Why Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham could be the new Manchester United

JJ Bull

According to the highest-rated definition on Urban Dictionary, "Spursy" means: "To consistently and inevitably fail to live up to expectations. To bottle it."

As has happened on so many occasions, that happened again last season when Mauricio Pochettino's side crumbled under the pressure of their unexpected title push and fell behind their old rivals Arsenal at the last in what felt like an inevitable collapse. Pochettino admitted he wanted to "kill" his players.

But something very special is happening at White Hart Lane: Spurs aren't very Spursy at all. Actually, on current form, they are the best team in the league. Could Pochettino be on the cusp of an era of success? There are remarkable similarities with a previous Premier League great...

Spurs could be the new (old) Man Utd

Pochettino has assembled a balanced squad of players, instilled a winning group mentality and sprinkled a little star dust over it. It's a team Sir Alex Ferguson would be proud of and you only need to look at the individual components to see how Pochettino has followed a blueprint for success.

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Spurs have, as Man Utd had:

  • One of the best goalkeepers in the world.
  • A solid, robust and reliable centre-back pairing. 
Credit: GETTY
  • Hard-working, over-lapping full-backs on either wing protected by a midfield that prevents danger at source.
  • Options in midfield.
  • A set-piece specialist.
  • Physical strength mixed with creative, skillful, dynamic forwards who like to run from deep to cap off quick counter-attacks.
  • A 20-plus goal a season striker who does not carry the team single-handedly.
  • Captains all over the place.
  • Impact substitutes.
  • A focus on homegrown players: Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier have developed together as youngsters, growing as a team before they even approach peak years. Harry Winks and Kieran Trippier will almost certainly play at international level before too long. 
  • A mix of youth and experience.
Credit: REUTERS

Remarkably, Pochettino has not spent big to buy all these separate parts - instead he has developed players already in his possession, almost as if that is what a manager is supposed to do. Daniel Levy should be applauded for his part in the planning, but it is Pochettino's team.

Spurs have done nothing but improve since he took charge and it is not only on the pitch where this transformation has taken place.

Determination and leadership

Five points clear of third place with a game in hand and capable of a three-goal fightback in the dying minutes against Swansea City to keep their title dreams alive; this is not the Spurs we are used to.

"Maybe at times last season we got too tense, worried about things," Dier said after the 4-0 win over Watford. "This season we’re going game by game, really focusing on the games."

Pochettino's players are determined and ambitious. There are leaders all over the pitch too - Hugo Lloris is the France captain, Vertonghen is often the Belgium captain, Dier wants to be the England captain, while Kane will probably get that role.

Credit: GETTY

Nearly every single player in that team could conceivably wear the armband well and as the new book The Captain Class suggests, a recurring theme in almost every single great sports team has been the on-field presence of a strong captain.

Barcelona's domination of European (and world) football ended when Pep Guardiola departed the club, but that Carles Puyol retired at the same time is no coincidence. Again the similarities with Ferguson's best teams ring loud.

Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen team, captained by Willie Miller, defeated Real Madrid 2-1 in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1983Credit: GETTY

Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and Jim Leighton were the cornerstones upon which Aberdeen's enormous success in the 1980s was built, while Eric Cantona, Teddy Sheringham, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Steve Bruce, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs are just a few of the players to have worn the captain's armband while leading equally capable team-mates.

Credit: EPA

If Spurs can prove they have this vital mental strength, they could go on to great things. That alone isn't enough though, which is why it is so handy that their manager has the tactical wit to gain advantage elsewhere.

Outsmarting opponents

Teams adept and reliant at scoring goals on the counter-attack often struggle against one set to all-out-defend - just look at Liverpool's difficult games against Burnley, Swansea, Hull and Leicester - and as Spurs have gone from outsider to top four mainstay, they have had to deal with opposition teams treating them with more respect than they once did.

Pochettino's solution to this was to play a three-man defence. Spurs were doing it before Chelsea made it quite so fashionable, if not as often, but in doing so gave the side an unpredictable set up and an extra player going forward.

Average touch positions (0 min)

Spurs have the third highest possession of any team in the league, behind only Manchester City and Liverpool. Their tactical flexibility is a massive advantage - defending teams can't be sure until kick-off what formation Spurs will use and Pochettino can switch it during a match, with players effortlessly shifting and adapting to the game as it unfolds.

Dier has become a crucial player in this regard. He is excellent as both holding midfielder and centre-back, and when in a back three this allows Walker and Rose to advance even higher up the pitch than usual. The 3-4-3 system also gives Kane support up front as Alli and Christian Eriksen drift around just behind him.

