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How Pochettino Can Get Spurs Back in the Champions League

WRITTEN BY SEAN BROWN
Image: The Guadian

What Mauricio Pochettino needs to achieve this season may be known only to a few select people in the club's hierarchy—if that. The possible permutations are varying enough in significance that the idea just one specific outcome will keep him employed is perhaps too limited in thinking. 

Accepting that we cannot predict the future—not to mention football's ability to throw up the unexpected—Spurs' recent handling of their managers does not bode well for Pochettino if he does not make the top four this season. 

Spurs' playing style under Pochettino is still a work in progress. His philosophy has not quite fully been entrenched, yet. That process has had its hiccups, with the heavy losses to Manchester United and Manchester City (3-0 and 4-1) in particular highlighting kinks in his system that still need to be worked out. 

Not quite smooth sailing then, but Spurs have yet to hit seriously rocky shores under the Argentinean's direction. 

For all of this, it's hard to ignore the precedent set in the dismissal of Pochettino's predecessors. Unique though the circumstances of each was a general theme unites them all: that pesky lack of Champions League football. 

In Harry Redknapp's last season, Spurs were as balanced a force as they had been for years. With Gareth Bale growing as a goalscorer, Scott Parker's maturity giving the midfield poise and Luka Modric providing unparalleled creativity for either Emmanuel Adabayor or Jermaine Defoe—they were third in January and flirting with an unlikely title challenge. 

However, an agonising 3-2 defeat against Manchester City laid out the flaws. Jermaine Defoe, whose sliding attempt would have won the game for Spurs lacked the requisite quality. Defender Ledley King—whose near decade of superhuman performances seemed to catch up with him the instant the English warrior tackled Mario Balotelli to concede the decisive spot-kick—was no longer Spurs' defensive Superman. 
Image: SportsSpyder
The sacking of somebody who took Tottenham in to the promised land of the top four and to their first-ever Champions League quarter-final looked increasingly ill conceived. 

Harry's ostensibly more glamorous successors Andre Villas-Boas, Tim Sherwood and the current manager Mauricio Pochettino have all failed to emulate his achievements. Early doors yet for Pochettino, though. 

The next two seasons were spent in permanent transition. The departure of Redknapp, the retirement of Ledley King and the sales of Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart left a void of experience and quality. Gareth Bale was almost able to bridge the gap alone, but he too succumbed to the attractions of the Spanish capital and joined Modric at Real Madrid. 

Andre Villas-Boas took Spurs to their highest tally (72) of the Premier League era in 2012/13 but just missed out on it. That fifth-place finish and concerns the club's form might not even equal that time around meant chairman Daniel Levy and his fellow decision-makers showed the Portuguese the door in December 2013. 

Tottenham Hotspur's greatest ever manager (in a statistical sense, counting only on Premier League fixtures) Tim Sherwood was relieved of his duties as head coach after failing to fully complete a quick turnaround to get the club back into the Champions League for 2014/15 despite much-improved results. It's certainly fair to wonder why Sherwood got a fair shake. He arrived under difficult circumstances mid-season and did relatively well in correcting the goalscoring issue that was previously so problematic. 

Spurs' woeful start to 2008-09 saw Juande Ramos dispatched without much remorse. It was an ironic conclusion for the Spaniard, given the two-time UEFA Cup winner at Sevilla had come in at the disappointed expense of Martin Jol following his successive fifth-place finishes while in the hot seat. 

For Pochettino, the Premier League's stiff level of competition is part of a vicious circle in regards to his own prospects in the N17 hot seat. 

Despite Kane's killer instinct, Eriksen's excellence, Mason's mazza (Italian nickname for a destructive individual) and the new-found depth in defense, Spurs aren't favorites to secure a top-four place in 2015/16 and the bookies are right. They won't. 

They're pretty close, though. 
Image: Yahoo
Last season, they produced some of the best football seen at White Hart Lane in years, but those performances—chiefly against Arsenal and Chelsea—were altogether too rare. In the coming campaign, the goal should be replicating those brilliant displays more often. 

If the performances reach that level on a consistent basis, the results will quickly come. 

Hugo Lloris has assumed the mantle of Spurs' most important player. There has been some debate among supporters about whether Harry Kane or, indeed, Christian Eriksen might present the fulcrum of Mauricio Pochettino's side but Lloris' quick reflexes and brave (bordering on reckless) confrontation of opposition attackers makes the Frenchman a unique goalkeeper and undoubtedly Spurs' most pivotal character. 

Initially named vice-captain last season, Lloris' assumption of the skipper's armband full-time had added to his responsibilities. Given Spurs' lack of leadership in defense has continued to lead to organizational difficulties—an alert and dependable goalkeeper has been vital for Spurs in the Frenchman. There is little to hold Lloris to Spurs except that he is one of the most important parts of an exciting football project. 

