A top four (4) finish had always been on the cards for Tottenham Hotspur F.C. for the 2015/2016 English Premier League season. Can we say this is another case of hindsight being 20/20? During the early stages of the season, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest that Spurs supporters had much to look forward to in the way of achieving a top four (4) finish. However, much blame couldn’t be levied the way of the non-believers. Too many were occupied with the naysaying of Daniel Levy to take a positive view on the club and early shouts of the manager not being good or experienced enough still had fresh echoes. So, why should Spurs’ success this campaign have been expected? It should maybe have been based on the season prior, the 2014/2015 EPL season.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Arrival
On 27 May 2014, Mauricio Pochettino was appointed as Spurs’ new manager. He was seen as a young and promising manager but that alone wasn’t enough to completely thwart the skepticism Spurs fans had about his lack of top flight experience and managerial accomplishments. Pochettino’s tenure in the EPL consisted of one (1) completed season prior to his Spurs appointment and it was a season at Southampton. However, in that season, he had found notable success. He equaled Southampton’s highest all-time EPL table finish of 8th and he recorded their highest points haul in an EPL season.
Though Mauricio enjoyed a long playing career, his nurturing as a manager began at a young age. He was scouted as a fourteen (14) year old boy to join Newell’s Old Boys athletic club youth setup by El Loco, Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa, considered to be one of the greatest tactical managers in the game, saw potential in young Pochettino. Bielsa would instruct Pochettino to do a summary containing their next opponent’s favoured style, tactics, and strengths and weaknesses for upcoming games. Bielsa’s influence on Pochettino is undeniable and so is his influence on the modern game. El Loco’s attack-minded, possessive, pressing and relentless style of play is believed by himself to be infallible in theory, as taken from his famous quote,“If players weren’t human, I’d never lose”. It was with this approach to the game, that the names he has indoctrinated and inspired with his Bielsismo, are some of the most admired in the current game. Gerardo Martinez, Jorge Sampaoli and by extension Pep Guardiola are names Mauricio Pochettino keeps company with by Bielsa’s association, and history suggests it is only a matter of time before Pochettino lays claim to his own legacy.
Pochettino Experimented at the Expense of Further Success
In Pochettino’s first preseason training session at Spurs, he wasted no time in implementing the famous grueling training schedule and the philosophical approach to the pressing game he uses. However, over the course of the summer, Pochettino identified that quite a few of the players he inherited weren’t particularly suited to his style. By the end of the transfer window, seven (7) senior team players were moved on and six (6) players were brought in.
The season’s campaign got on the way and Pochettino showed signs of struggling to find his best eleven (11). He shifted players around and, in and out of his first team. It was not until the 17th EPL fixture, 20 December 2014, that Pochettino had found the players he would settle with. Kyle Walker had returned to the first team at right back replacing Eric Dier, Spurs’ senior team captain, Younès Kaboul, was no longer making the cut at centre-back for EPL matches, Ben Davies and Danny Rose alternated at left back and the youngest Spurs central-midfield pairing of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb surfaced ahead of Spurs’ other more experienced options in Paulinho, Benjamin Stambouli, Étienne Capoue and Mousa Dembélé. On that match day against Burnley, Harry Kane made his 4th EPL start of the season. There was much to suggest that the Pochettino took his time to learn and tinker with his squad, as if results mattered little and there wasn’t any real pressure to achieve right away.
When Pochettino signed for Spurs, he became Spurs’ 10th manager in twelve (12) years. He received a five (5) year contract which made many implications. The length of the contract, to a manager known to emphasise youth and development, said Pochettino was going to be given time to build a squad for the long term. The intention is believed to be that his squad will mature along with the club’s other ongoing long term projects, such as the new stadium.
At the end of the 2014/15 season, the results were considered to be favourable as Spurs finished 5th in the league, one place higher than their season before. Spurs had finished six (6) points below 4th place Manchester United. What is noteworthy of it is, Spurs contended with European nights that season while Manchester United didn’t. Manchester United played a total of forty-four (44) matches in all competitions while Spurs played fifty-seven (57) matches. Considering that Manchester United had qualified for the UEFA Champion’s League for the next season, the Manchester United squad needed strengthening in the summer. They were going to have an increase in matches to be played with while having to stave Spurs’ ambitions of overtaking them.
