Football Sport

Staking a claim

Written by Leanne Lu

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of WGM.

Long-suffering Tottenham Hotspur fans believe this could be their year. After a slow start to the season which saw them win one and draw two of their first three games, the North London club picked up the pace, winning six of their next seven games in all competitions. The speed of their game is frightening, while promising offensive players are showing their potential on the big stage. So, could it really be Tottenham’s year?

No-one expected new Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola to be taught his first lesson about the English Premier League from his old foe – former Espanyol manager Mauricio Pochettino. Most expected City’s challenges to come from the unpleasantness of a cold night in Stoke, or from the endless high balls favored by West Brom rather than a man who shares such a similar footballing philosophy to Guardiola.

But having won their first six games, it was Pochettino’s Tottenham side that would halt the ride – their dominant 2-0 win so impressive that even Guardiola himself paid tribute to the work of his rival. More importantly, it was a performance that announced Spurs as a genuine title contender.

Tottenham’s modus operandi is no secret. Much like Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool they play a fast-paced, high pressing game designed to constantly apply pressure to their opponents both with and without the ball. It’s a tactic that can be traced back to Pochettino’s early coaching days at Espanyol. As Guardiola once noted, “there are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you … Espanyol look for you.”

Harry Kane

Harry Kane

So the Spaniard knew what to expect from Spurs, but still couldn’t come up with a solution to stop them.

It’s no wonder White Hart Lane is buzzing, their steady rise complemented by a style of play that makes them a joy to watch.

“We push the players to play and to be brave on the pitch – to be protagonists, to press high,” Pochettino explained of his football philosophy. “With the ball, play always along the grass. The way we play is a fantastic way to achieve things and all the players will feel that they share our philosophy. You only need to add some luck to win trophies or achieve big things.”

Just as impressive has been Pochettino’s list management which has combined some shrewd recruiting with a focus on emerging youngsters.

In-fact, Tottenham is now the youngest team in the Premier League – a fact echoed by Pochettino’s preference for the title “head coach” rather than “manager.” He wants to be recognized for fostering young talent rather than simply bringing players in from outside. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Son Heung-min are now leading players in the Premier League, with the English contingent also forming the core of the current national team.

Inside two years, Pochettino has transformed the North London club from a top-four outsider to a top four regular and maybe even a title contender this season. The most intriguing facet of his team, of course, is his high pressing football. In the home game against Manchester City, Spur’s young runners made the Blue Moons’ life a nightmare. Statistics later showed that Spurs made the most sprints of any league game so far this season with 647 sprints – ahead of Liverpool’s 640 sprints against Swansea and 625 sprints against Chelsea. Unsurprisingly, these two managers are renowned for their belief in this approach. Regardless of the opposition or circumstance, high pressing (or Gegenpressing as Klopp’s version is called) is always a fundamental part of their games.

Eric Dier

Eric Dier

It also sees their sides maintain a high line, a tactic designed to keep all three lines – defense, offense and midfield – as compact as possible to keep opponents far away from their goal. The danger is that counter-attacking teams can easily expose the defense if implemented poorly, as was the case at Chelsea in 2008-09 under Luiz Felipe Scolari when the Blues leaked goals.

The key to a high defensive line is strong positional and tactical awareness. As it was, Tottenham conceded the fewest goals of any side last season, so Pochettino’s idea is not so risky after all.

To sum up Pochettino’s philosophy, Liverpool and England defender Nathaniel Clyne, who played under Pochettino at Southampton, explained, “He’d have us pressing high, keeping a high line, receiving the ball in difficult situations, keeping possession and basically having the confidence to play football rather than being afraid – he took my game to another level.”

That feeling of confidence is clear to see in Tottenham’s young stars such as Kane, Dier and Alli.

High pressing requires extreme fitness and very hard training sessions, particularly in pre-season. There have been stories of Spurs running double, even triple sessions with days stretching from 10:00 to 20:00. Left back Ben Davies once said, “It’s something totally new to me. I go back with Wales for the camp and I tell them the amount of training we’re doing and some of the players can’t believe it.”

But the sustainability of such a football philosophy is open to question. In the case of Klopp, his former club Dortmund became a victim of fatigue, with the demands on players’ bodies leading to injuries and an uncontrollable slide in form after a few highly impressive seasons. Last year, Liverpool looked exhausted when they faded badly in the second half of the Europa League final against Seville. Likewise, Tottenham found themselves the last remaining contender to catch surprise packet Leicester and claim the Premier League title but ran out of steam over the final month – even losing 5-1 to relegated Newcastle United on the final day of the season!

Dele Alli

Dele Alli

Pochettino isn’t entertaining any such thoughts at the moment. Asked by a journalist about the sustainability of his tactics, he replied, “There are a lot of people that talk about things that in the end are old topics. If you want to run, you need to work. If you want to play, you need to work tactically with the ball. If you want to press, you need to press on the training ground and prepare your team and organize your team to press. Too many people talk. We have a strong squad and we can rotate.”

So is this Tottenham side the real deal? At their best there is little doubt, however consistency remains the main concern with that brilliant win over Manchester City followed by three consecutive draws.

Until they take all of their chances, questions will remain.