mitchell, the man recruited from Southampton 18 months ago to oversee player recruitment and analysis, and John McDermott, the club’s head of coaching and development, who earlier this season took over responsibility for every age group below the first team.
Pochettino is also part of the five-man “transfer committee” that includes chairman Daniel Levy and chief scout Ian Broomfield. Pochettino’s primary responsibility is the first team, but he has struck a sensible balance between that role and having wider control over how the club operates.
With that in mind, one of the most striking elements to this Tottenham team is youth. Pochettino prefers to work with young players, and while there isn’t necessarily an upper-age limit on new recruits, it would be a surprise if they signed anyone much older than 25 this summer. Since Pochettino arrived, the oldest outfield player the club have bought was the 27-year-old Federico Fazio, and he was very quickly shipped back to Spain when it became clear he wasn’t good enough.
Young players are preferred largely for two reasons: because it’s more likely they will be able to cope with the manager’s physically demanding, high-energy playing style, and because they are more likely to take on new instructions and be moulded into Pochettino’s image. The sooner they fit to his way of thinking, the more likely those habits are to become second nature, making it much easier for them to play his way not just now, but for years to come.
“You have some limitations, but it’s true that younger players fit better than older players,” Pochettino said when asked by ESPN FC about his transfer policy. “This is how our squad is different today than maybe a few years ago.” And they are young. Of the 50 youngest starting XIs named in Premier League games during the season, Tottenham had 29, and five of the others belonged to Manchester United who were frequently forced to use youth team players due to injuries to more senior men.
However, just because the team is young doesn’t mean experience is a problem. “Sometimes I think experience might be overrated,” said Jan Vertonghen in April. “If you see the way this team plays, we’re just enjoying so much playing together.”
That fact didn’t stop the team’s late-season slide. You could certainly point to a lack of calmness and experienced on-the-pitch leaders as the main reasons for their troubles, and it could equally be that the frantic style of play eventually caught up with the players, despite their young legs. Perhaps with slightly cooler heads Spurs could have finished above Arsenal for the first time in 21 years, and indeed gained more points than Andre Villas-Boas did in 2012/13. That season Tottenham finished on 72 points, this term it was 70.
But youth is Pochettino’s preference, and if managed the right way and augmented by some shrewd new signings, they can still succeed. The club’s young players who are not quite ready for the first team are dealt with in a different manner to many other top Premier League sides. At many teams (and at Tottenham in years past), youngsters are routinely sent out on loan to give them more match time, to toughen them up or simply market them for sale, but Pochettino tends to keep them at Hotspur Way.
As a result, they might not get a great deal of time in senior football, but this way they do spend more time training with the first team, learning Pochettino’s methods. Players like Joshua Onomah and Harry Winks could have easily played in the Championship this season; Kyle Walker-Peters and Cameron Carter-Vickers are not yet at the same level but have likewise been kept close; goalkeeper Tom Glover and forwards Shayon Harrison, Kazaiah Sterling and Marcus Edwards are next on the list.
While those young players remain at the club and often train with the first team, they aren’t allowed to think they’ve “made it”. Keeping them within sight of, but at arms’ length to the elite players acts as a way of motivating the youngsters, and one small way Pochettino does this is by making them earn small, but psychologically significant privileges. Onomah, for example, was on the fringes of the first XI from the start of the season, but wasn’t initially allowed an access card to get into certain first-team areas of the training complex.
This is also part of Pochettino’s emphasis on the character of his players. Potential new recruits are assessed on how they’ll fit with Pochettino’s style, but also their personalities, a harmonious dressing room almost regarded as important as a talented one. Anyone who doesn’t fit with that is quickly dismissed, as Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon and Emmanuel Adebayor will tell you. “You need to add not only the football side but the human profile,” says Pochettino.
This is all part of the way Pochettino has brought the club together, developing a harmony that hasn’t been seen for some years. You could dismiss his frequent talk of a good relationship with Levy as a platitude, but the pair genuinely seem to get along. That they watched Leicester’s game against West Ham at the chairman’s house over a bottle of wine might be one thing, but the fairly remarkable fact that Pochettino is the first manager Levy has given a contract extension to is a far more substantial sign of the trust between the two men. Harry Redknapp was broadly liked by fans but mistrusted by Levy; Villas-Boas was similar and also didn’t have the backing of the media; Tim Sherwood had Levy’s ear but was disliked by the fans.
This is one of the reasons Pochettino is the ideal manager for Spurs at this stage, but also that he has excelled at making the most of the available resources. For example, this season Pochettino converted Eric Dier from a peripheral defender to a certain England starter in holding midfield, and navigated the campaign with only one specialist centre-forward in Kane. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that every first-team regular has improved under his coaching, with the possible exception of Hugo Lloris, who was a world-class goalkeeper before he arrived.
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