Premier League 2014-15 preview No18: Tottenham Hotspur
After turmoil under Villas-Boas and Sherwood, Spurs would settle for a season of quiet progress under Mauricio Pochettino
Guardian writers’ predicted position: 6th (NB: this is not necessarily Jacob Steinberg’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 6th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 66-1
This has been a surprisingly stress-free summer by Tottenham Hotspur’s standards. There has been no mad, incoherent splurge on new signings, no doomed bid to hang on to their best players and while they have hired yet another new manager, Mauricio Pochettino, speculation over who would replace Tim Sherwood began roughly 10 minutes after Sherwood had replaced André Villas-Boas last December.
That made for a highly amusing spectacle for the rest of us, as a demob happy Sherwood repeatedly took aim at Daniel Levy and his players towards the end of his time in charge, but it was not what supporters wanted to see or what Tottenham required. When they meekly succumbed to a 2-0 defeat at West Ham in their penultimate fixture, it was clear that the team did not respect Sherwood or have the stomach to fight for him, and the enduring image from that day was of Emmanuel Adebayor and Paulinho staring at each other in disbelief in the wall after they had allowed Stewart Downing’s tame free-kick to sneak between them and past an unsighted Hugo Lloris.
It was a goal that summed up Tottenham’s lack of heart and no club can function properly when there is that much sniping going on in the background. Without trust between the players and the manager, nothing of any note can be achieved.
Sherwood did not do that badly. He will take that 59% win percentage record – the best of any Tottenham manager in the Premier League – to his grave and they did finish sixth. The football was more watchable than under Villas-Boas and it was hard to disagree when he questioned his team’s motivation after the second-half capitulation at Chelsea in March.
Sherwood, above all, wore his heart on his gilet. He could never be accused of being boring. Yet while there was logic in amongst the bluster at times, his touchline antics made him a caricature, a comedy figure who was not taken seriously by the people who mattered. It did not help that the team was often tactically naive and embarrassed whenever they faced superior opposition.
A change was required and although Pochettino’s Southampton finished two points below Sherwood’s Tottenham and narrowly lost to them twice, convincing the Argentinian to leave St Mary’s was a sensible move by Levy. Tottenham have not chased a glamorous name. Pochettino has never won anything as a manager, yet based on what we have seen from him in his short time in England, he has the ability to coax the best out of his players, work out the right system for them and promote youngsters. You never know, it might catch on.
Few were convinced when the relatively unknown Pochettino replaced the popular Nigel Adkins at Southampton in January 2013. Pochettino did not speak English to the press – Tottenham have told him he can no longer use an interpreter – and Southampton were just starting to settle in the Premier League after promotion. It seemed like an odd time to remove Adkins and there were fears that Pochettino would struggle.
Yet the signs were immediately encouraging and although Southampton lost 2-1 to Manchester United in Pochettino’s first game, Sir Alex Ferguson was impressed with them, commenting on the way their pressing had disrupted his side’s rhythm. “They pushed on top of us and didn’t allow us any time on the ball,” Ferguson said. That style became a feature of Southampton’s approach under Pochettino and it helped to solidify a previously leaky defence. Their proactivity allowed them to win possession in dangerous areas and Pochettino’s players embraced the demands posed by his intense training sessions.
The mark of many managers is whether they are able to improve their players and the majority of Southampton’s players did progress under Pochettino. Adam Lallana, for instance, was obviously gifted but sometimes flattered to deceive; by the time he joined Liverpool, he was playing at a high level every week. Jay Rodriguez developed from a nervous, quiet player into one of the most fearless and direct forwards in the league, scoring 17 goals last season and making his England debut. Morgan Schneiderlin went from strength to strength. The defence stopped making so many mistakes. As a collective, they enjoyed victories over Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City and played a style of football that was energetic, intelligent and easy on the eye. If Pochettino is left to his own devices, expect Tottenham to flourish.
Tottenham have not been major players in the transfer market (yet), having only signed Ben Davies, Eric Dier and Michel Vorm at the time of writing, good players but not necessarily ones that set the pulse racing. Yet perhaps that is the right approach. Tottenham need more stability and less of the scattergun. Throwing money at the problem is not always the answer. Sometimes developing the players you already have is the way to do it and Tottenham trust Pochettino’s coaching ability.
Sure, the squad has a lop-sided look to it in some areas and the director of football, Franco Baldini, has been questioned after the majority of last summer’s signings following the sale of Gareth Bale proved to be underwhelming, but Pochettino has plenty of talent at his disposal and their prospects will be far brighter if, say, he can help Erik Lamela recover from a forgettable first season in England and get him working in tandem with Christian Eriksen.
