How Mauricio Pochettino transformed Tottenham into true title contenders
Tottenham Hotspur's 4-0 thrashing of Stoke City on Monday evening was among the most overwhelmingly one-sided Premier League games of the season. It was a victory so comfortable that Tottenham managed to hit the bar and miss an open goal, yet still triumph easily.
Identifying a single man of the match was difficult: there were simply too many options. You could say something similar about Spurs' Player of the Year, too: as many as five players could deservedly take that award. In situations like this, it's obvious that the man who deserves most praise is, in fact, the manager.
Tottenham's success has been built not upon individual brilliance (although Harry Kane provided some last night) but upon collective organisation from a truly excellent young coach. Mauricio Pochettino's organisation has been impressive all season, but there's been a positive shift in recent weeks. Spurs are improving, mainly in an attacking sense.
This season, Pochettino's players have primarily impressed with their efficiency in regaining possession, pressing intensely and cohesiveness. Opponents haven't been allowed to settle into a possession thanks to a combination of Spurs' limitless energy and solid structure.
In some matches, Spurs' dominance of midfield has been truly remarkable -- their first-half performance in the 1-1 draw at Arsenal in October showcased organisation that would be the envy of any club in Europe. But they tired and Arsenal eventually equalised. On that occasion, Spurs' weakness was arguably their attacking play: they'd dominated with their ball-winning, but hadn't created enough to finish the contest.
In recent weeks, Spurs have created more. Two months ago they had the Premier League's best defence but only its third-best attack; now Pochettino has created the best side in both respects and again, it's been about organisation.
Their individuals have been performing the same jobs: Kane banging in the goals, Dele Alli showing tremendous intelligence and technical quality, Christian Eriksen drifting inside dangerously and Erik Lamela pressing quickly and passing efficiently. But their combination play has improved dramatically, particularly in terms of movement, with Stoke City ripped apart continually by a succession of relatively simple passes that were only possible because Spurs were dragging opponents out of position and creating space so consistently.
The movement started from the defence. Eric Dier has spent most of the season dropping back between Spurs' centre-backs but on occasion at the Britannia, his midfield colleague Mousa Dembele followed suit: the duo both dropped back when Spurs had goal kicks. This meant Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld could push even wider, the full-backs could advance higher and the central midfielders moved inside.
Central midfielders at centre-back, full-backs in wide midfield and wide midfielders in central midfield. Tottenham were using their starting system, simply with three pairs of players in entirely different roles, and that's a perfect demonstration of movement: retaining your shape despite everyone being on the move. It's trickier than it sounds, and it's unusual to see a side implement this so successfully. The Villarreal team of 2010-11 did something similar; it's not unreasonable to think that Pochettino, then managing Espanyol, was inspired by his La Liga rivals.
Pochettino's integrated movement works so effectively in part because so many of his players are accustomed to playing different roles. This is particularly evident along the spine: Dier is comfortable in defence because he's played frequently at centre-back, Alli plays as a No. 10 but has also been deployed deeper, Kane can come short because he's a natural No. 10 rather than a number nine. They all like coming short, with the full-backs providing reverse movement by bombing forward. Even by their standards, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were terrifyingly direct last night.
Pochettino is also lucky that Belgium have regularly fielded Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in wider roles over recent years owing to their lack of natural full-backs, something that helps Tottenham "split" their centre-backs comfortably. No other Premier League side has two centre-backs so comfortable outside the width of the penalty box or so comfortable in possession.
With the centre-backs wide, the full-backs playing as wingers and Kane continually making runs into the channels on the outside of the centre-backs, Pochettino's "real" wide players had license to drift inside. As a result, the three attacking midfielders in Spurs' 4-2-3-1 system combine regularly to put Tottenham into goalscoring positions.
This is a proper 4-2-3-1 system featuring three attacking midfielders buzzing around behind a lone striker. Pretty much everything is termed a 4-2-3-1 these days even if it's essentially a 4-4-2, albeit with one deep-lying striker. But Eriksen, Alli and Lamela rotate and combine effectively, playing as a unit rather than three individuals.
On Monday night, three of Tottenham's most penetrative passing moves featured those three exchanging passes, usually when located close to one another. In the first half, Lamela's neat through-ball found Alli just outside the box and his backheeled pass to Eriksen prompted the Dane to smash the ball against the crossbar. The trio weren't filling more than 10 metres of width but with Kane wide on the right and Rose charging down the left, there was no danger of being too narrow.
Tottenham's second goal again featured those three: Lamela gained possession of the ball, an attempted back-heel broke loose to Eriksen and he immediately chipped over the Stoke defence for Alli, who strode onto the ball and dinked it past Shay Given. Their third goal featured Eriksen in a deep position feeding Alli, who transferred the ball onto Lamela: two forward passes in the inside-left channel. Once through on goal, Lamela selflessly squared it for Kane, who converted into an empty net.
Spurs were attacking with great purpose, and in great numbers, for the majority of the campaign, but this level of cohesion in possession is a relatively recent development. It owes much to natural progression as Pochettino works with his team on the training ground more, but it's also about the Tottenham coach being able to name a consistent starting XI.
Pochettino has managed to creative an impressive defensive unit despite being forced to rotate regularly while Spurs were battling for the Europa League. But now that he's capable of fielding his best side every week and the players are fresher as a result, the attacking quality is at another level.
Over the past six games, Pochettino has deviated only from his favoured starting XI in two ways: first when Kevin Wimmer performed admirably in place of the injured Vertonghen, and second when Son Heung-min played at Anfield to allow Lamela a rest. Otherwise, the XI has been almost as consistent as Leicester City's. From these six matches, Spurs have recorded four victories, each of them convincing, with two draws in impressive performances against Arsenal and Liverpool.
Everything has slowly come together in brilliant fashion over the course of the season. We started to see partnerships in "natural" positions: Alderweireld and Vertonghen, Dier and Dembele. Then we saw less obvious partnerships: Alderweireld and Alli, Kane and Alli, Lamela and Eriksen. Now players have productive relationships with multiple teammates, and there are effective trios and a settled back four, maximising individual ability and making Spurs better with each passing match.
Maybe the best is yet to come: Pochettino should be around for a while, and the age of Spurs' key players suggests they'll improve too. But the last six performances have been superb, and that level of defensive solidity and attacking ruthlessness should, over the course of a whole season, be enough to win the Premier League.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.