Postecoglou’s Spurs plans go beyond finding way to beat Manchester City

“If you had to take a punt what do you reckon I would say … just a wild guess?” Ange Postecoglou asks. Everybody knew. But it was still good to hear the Tottenham manager say it. Because when he is in full flow, explaining why he does what he does, why he is so devoted to his methods, it is just so perfectly compelling.

Spurs have lost three games in a row. They are without 10 players – the worst selection crisis Postecoglou can remember in his years as a manager. And there is a historical detail that feels relevant, too. Spurs have won five of their past seven Premier League matches against Manchester City, who they face on Sunday – doing so under four managers: José Mourinho, Nuno Espírito Santo, Antonio Conte and Cristian Stellini.

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What unified the quartet was the approach that they took; ceding possession to City, defending deep, hitting hard on the counter. In other words, the antithesis of how Postecoglou plays – the high defensive line, looking to dominate the ball, committing runners forward. Might it be the time for him to be a little more conservative? The short answer is no. The longer one bears retelling.

“I don’t do what I do to prove a point,” Postecoglou says. “You look at the top teams and there is one common trait amongst them. They all have a plan, they invest in that plan and stick to it. They don’t shy away from it at the first difficulty.

“Whatever you strongly believe in as a person only gets tested in the toughest of times. And for me these are the important times because this will show what kind of football team we want to be. You can shy away, say we have injuries, we’re playing Man City away, but you’re either going to be a club that tries to knock off the big clubs or you are a big club. You are one or the other.

“You need to show some backbone. So that is my methodology. I am not going there to show people … ‘Watch me, I’ll take them on.’ It is because I think that is the way forward for us.”

Postecoglou has not watched back any of Spurs’ recent victories over City as a part of his preparations. It is not because he is dismissive of them; he respects the achievement of the results. But they are not relevant to what will happen next for Spurs under his charge.

“I think there’s a reason I’m sitting here and the reason is the end game is not to beat City,” he says. “I’m not trying to set up a team to beat City, I’m trying to set up a team to be successful. If that was enough [beating City], I wouldn’t be sitting here. It would be somebody else.

“It’s a legitimate question: ‘Why wouldn’t you do it if you know it’s going to be successful?’ But I’d be surprised if people would expect me to go down that route, knowing who I am as a manager.”

The Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, embraces Yokohama F Marinos manager Ange Postecoglou at the end of their 2019 friendly match
Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohama F Marinos had 58% of possession when they played Manchester City in a 2019 friendly. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

Postecoglou goes back to a previous encounter with Pep Guardiola’s City to illustrate the point that sometimes these kind of showpieces are more about the processes, the staging points in the wider journey. When his Yokohama F Marinos team faced City in a 2019 friendly, they lost 3-1. But they played their way, hogging 58% of possession, asserting themselves and strengthening their belief. “For us at that time, it was a perfect exercise to say: ‘Let’s continue down this path. This is the team we want to be,’” Postecoglou says.

Postecoglou’s latest headache is the ankle ligament injury that Rodrigo Bentancur sustained against Aston Villa last Sunday after a bad tackle from Matty Cash. It was Bentancur’s first start for Spurs since an anterior cruciate ligament rupture in February – a heartbreaking setback that has shaken the squad, according to Postecoglou. Bentancur will, in his manager’s words, be unavailable “well into early next year”.

Although Yves Bissouma is back from suspension, Pape Sarr is still out with a slight hamstring issue, meaning Postecoglou will probably have to choose between Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Bryan Gil. In other words, play safe or be progressive. In central defence, it will most likely be Eric Dier or Emerson Royal. So, broadly the same question. If you had to take a punt, what do you reckon Postecoglou will do?

“Every time we put a team out there it’s about us becoming the team we want to become,” he says. “We have to make sure we don’t lose focus on what the end game is because that’s why most teams and organisations at some point falter – because when their resolve is tested, they’re found wanting.

“Look at all the top teams – they’ve all had criticism. How did they handle it, the ones that are through the other side? The ones who handled it differently … where are they now? I have a real strong belief in what I do, where the team is heading and I’m just not going to waver from it.

“You’ve got to be prepared for some rough moments, you’ve got to enjoy that. The alternative is I’m not in a job … I’m sitting on my couch with no pressure on me and no one questioning anything. Maybe I’ll end up in a heap, I don’t know, because there are no guarantees. But my gut tells me that I won’t.”