Lloris will not stay at Spurs without the glory (and the wages) of Champions League football. If Tottenham cannot penetrate the thicket of sides hovering above, then Lloris will join the likes of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric and join one of Europe's heavyweights. 

Their back-line has improved rapidly (despite conceding 53 goals in 2014/15 and it may have been worse without a goalkeeper of Lloris' calibre pulling off some of the magnificent saves he did on a regular basis) but despite that inescapable fact, the defense is fine—Wimmer and Alderweireld in, Vlad Chiriches and Younes Kaboul out is the very definition of an upgrade—Kyle Walker at full-back provides drive and penetration while Ben Davies gives a more considered option of the left flank. 
Image: SportsMole.co.uk
That Danny Rose was Spurs' fourth-highest goalscorer last season remains both testament to Pochettino's arrangement and something of an indictment. Full-backs providing both wide and an authentic attacking outlet are prominent feature of Pochettino's sides, and Rose has grown into that role better than anyone could have predicted. 

That Adebayor, Erik Lamela and Andros Townsend have been outscored by Rose suggests other elements of the squad aren't fitting into his system nearly as well. 

In the dual-pivot ahead of the back-four, Ryan Mason animates while Nabil Bentaleb stabilizes as the prototypical modern midfielder—both share similar characteristics. Mason and Bentaleb are each, by turn, aggressive tacklers and comfortable in possession. 

The latter is more proficient at conserving possession while Mason is more of a risk-taker. His ability to "go vertical" (move the ball quickly forward) gives Spurs a weapon that neutralizes opponents from pushing high. 

While Bentaleb prefers to sit deeper and release valve when Spurs are in possession of the football, Mason's remarkable energy sees him constantly push forward. Mason's anticipation and ability to find space in dangerous areas has hugely benefitted Spurs. 

Yet, it seems as if the most glaring weakness in Spurs' squad is still in midfield. Mason has been given a difficult dual role in Pochettino's midfield and is appreciated by his manger but limitations are apparent. Mousa Dembele blossomed in his debut season in north London but has since fallen away. Both Mason and Bentaleb generally struggle to excel with the dual burdens of Pochettino's pressing game and their own key roles in Spurs' attack. 
Image: TalkSport
19-year-old starlet Dele Alli scored against Leicester City in Week 3 and has emerged as the midfield's biggest competitor. The first tangible proof that the athleticism, work-ethic and penalty-box prowess that caught the eye at MK Dons was not just a product of a third-tier competition. 

That blend of athleticism and drive is intrinsic to Alli's ability to grab goals. If the picture painted of Alli so far is primarily a rosy one—that is because immediately noticeable defects in his game are minimal. More much balanced appearances such as the Leicester one (he was on the field for 25 minutes) would have been regarded as a solid contribution to Spurs' midfield work as Alli's makes his way in his new environment. 

How quickly he can realise his adventurous instincts within the demand's of Pochettino's philosophy will also be something the coaching staff keeps an eye on. Tom Carroll and Alex Pritchard, both more experienced than Alli, are also likely to push for Premier League appearances in the coming season. 

It is Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane that give Spurs their genuine aspirations. The pair have proved to be match-winners individually and in tandem. 
Image: Olly Greenwood / AFP
Both the chief creator (Eriksen) and the scorer (Kane) generally need the other to thrive, either directly or as part of the overall well-being of the side. 

Neither player is defined solely by the primary functions of his position, either—Kane had four assists to his name last season; Eriksen scored 11 goals. 

Further emphasising the obvious but still notable collaborative elements of their work is the part each has played in several of the other's headline moments. 

Kane got the ball rolling in pre-Christmas away victories over Hull City and Swansea City before Eriksen struck late winners. The little Dane subtly but effectively pulled the strings as the English poacher undid opponents like Chelsea and Arsenal.

Pochettino's 4-2-3-1 last campaign was just about the most apt utilisation of the players at his disposal—notably the attacking midfielders outnumbering and generally outperforming the strikers. 

Harry Kane's contribution last season was colossal, but Tottenham cannot realistically rely on the Englishman to repeat those heroics in 2015/16—and so far it looks like he won't. The English striker has yet to get off the mark this season. 

Previous first-choice striker Emmanuel Adebayor has steadily seen his involvement decrease, the senior forward's patchy performances paling in comparison to those of his younger compeer, Harry Kane. The Togolese poacher has not done enough to persuade head coach Mauricio Pochettino to alter his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to accommodate himself either. 

Despite persistently plugging for Baggies forward Saido Berahino on Deadline Day—ultimately failing—£22 million man Son Heung-Min who was signed beforehand fills that responsibility. 

