Mauricio Pochettino’s task is to ensure tipsy Tottenham avoid a hangover | Barney Ronay

Barney Ronay
Mauricio Pochettino has the hunger to adapt and learn that should ensure Tottenham’s entertaining rise is not an empty-handed blip. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Kingsley Amis once wrote the act of getting drunk was much better than actually being drunk. Those first few glasses, the process of moving from sober to drunk is 90% of the fun. Being drunk, on the other hand, is a slog, a losing game, each extra sip a case of chasing with ever-decreasing returns that initial spitz of happiness.

By this register, two seasons into the Mauricio Pochettino revolution and with Arsenal finally reeled in after the derby win on Sunday, Tottenham Hotspur are probably on their fourth or fifth glass of champagne and just about hitting the sweet spot. From here the question is simple: how to ensure this is a genuinely altered state and more than simply a moment of glorious tipsiness.

This is already a lot more than just a little surface euphoria. Before kick‑off on a muggy derby afternoon it was tempting, as ever, to marvel at the unstoppable rise of the mega-stadium mushrooming up next door. By now White Hart Lane Mk2 is all set to start the process of eating the old ground, concrete esplanades extended around each side like the jaws of some vast corporate python.

It is a rare moment of optimism for club and supporters, with a fine manager in place, the best core of young players in the country and the promise of that multisport super-complex. Albeit one that will, as ever in sport, be laced with a little anxiety.

At which point it is necessary to ask what Tottenham have to do from here not just to match Arsenal but to avoid becoming a mimetic replicant; to ensure the step-up does not evaporate into a prolonged anxiety of stasis and slow‑onset hangover, the nausea of Arsenal-style repetition.

Too soon? Not really. Tottenham have already been the most interesting team in the Premier League for the past two seasons. For long periods they have been the best, too. Add together the past two seasons and Spurs are 10 points clear of their nearest rival at the top of the two-year Premier League table.

And yet they have not won anything. By the end of the season Leicester City, Manchester United, Manchester City and one or both of Chelsea and Arsenal will have all won a trophy in that same period. Whereas to date Spurs’ reward for all that sustained excellence, the relentless drills, the gold standard recruitment, is one poor season in Europe, another shot next year and an undeniable improvement in the league.

This is surely why Pochettino is pushing this team so hard even now, desperate to press Chelsea right to the end. The idea Middlesbrough might be able to resist at Stamford Bridge on Monday night was given a small push by their home draw with Manchester City. West Bromwich away is far from a gimme. Chelsea are of course still powerful favourites but it is hard to avoid the feeling the best chance to win the Premier League is right here and right now. Who knows, this could be the top of the curve, or at least the top of this particular curve, for a team cobbled together with such skill and care in the shadow of all those commercial pressures.

Just ask Arsenal fans, who can perhaps allow themselves a weary sigh of recognition here. Spurs will face the same problems in the next few years of post-stadium angst: the need to keep pulling in the revenues, the ease with which your best players can be lured away, the challenge of facing down billionaire-driven projects and European super-clubs elsewhere. Even this season Tottenham could finish on 89 points, enough to win the league in nine of the past 10 seasons, and still come second. Welcome to our world, neighbours. A place where you can excel, look great, win friends, play nicely and still not cross the finish line first.

On the plus side, even in the current Spurs team there is still slack to be taken up, progress Pochettino can make. There is an inconsistency to this young team, purple periods undermined by the odd wobble. Between 15 October and 11 December last year Spurs won three of 13 matches, went out of the Champions League and the League Cup and dropped 11 points. If they could have just held on to draw at Stamford Bridge in the middle of all that they would now be top of the league.

Something similar happened the previous autumn with 13 league points dropped from 1 October to 13 December. Perhaps this is a legacy of breaking in those relentless pressing drills, finding the deeper rhythms for that game of sprints and hustle. Either way Pochettino will be aware of the dip and will work at pre-empting it next time, helped perhaps by a non-tournament summer.

Eric Dier is a meat and potatoes player with a fine tactical awareness and the intelligence to make a plan work. Photograph: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Beyond this there is a slight lack of squad depth. In both cases the autumn lull had a degree of crossover with reliance on Harry Kane as the team’s sole functioning top-class centre-forward. Even the £47m spent last summer on Vincent Janssen and Moussa Sissoko looked to be weighted the wrong way round. The larger portion would surely have been better spent on a quality backup striker rather than a lumpen winger.

No doubt Pochettino and Daniel Levy are capable of tending to all these issues. And it is here the distinctions with Arsenal present themselves. Tottenham are a supremely well-run club these days, with the chairman’s gimlet eye fixed on every detail. Only Swansea have spent less over the past five seasons in the Premier League. Plus, of course, Spurs have Pochettino, a state of the art, tactically omnivorous coach who has been able to create an excitingly refined and flexible system within the present group of hard‑running players.

This much was apparent on Sunday where Spurs’ defensive shape revolved around Eric Dier’s versatility, a meat and potatoes player without the most refined technique but with a fine tactical awareness and the intelligence to make a defensive plan work.

That hunger to adapt and learn is the real edge over late-Wenger Arsenal. It is this quality of ruthlessness that will also tell Pochettino this is the time to cash in this Spurs team, to try to make it more than just a brilliantly alluring interlude and to ensure the moment of ascent does not remain the high point of the new north-London order.

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