By David de Winter – Sports Editor
When Mauricio Pochettino was poached from Southampton to become the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur, there were coos of appreciation from all sides. After guiding a very talented and aesthetically pleasing Saints side to 8th in the Premier League last season, the general consensus was that the Argentinian would finally get Spurs playing in their traditional swashbuckling style à la the great Bill Nicholson, Terry Venables and, to some extent, Harry Redknapp. The reality has been somewhat different. Spurs have endured a difficult start to the season, already losing three league matches at home, and find themselves languishing in 11th place, only three points behind rivals Arsenal in 5th but also, only three points above the relegation zone.
Pochettino is working with a squad which he largely inherited from predecessors Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood. He managed to add Swansea duo Michel Vorm and Ben Davies to the squad alongside defenders Federico Fazio, Eric Dier and midfielder Benjamin Stambouli, but none of these have become real first team regulars. So instead of bringing in players who fit his footballing philosophy, he has had to mould the existing players at the club which, if Pochettino is a good coach, should be possible but will certainly take time. I still don’t think Tottenham help themselves by adopting a European-style management structure with technical director Franco Baldini having the final say on transfers.
The team Pochettino tends to play is littered with good footballers. All are comfortable on the ball and all are excellent passers. The 4-2-3-1 formation is that same as Redknapp played in his era. So far, so good. But it is the personnel, or more specifically, the way those personnel play that is currently hindering the Spurs team.
Take striker Emmanuel Adebayor for example. A very good player in his own right (even better when playing for a new contract), Adebayor likes the ball to feet, to play with his back to goal. Now when you have the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon at your disposal, players who are willing to run in behind the defence, often from deep, this is a very effective style of play. At the moment, Spurs play Nacer Chadli, Érik Lamela and Christian Eriksen behind Adebayor, all of whom also prefer to play in front of the defence. None of these players tend to run beyond the back four which means Spurs often play their ‘attacking’ football too far from the opposition penalty area, and end up playing too many passes backwards or sideways. It also means opposition defences can push up the field an extra few yards, confident that no player will run in behind. When they do get round the back and play balls into the penalty area, it is very effective (witness the opening goal against Newcastle at the weekend).
It is not only the attackers that are at fault however. The two holding midfielders in the Spurs team don’t inject enough energy into the team. Ryan Mason and Étienne Capoue are the current incumbents but they are too defensive, simply sitting in front of the back four as a protective screen. Chelsea, who also play 4-2-3-1, have Cesc Fàbregas, Nemanja Matic and Ramires to play that role and all three have scored this season. Fàbregas already has 8 assists to his name in the league, showing that he regularly gets forward to where he can have a direct influence on the game.
It baffles me why Spurs don’t play Moussa Dembélé in the league. He, like Fàbregas has great vision and a range of passing that can unlock a defence, as can Lewis Holtby, currently on loan to SV Hamburg. I also think the decision to sell Sandro to QPR was a mistake. Spurs are missing some of his bite and aggression in the middle of the park. Yes he might not be the most gifted footballer, but he could have been the perfect foil for a ball-player like Dembélé.
Although he hasn’t had a disastrous start, it could be time for Pochettino to re-evaluate his tactics. Spurs aren’t yet the free-flowing team that the Argentinian created at Southampton. It’s all well and good having someone like Lamela with the skills and the trickery, but if he doesn’t have any end product then he is largely superfluous. Spurs need to get back to taking people on, getting one-on-ones with full-backs, gambling on the shoulder of the defender (something another cast-off, Jermain Defoe was brilliant at). Until they find that balance, a season of mid-table obscurity awaits.