Credit: AP

If that doesn't work, Eriksen is occasionally deployed in a much deeper midfield role in order to give him space to create chances for others. He is the most prolific creator of chances in the league with an average of three key passes per game and, though his talent alone is clearly a massive factor in this, Pochettino's tactical changes are designed to get the most out of him.

"I think you just feel a bit more controlled when you have three at the back," Eriksen said after a 4-0 win over West Brom. 

"When you move the ball quickly you have space to move it forward and if you take a good decision, which we did today a few times, then you create a lot of chances.

Spurs vs West Brom shots on goal

"I think they were just waiting and waiting for us which gave us the chance to build up and we did that very well in the first half."

Spurs vs West Brom shots on goal

It is not just the shape of the team that Pochettino tinkers with. Spurs were smart against Watford, who came to White Hart Lane to defend in numbers, and prepared for this low defensive block, netting three long range goals in a fantastic first-half performance.

Their choice of set-piece routines was an example of Pochettino being a cut above some of his managerial compatriots.

Attempt Saved: Spurs 0 - 0 Watford (Kieran Trippier, 7 min)

It sounds so simple but rather than curling the ball into a box packed with tall, strong Watford players and gambling on the luck of winning an aerial duel, Spurs kept playing short corners or zipping passes to the outside of the box. It resulted in shooting opportunities every single time.

Miss: Spurs 3 - 0 Watford (Vincent Janssen, 48 min)

Spurs have had more shots per game than any other team in the league and that average of 17.3 per game has helped yield the highest goal difference too (+42). Only Chelsea and Liverpool have scored more than Spurs, but both have conceded more. Spurs have let in the fewest goals (22) of any Premier League team this season.

But it is not all tactical wizardry and beautiful football. There is an aspect to Pochettino's Spurs which is often overlooked...

They like to play dirty

Spurs are eighth in the fouls conceded table with 366, which is currently led by Watford with 442. Don't let that apparently middling position confuse you.

The idea is that by disrupting play high up the pitch, opposition teams cannot counter-attack. If Spurs win the ball back quickly, they have whoever they are playing pinned back. If they don't, they just stop them from playing.

Conceding 57 fouls and successfully making 75 tackles in the Premier League this season, Victor Wanyama has been the midfield destroyer that Spurs needed (for only £12million, too) and has made a massive impact on the team.

Credit: PA

Wanyama is there to break up play and add power to the engine room while Alli and Moussa Dembele float and glide around the pitch painting pretty pictures.

But as great a goalscorer as Alli is, and as lovely to watch as Dembele is, both also really do 'Get Stuck In' - something that winning teams need. Every great side has to have a 'Hard One' or two (Keane, Patrick Vieira, Puyol) and in addition to Wanyama, Alli has conceded 37 fouls on his own. These are not the kind of horror tackles the England player is occasionally guilty of either - by tripping up, obstructing and being a nuisance high up the pitch, the opposition cannot counter-attack an exposed Spurs defence, on the rare occasions they send too many forward.

Dembele is not a player you would consider to be particularly dirty either, but he has conceded 35 fouls and made 61 tackles. Weirdly, Spurs have made the fewest interceptions of any team with 262. For context, West Ham are top with 526 and Arsenal second with 447 - Spurs do not steal the ball and nip away with it, they just stop the other team from playing. And it really works. 

Chelsea have only lost to two teams in the league this season since switching to 3-4-3. One of those is SpursCredit: PA

Without Chelsea's incredible return to form this season, Spurs would comfortably sit top of the table. Too many draws have given Antonio Conte's team that seven-point lead.

On current form it is not absolutely crazy to suggest that Spurs could win their remaining seven games, even if they still have to play Arsenal and Manchester United, and if they did, they would finish the season on 89 points. If they draw a few, this total will obviously be slightly lower and around the mid-80s tally.

Ferguson won the league with United for the first time in 1992/93 with 84 points, 10 clear of second placed Aston Villa and 12 above third placed Norwich. The landscape has changed ever so slightly since then but United's league winning point hauls of 89, 80, 90, 87, 89, 83, 80, 91, 79, 75 and 84 are almost all achievable for this Spurs team - a remarkable feat when you consider where they were when Pochettino first took charge.

Chelsea will almost certainly win the league, but Tottenham will not collapse and fall away this time. Or at least they shouldn't. That would be such a Spursy thing to do after all...

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