October is no time for the anointing oil, but Premier League perceptions are beginning to calcify. Manchester City are very much as advertised, Liverpool have improved, and Arsenal and Chelsea are both progressing better than expected under new management.
And Tottenham? Well, the football has barely been mentioned. The season is only nine games old, but it seems as if Mauricio Pochettino has had to confronting a new crisis each week. It’s only a month since three consecutive games were lost for the first time under his watch and the world seemed to decide that Spurs’ growth cycle under the Argentine had come to a halt. Yet, come Monday night, his side will have the opportunity of leapfrogging Manchester City and, depending on results elsewhere, finishing October at the top of the table.
Given the tone of the conversation which surrounds this team, it all seems so unlikely. While the world has been busy praising the effect of Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery and, inevitably, fawning over the many gurning faces of Jurgen Klopp, its cursory glances at Spurs have shown only a botched stadium move, a failure to do anything at all in the summer transfer-market, and a procession of crippling injuries sustained by a physically exhausted squad. Yet, all the while, they have been making their best start to a Premier League season.
It’s an easy detail to miss, because it lacks an obvious explanation. Above them, Eden Hazard is in the form of his career, Pep Guardiola’s many stars are shining as they should, and Liverpool’s vast investment is proving well-reasoned. By contrast, at Spurs there are few within the group who could be described as definitively ‘in form’ and nearly every player who Pochettino has come to rely on has suffered an injury, a downturn or, in one regrettable instance, a very serious lapse in off-field judgement.
Subjective as it may be, it makes a compelling case for arguing that Pochettino is – to this point – one of the managers of the season. He has dealt with his misfortune, suffered (what seems to have been) a series of broken promises from his chairman, and has quietly managed to keep pace with a group of teams who are all, relatively, living a comfortable existence.
The Argentine is not one of the division’s towering idealogues and that’s perhaps why he remains slightly out of focus. He has a clear identity, but his tactical approach doesn’t provoke the idol worship enjoyed by contemporaries. His philosophy doesn’t provoke nearly the same cultish following and, because of that, his successes can’t be treated as secular victories by one online parish or another.
Actually, he often faces quiet criticism from within his own fanbase: many Spurs supporters remain frustrated by his ponderous substitutions and his habit of sometimes over-rotating his team and spinning them from their rhythm at precisely the wrong moment. In that regard, he can currently be said to be succeeding in many of the ways in which he used to fail. Lucas Moura’s reimagination as a centre-forward has been a great triumph, providing the side with a thrust which they might not have had with Harry Kane alone. It’s tempting to believe, also, that in previous years Pochettino would have been willing to suffer Kane’s post-World Cup fatigue without compensating. In 2018-19 though, there is evidence of a manager more capable of thinking his way around those kind of inconveniences.
He has also been able to bolster his squad with growing performances from players previously assumed to be of only marginal influence. Erik Lamela, of course, has been the season’s success story and his level of productivity is at unprecedented levels. Given everything he has endured over the past two years, the player’s spirit should certainly be saluted, but the club’s technical staff deserve just as much recognition. It is they who have adapted Lamela’s attributes to fill the holes created by injuries to Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli and, somehow, who have helped eliminate the dreaded pause from his shooting action.
As recently as last weekend, Moussa Sissoko demonstrated his growing value, too. Sissoko will never be an aesthetically charming footballer, at his worst he can look terribly clumsy, but he has also been part of the patchwork, with Pochettino using his forward running as abstract compensation for the side’s lack of creativity. How emblemetic of this period it was that he and Lamela, two of Pochettino’s reclamation projects, combined to produce the only goal against West Ham.
Elsewhere lies evidence of a more subtle type of management. Harry Winks may have glinted with promise for several years, but successive serious injuries were clearly impacted his confidence. Even as recently as this season, Winks – a player whose effect depends on conviction – was an introverted, reticent version of himself. That has partly been cured by game-time and growing trust in his body, but also by the manager. Pochettino has never outwardly lost faith in Winks. He may have sent a shot across his bow in September, warning him to keep his focus on football, but he has never shied from involving him in critical situations. Winks started against Liverpool and against Barcelona and, even if the results weren’t as Pochettino would have wished, the incubation of the player’s self-belief has vindicated those decisions.
It’s a strange situation, but the larger issues at Tottenham help to frame the smaller triumphs. Where it not for Moussa Dembele’s physical creaking, for instance, then Winks’ accelerated return to the side wouldn’t have been necessary. If Victor Wanyama’s form was anything approaching his 2016/17 level, then – again – his reintegration likely would have been more staggered. Perhaps without the injuries to Eriksen and Alli, Lamela’s re-emergence might not have been so pronounced either.
The overall effect has been startlingly un-Tottenham like. Arguably more than any other top-six side, they have been the team who stay true to form. When they’re playing well, they win. When they’re not, they don’t. This year hasn’t quite brought an inversion, but Spurs certainly haven’t coasted through the fixture list. Instead, patched up and sometimes protected by just a third-choice goalkeeper, they’ve managed to adapt, survive and advance. They haven’t played well. In fact, they were underwhelming against Cardiff and at Brighton, unconvincing for spells against Fulham and Newcastle and, were it not for a few critical Hugo Lloris interventions, they might well have let their lead slip at West Ham. They will return to London Stadium next week, having also muddled their way past Watford in the League Cup. What a strange night that was; how typical of this year in its optics, its uncertainty and yet, happily, also its result.
For now though, these trendless oddities aren’t really the point. How Pochettino manages to win games is less important than the fact that he’s actually doing so. We live in era in which head-coaches are expected to explain away poor performances with factors beyond their control and in which, unfortunately, the response to nearly every defeat is to delegate blame to an owner, a transfer-commitee or a referee. The game exists in an atmosphere of ceaseless personal PR. By contrast, the mood at Spurs seems to be to get the job done by any means necessary and worry about how it looks later. If at all.
Pochettino has a ready-made set of asterisks. Had Tottenham fallen to mid-table this season, nobody would blame him for that – or, at least, nobody would primarily blamed him for that. The transfer inertia, the Wembley and Milton Keynes situation, and the uncertainty perpetuated by the stadium’s shifting timeline are all situations which he has had to cope with and, realistically, for which he deserves a great deal of credit for not seeking sympathy behind. He has played a straight bat at all times, refusing to betray the party line and, in so doing, creating the perception among his players that these are inconveniences which have to be coped with, not justifications for any self-pity. He has set that example. When those questions have been served up to him, when he’s been practically invited in press-conferences to redirect and obfuscate, he has refused. Most memorably at Vicarage Road, when he swatted away suggestions of fatigue and pointed an accusatory finger at his players’ application. He might have done the same after losing to Liverpool, having been bettered by a fresher team from a bigger squad full of a expensive signings. Again, he didn’t.
The picture here is of a very complete managerial performance – of a head-coach controlling both the shape and approach on the field, but also the pitch of the mood away from it. Tottenham have probably never looked less impressive under Pochettino than they do at the moment. Perversely, though, he has probably never been more deserving of praise. It’s strange contradiction, but it’s probably accurate.
Sustaining this pace will be a challenge further, of course, and next Monday night’s visit of Manchester City may well bring a brutal reality check. That it will be played on a pitch stained by NFL markings and surrounded by a lot of irritable supporters should, however, remind everyone of jut how much Pochettino has been asked to tolerate this season. Whether Tottenham finish the evening above City is relatively incidental. That they could theoretically do so speaks volumes about how they are being led.