Pochettino’s Class Touch
Summer came again and Mauricio Pochettino had completed his first EPL season at Spurs. However, Pochettino and his management team had no interest in taking a lengthy summer vacation after a season of relative success. On 29 May 2015, Spurs had completed their first signing of the summer, a centre-back from 1. FC Köln, Kevin Wimmer, as Pochettino and Paul Mitchell, Tottenham Hotspurs’ Head of Recruitment, took no time in getting off the mark with their summer acquisitions. On 19 June 2015, Spurs’ second signing was at right back, Burnley’s Kieran Trippier, and on 8 July 2015, centre back Toby Alderweireld joined from Atlético Madrid as Spurs’ third of the summer.
It was clear that Spurs’ woeful defence was being addressed. In the 2014/2015 EPL season, Spurs conceded fifty-three (53) goals. A tally that was only better than Leicester City’s (55) and Aston Villa’s (57). Pochettino, in his playing days, was considered to be a very astute defender for both club and country, and given Spurs’ defensive returns in his first season, it was symptomatic that not only would he attempt to address Spurs’ defensive frailties but that he would find some success in doing so. However, of the three defenders signed, only Toby Alderweireld was done so for the first team. Kevin Wimmer and Kieran Trippier were essentially signed to add quality in depth and to provide healthy competition for places in the squad. The benefits of such an approach were seen in Danny Rose and Ben Davies throughout the season. It was likely, however, that Wimmer and Trippier would have mainly featured in cup competitions and as substitutes, as Pochettino often opted to use the depth of his squad to cover midweek domestic cup fixtures to keep his players fresh for EPL and European competitions. Spurs went on to make further additions in Clinton N’Jie and Son Heung-Min, while Dele Alli returned from his loan with MK Dons.
Though the addition of five (5) new members suggests not many changes were needed to the squad, the departure numbers told a different story. Twelve (12) senior squad players left the club that summer, many of which were considered as deadwood in the wake of a new progressive Spurs. Pochettino retained the players he could continue to culture and condition while he acquired players who he believed would suit his system.
As Pochettino moved on the players who brought nothing or very little in the way of success, he was no longer forced to rely on the central midfield duo, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. He had time to test his theories and using Eric Dier in central (defensive) midfield was one of such. Moving Eric Dier, a centre back capable of playing at right back, to the midfield was Pochettino’s defensive nous once again playing a big role. Though Eric Dier was no stranger to the midfield as he had featured there for Sporting Lisbon, it was still a gamble to depend on the then U-21 England international to play such a crucial cog in Pochettino’s system. Regardless, Pochettino was confident in Dier’s ability.
“I think most people were hoping that we were going to buy a defensive midfield in the summer, but one of the skills of Mauricio is that he understands exactly what’s in that dressing room,” Levy explained.
“He said to me [in the summer]: I don’t want a defensive midfielder. I am very comfortable that I can make Eric Dier into a top defensive midfielder.”
Going into the new season, as opposed to securing his place in November, Spurs would have Harry Kane featuring as the main striker from the first whistle. Kane contributed twenty-one (21) goals in thirty-four (34) appearances. Six (6) of those appearances featured Kane coming off the bench in the dying moments of matches. Spurs having his involvement from the outset this time around could only be seen as beneficial for the Lily Whites.
However, to accurately predict the outcome of an EPL season before a ball is even kicked is near improbable, as there are too many factors to consider and just too much that is unpredictable exists. Regardless, there are quite a few patterns that tend to become more noticeable over a lengthy period of observation and with an acquired sight, the foundation of success becomes more visible. The 2015/2016 EPL campaign is not one that could have been considered as predictable by any means, but as it regarded to Spurs, there were still many indications that they would have a better season than their previous.
Mauricio Pochettino, a graduate of Bielsismo, had shown that he deserved the full backing of the Spurs board and players, he eventually recieved. His vision, just in its infancy, had brought Spurs forward in one (1) season. Considering that Spurs’ rivals for a top four (4) place seemingly didn’t improve in the leaps and bounds that Spurs did in the summer, it meant that Spurs was very likely to move in one direction in the 2015/2016 English Premier season and that was up the table.