Mauricio Pochettino cannot help himself. The Tottenham Hotspur manager knows he still has it and whenever the opportunity arises he loves to get involved in a training ground game. The only problem is that his status as the boss appears to count for nothing.
Take the time when he stepped in for an injured player in an eight-versus-eight and went up for a high ball with the 19-year-old defender Cameron Carter-Vickers. Pochettino took a whack on his back and was forced to hobble off.
The tale, which was recounted by the midfielder Harry Winks and had to have led to some dressing-room ribbing, was mentioned to Pochettino on Thursday, as he finalised his preparations for Saturday’s Premier League visit to Burnley. “I did it again today,” Pochettino said. “I challenged with Cameron and my hand was … [he shakes it in pain]. It happened again. Cameron crushed everyone in the box.”
Carter-Vickers, who is built like a cruiserweight boxer, is not a guy to be messed with. As an aside, it is plain that Pochettino likes that about him. But the wider point is that Pochettino’s team train as they play – at a furious intensity with no holds barred – and, these days, Tottenham can travel to tough away games with no fear that they will be bullied.
“We need to be ready to fight at Burnley,” Pochettino said. “They are a very aggressive team – if you watch them, you can see that’s how they are. They are very strong and very well organised, who play very well on the counterattack and with long balls. If you are not ready to fight in every challenge and every action, you will find it tough.
“The Premier League is a very hard league. You can play all the nice football and tiki-taka but, sometimes, you must fight to win. When you play B urnley, you must play well with the ball but, when you don’t have it, you must be ready to fight.”Pochettino did not want to comment on the Tottenham teams of yesteryear, who wore their smart white shirts and played their nice football but were often considered as soft touches. “You know more about that than me,” he said. But it is clear that Pochettino has moulded this team in his own imposing image.
“I have tried to convince the players that football is not only when you have the ball,” he said. “When you don’t have the ball, it is football too. To fight, to press, to challenge with your opponent; not to wait and be passive. We need to be aggressive and proactive and to try to challenge the opponent. That is h ow we are in the training sessions. Every single exercise or drill is about playing football but fighting too – when you don’t have the ball.”
Pochettino’s lineup is flooded with players who stand six feet tall or more and nobody better epitomises the mixture of silk and steel that he demands than Mousa Dembélé. There are times when it can feel as though the midfielder has the ball glued to his instep and others when it looks as if even a posse of opponents are ill-equipped to muscle him off it.
“I always say to him, ‘Mousa, when I write my book, you will be one of my genius players that I have been lucky enough to meet,’” Pochettino said. “One was Maradona; also Ronaldinho, Okocha and Iván de la Peña – he was a genius, too – and then Mousa. We always tell Mousa that if we had taken him at 18 or 19, he would have become one of the best players in the world.”
Pochettino is not slow in coming forward; he loves to big himself up – albeit with a twinkle in his eye. “I like to fight with the players in training to show them that I am stronger than them – mentally and physically,” he said. “Sometimes, I lose the physical challenge because they are physically stronger but I am stronger in here [he points to his temples].”
The conditioning programme that the club’s assistant manager, Jesús Pérez, put in place has, according to Pochettino, been behind Dembélé’s form. “Mousa is completely different to two and a half years ago, when we arrived here,” Pochettino said. “He didn’t play too much in his first season because he always had physical problems. I must give all credit to the sports science and medical staff for creating a Mousa that is strong and can play.”
Pochettino is adamant that Dembélé and his team-mates will last the course this season, having imploded at the end of the last one. “That wasn’t a physical problem,” Pochettino said, with a nod towards the two draws and two losses in the final four matches. “It was a mental problem.
“We thought too much about the summer, the Euros and everything else, and we lost a little bit of focus. The challenge now is to keep fighting until the end.
“The difference you can make is in the head. If you are not ready in your mind to compete, then it’s impossible.”