Quick and agile, the Korean is perfect for Spurs to utilise on the counter-attack. Given pockets of space to run into, Son's close control and speed make him a very difficult threat to negate if short of numbers. 
Image: Sky Sports
In front of goal, too, he has proven exceptionally clinical. When given a clear-cut chance to score, it is rare to see Son come up short, and the fact he is one of the only four players to score 10 or more Bundesliga goals in each of the past three seasons is testament to that fact. 

While his delivery inside the penalty area may not be as good as he would hope, he is adept at cutting infield and adding to the quick, dynamic football that Spurs like to play. With Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen also in the side, he has plentiful support in this respect. 

Moving to a 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-1-2 to accommodate a more straightforward strike pair of Son and Kane would have its merits, too, at last in scenarios where Spurs feel they can afford forsaking a player elsewhere on the pitch. 

With plentiful technical ability—as demonstrated by his ability to beat opponents—and commendable work-rate, there is little reason to suggest that Son could not reach the upper echelons of the European game should he succeed at White Hart Lane. 

Tottenham's XI is probably the equal of any of their rivals for the seemingly open third and fourth places in England's top-tier. Chelsea and Manchester City exist in another world but Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool are all beatable. 

There all limitations to Spurs' squad. Emmanuel Adebayor does not appear capable of delivering the goals if Kane's tally stalls. Without Christian Eriksen pulling the strings behind Harry Kane, Spurs look ineffective and impotent, lacking sync at times. 

Their rivals possess flaws, and in Pochettino, Spurs have a manager who has demonstrably prepared his side better than sides around them since taking over. The consistency in which Pochettino's selections last campaign extracted improbable late victories speaks to the quality of his physical and mental preparations. It is also an excellent habit that can serve to undermine the opposition's confidence. 
Image: Getty Images
The guile, speed, skill and power Chadli-Eriksen-Lamela in a formation that most closely resembles 4-2-3-1 are capable of summoning in combination and individually has been seen multiple times already this season—especially against Stoke City. 

The left-midfield role in which the Denmark international was predominately used by Tim Sherwood is too peripheral for the frequency which he is asked to get involved in Pochettino's shape. The deeper central midfield role he occupied a couple of times following Sherwood's appointment could be worth revisiting, though. 

Dropping Eriksen back to form a three-man midfield (for instance, Mousa Dembele and Nabil Bentaleb, the latter anchoring Dembele and Eriksen) would certainly give Spurs more of a presence there. 

It might not be at the expense of Eriksen's offensive side, either. It could allow Erik Lamela, in particular, the opportunity to maximise his incisiveness and quick-thinking in tight spaces further forward. Coming infield off his right flank, Lamela's short, precise passing—accentuated by move-enhancing movement—helps facilitate his side's control of the game. If Pochettino decided to play Eriksen further back, the former Ajax man would presumably hover just behind Lamela, taking a lead role in directing the effort while he could still proceed forward in support if possible. 

Eriksen excels at playing the quick close-range passes or through balls that can free players around the penalty area. He also has an understanding in setting the tempo and direction of Spurs' play that just might be better suited to the wider expanse of vision he would be granted further back. 

Spurs should also focus on progress in the UEFA Europa League. It is an eminently winnable competition for a squad of Tottenham's quality and provides the shorter route to Europe's larger cousin. 

Last season's exit at the hands of Fiorentina was a debacle. Coming so close to the League Cup final defeat to Chelsea—Spurs' European failure came under little scrutiny—but it came after a pair of unacceptable performance and is undoubtedly the blackest mark on Pochettino's copybook so far. 

Putting that record right should be a predominant objective this season. 

Tottenham's objectives for this season remain both simple and predictable: Champions League qualification. Despite their slow start—indeed, their worst since 2008/09—on paper, Spurs have about as good a chance as any of their rivals. 

The goalless draw against Everton at White Hart Lane, their third consecutive stalemate, was a less than ideal way to lead into the international break. 

Kane's killer instinct, Eriksen's excellence, Son Heung-Min's merit, Bentaleb's brilliance and Lloris' lustre show Spurs posses the building blocks of a potentially great side, and Pochettino will hope they can continue to move through the gears and improve as the season progresses. 

Of course, Spurs are not favourites to beat their better fancied rivals for one of the third or fourth places, but they are certainly capable. 

It definitely won't be easy—but with Spurs—nothing ever is. 

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TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport: How Pochettino Can Get Spurs Back in the Champions League
How Pochettino Can Get Spurs Back in the Champions League
What Mauricio Pochettino needs to achieve this season may be known only to a few select people in the club's hierarchy—if that. The possible permutations are varying enough in significance that the idea just one specific outcome will keep him employed is perhaps too limited in thinking.
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TheSportMatrix | We Live For Sport
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