Rarely had Mauricio Pochettino looked so angry. His post match press-conferences aren’t usually entertaining and he, like so many of his peers, most often tries his best to say nothing at all.
At Watford it was different. When Pochettino is animated, his English suffers – the effect being a sort of fractured monologue, full of visual intensity but a little short of actual clarity. Isolated phrases still catch the ear though: he called Tottenham’s 2-1 loss to Watford “a wake-up call” and talked of his players “lack of respect” for the threat faced at Vicarage Road.
Some will quibble with that. Spurs have enjoyed plenty of good results under Pochettino and so some of the minor irritations associated with his management are overlooked. He is often slow to use his substitutes; bench and, annoyingly, he is more likely to react to a change in a game’s tone than he is to foresee it. It could and will be argued that Sunday was instructed by that same hesitance and that, had Harry Winks and Victor Wanyama seen the pitch earlier, a winning position may have been better protected.
It’s not an unreasonable charge, but it was at best a minor aspect of the failure, rather than a defining cause of it. Wanyama had not played a competitive game in months and Winks, fine player though he is, is also making his first tentative steps after long-term injury. With long term objectives in mind, it wouldn’t have been responsible to lean on either in that kind of environment.
But Pochettino’s bench is still a valid topic of conversation. When the only viable options to alter a game are players still in rehabilitation phases, there’s an issue. Tottenham do not have a broad squad and, even when Son Heung Min returns from the Asian Cup and Erik Lamela recovers from his hamstring strain, they will continue to be entirely reliant on the same narrow group of first-team players. Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele and Harry Kane remain absolutely essential to the club’s ambition and, troublingly, they are the three players for whom there is no alternative.
That was an issue which was supposed to be addressed over the summer. Objective A for Tottenham was not to march an army of superstars into the club, but to bolster areas of weakness which had needed buttressing for several years. Season in and season out, Pochettino has depended on those three players reaching and maintaining exceptional levels and, inevitably, suffering when they’re not available to him.
Or when they’re not on-form. In retrospect, Sunday’s loss showed the perils of their approach. While Tottenham often defend their transfer hesitancy with rational justifications, such as the limitations of their budget or the strength of their first-team, the reluctance to fortify their foundations is bizarre. While they may not be capable of buying a player superior in talent to Eriksen or one more prolific than Kane, it would not have been impossible to source mildly inferior alternatives – players unlikely to become guaranteed starters immediately, but who carried the necessary variations needed when the shape of a particular game needed changing.
Eriksen was off-colour at Vicarage Road and his use of the ball was anything close to his normal standard. Dembele, perhaps through having to play twice in six days, was atrocious at times. And Kane, in spite of a prosperous World Cup, is yet to recover from his injury earlier in the year. The result was a jaded team performance which depended almost solely on Lucas Moura for its occasional life.
This is the problem: no matter how good that little group is, it always need to be supported by contingency. Tottenham don’t have that, they haven’t deemed it important enough, and so while they are the beneficiaries of a cluster of continuity-based intangibles, their resistance to a more dramatic sort of evolution will keep them exposed to exactly this sort of peril.
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