The confetti are yet to settle and the spilled beers yet to dry out across the roads of the East Midlands. The celebrations will go long into the summer, as they should. In a sport whose face has been changed over the century by commercialization and globalization, fairy tales like these are not scripted as often as they should be. Leicester City have taken on the high and mighty of English football and given us a season to remember. However, this season was not Leicester City's alone.
Legendary Major League Baseball general manager Gabe Paul once said, “There is no such thing as second place. Either you're first or you're nothing”. But, that is over-simplification of sport, and life in general. What Tottenham Hotspur and Mauricio Pochettino have achieved this season, has been anything but a failure.
In an era of instant noodles and instant messengers, fans want instant success at their clubs as well. Managers are being fired at the drop of a hat, and the old wisdom “success is a process, not an event” has taken a backseat.
However, Tottenham and Daniel Levy stuck to their guns after Pochettino guided his team to a fifth place finish in his first season, and that has allowed him the opportunity to shape this young and talented Tottenham side into title contenders. He and his men have taken a giant leap towards ushering the club into its most successful era since the legendary Bill Nicholson won the first division title, three FA Cups, two League Cups, one UEFA Cup, and the 1963 European Cup Winners' Cup.
If Leicester City have symbolically represented underdogs in this campaign, Tottenham have represented youth. A young manager, leading the youngest squad (average age of 24.9 with Michel Vorm being the only above 30 player in the squad) in the Premier League, and one of the youngest starting lineups in Europe, to a stunning campaign. Leicester City might have won the title, but it was Tottenham who played the best football in the league – both in attack and in defence.
The title-winning Chelsea squad of 2004-05 was the youngest to lift the Premier League with an average age of 25 years and 312 days. The core of that side remained, and they went on to become the oldest side to win the Premier League (Avg. age of 29 years and 95 days). In Christian Eriksen (24), Harry Kane (22), Eric Dier (22), and Dele Alli (20), Tottenham have a similar core to develop into a dominating force in England.
On Monday, Tottenham lost a two-goal lead, their head, and the title at the Stamford Bridge – or that is what the papers said after the match. However, the title was Leicester's to lose at that point, Spurs could have only delayed their celebrations. When they dropped points against West Brom in the previous week, the fate of the title was all but sealed.
They should have been more clinical in that game against the Baggies, as they should have been when they dropped points against Arsenal, despite outplaying them for most of it. That ruthlessness will come with more experience. In fact, it took Pochettino a whole season to transform them into the tactically well-oiled machine they are at present.
Pochettino belongs to the Marcelo Bielsa school of thought. The mercurial Argentine manager has inspired a lot of coaches around the world – from Eduardo Berizzo of Celta Vigo to former Chile national team manager Jorge Sampaoli. When Bielsa started out his managerial career at Newell's Old Boys, Pochettino began his footballing career at the Argentine club.
Pochettino used Bielsa-esque tactics at his first managerial job at Espanyol and transformed them from a relegation contender to a mid-table club. Although his Spanish escapade did not have a happy ending, he once again made Southampton punch above their weights in his next assignment. A 3-1 win over reigning champions Manchester City made people sit up and take notice of Pochettino, who became only the second Argentine manager in English football after Osvaldo Ardiles. He led Southampton to their best-ever Premier League finish, at 8th, much like what he has done with Spurs this season.
In his first season at the White Hart Lane, Pochettino did not have his type of players in every department to deploy his tactics. Yet, he still managed to guide them to a fifth place finish and take them to the final of the League Cup. In the summer, he carefully weeded out the players who did not fit into his style of play, and the squad finally took shape to his liking.
Tottenham's 4-0 demolition of Stoke City last month was one of the most dominating displays they have produced this season so far. It was a team performance, and one where both the defence and the attack performed with equal efficiency.
Last season, Tottenham had the sixth-worst defence in the league, conceding 53 goals in 38 matches – this season they have the best defence in the league having conceded just 28 goals in 36 games. The transformation has been astounding.
Pochettino has built this Tottenham side from the back. His first priority this season was to resolve their defensive problems. A part of the solution was to deploy players who are tactically flexible to play in the tactical system he was using.
When Spurs are in possession Eric Dier, their defensive midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 formation, drops back in defence as a center back. This allows the Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to split out and move out wide and fill the space left open by the fullbacks who are pushed higher up the pitch. With Kyle Walker and Danny Rose providing the width, the wide attackers – Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela – can move in field and attack through the middle. With the two wide players drifting in, Kane has the license to drift out wide, without worrying about lack of bodies in the middle.
This fluid formation requires tactically flexible players. Erik Dier can drop back in defence because he has played as a center back. Vertonghen and Alderweireld can move out wide because the Belgium national team have used the duo as fullbacks for a long time. Harry Kane can drop deep because he is a natural No. 10, while Dele Alli can play both as a playmaker and also in a deeper role.
