Mauricio Pochettino has been forced to break the habit of a lifetime this season.
It is no secret that the Tottenham Hotspur manager has a stubborn streak. He is autocratic. Uncompromising. And much like Marcelo Bielsa and Sir Alex Ferguson, the two managers he respects above all others, he has long maintained that any kind of doubt or dissent – expressed by absolutely any player – is always to the detriment of the rest of the team.
That is precisely the reason why the players he fell out with in the early stages of his managerial career never seemed to stick around for very long. Think Dani Osvaldo at Southampton. Or Emmanuel Adebayor. Or Kyle Walker. If they dared to disagree with their manager, they were shown the door.
But Tottenham’s well-documented struggle to offload a series of uncommitted players has somewhat forced Pochettino to soften his stance. Christian Eriksen, Danny Rose, Serge Aurier and Victor Wanyama were all determined to force moves away this summer. All failed. And so, after some time on the naughty step while the club waited for the tardy European transfer window to finally close, players who were previously at loggerheads with Pochettino have been reintegrated into the first-team squad.
And Tottenham are all the better for it.
It is striking that all four of the defenders selected to start the thumping 4-0 win against Crystal Palace on Saturday have recently found themselves at odds with Pochettino. In fact, this is the first time those four defenders – widely regarded as the club’s best – have started together in a back four.
Rose has drifted in and out of Pochettino’s preferred starting XI and was made available for transfer this summer. Toby Alderweireld was dropped upon returning from a hamstring injury last season, having stalled on agreeing to a contract extension. And Jan Vertonghen was left on the bench for the first three matches of the current campaign, over a behind-closed-doors tactical disagreement.
Meanwhile Aurier, signed from Paris Saint-Germain for £23m back in 2017, had not started for Spurs since February. A series of erratic displays soon after joining the club saw him relegated to a role as Kieran Trippier’s understudy. And after Trippier’s recent departure to Atlético Madrid, Pochettino insisted to chairman Daniel Levy that he could make do with youngster Kyle Walker-Peters and Juan Foyth.
“I'd simply decided to leave [this summer], which was normal for me,” Aurier commented this week. “Many things were taken into consideration. In the end, I wasn't able to leave.”
Yet injuries to both Walker-Peters and Foyth forced Pochettino’s hand. Despite his outburst, Aurier was finally reinstated to the club's first-team for the visit of Palace. And he was superb.
After a sumptuous long ball from Alderweireld to Son Heung-min had given Spurs the lead, Aurier helped double his team’s advantage when his rapid delivery across the box was inadvertently deflected in by Palace defender Patrick van Aanholt. He then created the third, receiving the ball out wide and floating an inch-perfect ball over the Palace defence for Son to smash home.
Further forward, Eriksen – another to have started this season on the substitutes bench as speculation clouded his future – scurried and probed, drifting with ease in between Palace’s defensive lines and repeatedly playing the likes of Son and Harry Kane into possession. He was characteristically superb and will be even more integral than usual in the weeks ahead after summer signing Giovani Lo Celso was injured while on international duty.
Pochettino has already been made to rue his stubborn streak this season. Against Aston Villa Spurs cried out for the craft of Eriksen. Against Newcastle they missed the experience and organisation offered by Vertonghen. And last time out, in the north London derby against Arsenal, they sorely lacked a specialised right-back, as a hapless Davinson Sánchez was torn to shreds in an unfamiliar position.
Tottenham are expected to challenge for every single tournament they enter this season. They do not have a huge squad. That means that Pochettino has to utilise every single member of his squad. He surely cannot afford to persist with his controversial strategy of freezing out first-teamers – but today’s victory suggested that the cloud that has recently been hanging over the club may now be lifting.
Four other things we learned
Aurier really was that good. No other player made more key passes. No other player made more successful tackles. And no other player made more interceptions. He was unlucky not to score with a long-range piledriver in the second-half, too.
There was an encouraging cameo for record-signing Tanguy Ndombele, who made such an encouraging start to the new campaign before missing Tottenham’s last two matches with a thigh injury.
Just when Crystal Palace thought their afternoon couldn’t get any worse, influential midfielder Cheikhou Kouyaté collapsed to the turf after a nasty looking collision with Ndombele. He bravely elected to continue before being replaced a few minutes later by James McCarthy: Roy Hodgson will desperately hope he didn’t exacerbate any injury by doing so.
Alderweireld is still the absolute king of the Hail Mary diagonal.