While Eriksen was Tottenham’s best player by a considerable distance last season, Lamela, signed for a club-record £30m last summer, was a fish out of water during his few appearances and is yet to feature competitively this year. However the Argentinian has undoubted potential and although there are no guarantees, he could transform Tottenham’s attack if he builds on the promise he has shown during pre-season.
More is also required from Roberto Soldado, another expensive signing who did not live up to expectations last season. Soldado tried hard and the fans appreciated his effort, singing his name and celebrating vociferously on the few occasions when he did score, but six league goals, only two of which were from open play, was a poor return on a £26m investment.
The problem for Soldado may be that Pochettino tended to favour a 4-2-3-1 system at Southampton, which could leave him out in the cold if Emmanuel Adebayor is considered first choice. Adebayor may be the most reliably unreliable forward around but he is a fine player when he is in the mood. In theory, Adebayor and Soldado could play together, but Pochettino will have to be convinced that they possess the necessary attributes to form a genuine partnership. Neither player is a natural provider.
Either way, with Jermain Defoe gone and only the unconvincing Harry Kane as back-up, Tottenham need another striker and Pochettino has been targeting Southampton’s Rodriguez, who is expected to return from cruciate ligament damage in October. Rodriguez would not be an eye-catching signing but he is quick, a good dribbler, finishes well and can play through the middle or on the left. PSV Eindhoven’s Memphis Depay is another target after impressing for Holland at the World Cup.
Signing Rodriguez or Depay would give Tottenham greater balance in the positions behind the main striker. There is a hole on the left, with Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend both at home on the right and Lamela, Eriksen and Lewis Holtby all more comfortable in a central role. Nacer Chadli is an option but the jury is out on the Belgian after a disappointing first season.
Pochettino is also chasing Schneiderlin, another of his former players, and wants to build his midfield around the Frenchman, an all-action, combative midfielder who wins the ball back and uses it well. However it remains to be seen whether Tottenham will stump up the cash that Southampton are demanding – well, the summer would not be complete without a spot of brinkmanship from Levy.
Tottenham have been here before and Villas-Boas was annoyed that they missed out on the signing of João Moutinho two years ago. It would be a setback for Pochettino if Schneiderlin stays at Southampton and although there is a lot of competition for places in central midfield, Mousa Dembélé, Etienne Capoue, Paulinho and Sandro must all prove they can offer the dynamism Pochettino likes from his midfielders. The accusation against Dembélé is that he is not incisive enough and that he slows the play down, Capoue was hindered by injury last season, Paulinho could be scarred by his World Cup experience with Brazil and there is a suspicion that Sandro’s performances on the pitch to do not quite match his no-nonsense image. Perhaps youngsters like Tom Carroll, Nabil Bentaleb – unfortunate to perhaps be tainted by his association with Sherwood - and Ryan Mason will be given opportunities by Pochettino.
One bonus for Tottenham is that Jan Vertonghen’s immediate future appears to be at White Hart Lane. The Belgian centre-back looked uninterested in some games last season and was thought to be determined to move, yet he is still at Tottenham for now and the defence will be far more secure if he is at the heart of it. But who will be alongside him? Vlad Chiriches looks elegant but needs to toughen up, Michael Dawson is whole-hearted but lumbering and Younès Kaboul has not performed at the same level since his return from injury. Perhaps Dier, the 20-year-old Englishman signed from Sporting Lisbon, will get the nod. But Pochettino will be desperate that the proposed move for Villarreal’s Mateo Musacchio does not fall through because of money.
Davies is a solid addition from Swansea City on the left and while a lot of fans are not sold on Danny Rose, there are worse back-ups. Kyle Walker, meanwhile, needs to work on his positional play on the right and it would not be a shock to see Zeki Fryers or Kyle Naughton sold before the end of the month. In goal, Hugo Lloris is largely excellent but can push his luck with the sweeper-keeper routine. Vorm will challenge the Frenchman.
As ever, one of the main stumbling blocks for Tottenham will be how they cope with the Europa League, which placed unwanted strain on their squad during the first half of last season. They were lethargic in the league after playing on Thursday nights yet Pochettino will still have to attack the competition. It is a chance to win something.
Pochettino is not the finished article. There were times when Southampton slacked off and let leads slip, or when they struggled to break opponents down at home. His record in the cups was also poor and the signing of Dani Osvaldo did not work out. Yet Pochettino is also a shrewd operator, calm under pressure and an engaging man. If the players have anything about them, they will respond to him.
It is rarely simple with Tottenham. They will set their sights on the top four but logically there is no reason to expect them to finish above the top sides. Unlike last year, no one is getting carried away and talking about a potential title challenge. That would be foolish. They have to be realistic about their place in the hierarchy, try to quell their more self-destructive tendencies and give themselves a platform to build from there. Patience is a virtue. A novel approach but it might just work.
Jacob Steinberg for the Guardian