Like Bielsa, Pochettino has also been a poster boy for pressing. One of the biggest reasons why opponents have struggled against them is because Spurs have not allowed them to settle on the ball, and the pressing starts at the top. They always look to outnumber their opponents while closing them down, with one central midfielder remaining free in case their opponent manage to play out of the press.
The Argentine had inherited a squad which was built for the Villas-Boas' system. The Portuguese manager also looked to deploy high pressing tactics during his time at Spurs, without similar success. However, players like Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen were perfect for the tactics Pochettino wanted to use.
In fact, Lloris, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld are also key components in Tottenham's buildup play. All three of them are extremely comfortable on the ball, and they often bypass the midfielders completely by picking out the attackers with long passes.
(Erik Lamela's goal in the above clip is a perfect example of that build-up. The move starts with a long ball from Alderweireld at the back.)
When Pochettino was at Southampton, Saints had the highest average possession in the league. However, they were surprisingly direct in attack, despite enjoying so much of the ball – Southampton also had the second highest long balls per game in the league. At Spurs, once the buildup play starts at the back, Vertonghen and Alderweireld look to pick out Kane, who often drifts wide to the flanks. Spurs always make sure they have bodies around their striker in order to win the second ball.
This directness in attack has led to 67 goals in 36 games – second highest in the league – highest shot per game, to go along with the meanest defence.
He has always shown his faith in young players throughout his career, and at Spurs, he has challenged and developed the likes of Alli, Dier, and Kane into title challenging players. In fact, in the upcoming Euros, Spurs could very well provide the spine of the England national team.
Most of their first team players are yet to reach their peak, and that augurs well for the club in the upcoming season. The likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool will come back stronger next season, but Spurs have the advantage of having a well-settled team, who have already developed a lot of chemistry among themselves.
Pochettino is soon expected to sign a new deal which will keep him at the club till 2021, and he has expressed his desire to build a legacy which could rival that of Sir Alex Ferguson's at Manchester United. It is a long road to take, but they have already begun their journey down that road.
A new 61,000 all-seater stadium is set to host them from the 2018-19 season, which will not only increase their gate receipts, but will also feature facilities which can rival anyone in England. They already have a new training ground in Enfield, which is one of the best in the world.
Pochettino has taken his time, but he has established a healthy regime at the club. He is the first to arrive at the training ground every morning, and often the last to leave. His training methods and fitness programs have ensured that the players can give their all on the pitch. After all, a tactical system which depends on pressing can be very taxing on the players if they do not have the required level of fitness. The lack of muscular injuries at the club this season has been noticeable, in fact, Spurs have been one of the most consistent teams in terms of their starting lineup, alongside the champions Leicester City.
The players have a healthy mutual respect for each other, and they are required to shake hands with their teammates and the staff members when they enter the training ground. Pochettino has made it clear that he will not tolerate violation of his code of conduct – Andros Townsend, who had an altercation with a fitness coach during his time Spurs, can testify to that from Newcastle. It also helps that most of the players are of the same age group, and there are no big egos in the dressing room.
However, the biggest challenge that Spurs will face will be off the field this summer. Tottenham must send out a message that they are not a selling club anymore. Big clubs across Europe will spread out their fangs to grab their star performers, with Kane likely to be the biggest target. In the past, Tottenham have lost stars like Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, and that had set them back as club.
Daniel Levy is a hard man to bargain with in the transfer market, but there are clubs who won't flinch to shell out millions. Spurs will have to improve the wages of their star players. Alli has already doubled his wage in January, Kane had signed a five-year deal last summer, but neither of them are being paid what clubs like Manchester United or Real Madrid can afford.
Champions League football next season will help in the process of convincing these players to stay, but Pochettino also needs to make a big-name signing in order announce their intent to the rest of the league. Similar to how Sir Alex Ferguson signed Eric Cantona in 1992, which turned around United's fortune in the next decade.
Tottenham claim that the funds which will be raised via naming rights of the new stadium, new commercial deals, the new TV deal money, and Champions League income will help them in competing with other powerhouses.
With two more games remaining in the season, the club's biggest priority right now will be to finish above Arsenal – something they have not managed since 1995. They must now put the Chelsea debacle behind them and rally together for a strong finish. The fans have faced a lot of taunt from their crosstown rivals over the years, yet this season they have managed to achieve what Arsenal have been aspiring for over the past few years – a young team which plays exciting football and challenges for the league title.
As Arsene Wenger struggles to preserve his legacy at the club, across the town, a young manager with exciting ideas is trying to start his own. The future looks bright for Tottenham, and if they are able to retain the core of this team beyond this summer, Pochettino and his men will be a force to reckon in the coming years. They will be remembered as more than just a footnote in Leicester City's incredible title-winning campaign.