Monday, 11 August 2014

Tottenham 2014/15 Season Preview: Pochettino to the rescue?

Tottenham have a great chance to improve on an ultimately chaotic and frustrating 2013/14 season but problems of a bloated squad and unresolved transfers threaten to hinder initial progress.

Building blocks:

The obvious improvement is the hiring of Mauricio Pochettino, fresh from his impressive tenure at Southampton.  Last season was a mess for many reasons but significantly, the loss of Gareth Bale and difficult integration of the many players signed with the money received for him was a task beyond Andre Villas Boas, who erred beyond the side of caution & played a straightjacketed, non-dynamic form of controlling football.  Results were OK but goals were scarce.  Reported to have been asked to loosen the shackles, things quickly went into freefall & his 'mutual departure', although unthinkable mere weeks before, was all too inevitable in the wake of a chastening home defeat by Liverpool.  He'd had enough & his system had hit the wall.

Quickly parachuted in once it became apparent no viable options were available, Tim Sherwood started on a wave of statistically fortunate results before hitting his own wall when faced with tactically astute coaching & superior teams.  His time as coach was characterised by 'refreshing honesty' (AKA 'not being media savvy'), a string of rumoured fall outs with various players but an encouraging emphasis on blending players from the academy; something he achieved with good results as both Bentaleb & Kane now look to permanently join the first team squad.

But his tactics were shit. And the drubbings continued whilst all the underlying statistical figures were inferior to that of his predecessor.  'Apart from points!' he cried, which was true, but by now nobody cared that Sherwood's 'Points Per Game' were superior to any other Spurs manager because his abrasive personality had so enraged the wider fanbase, that nearly nobody had any wish whatsoever to see him continue.  Levy was thankfully wise to this & 'Interim Tim' wended his way into a world of candid insights and failing to interview well for other jobs.

Brief flirtations with Van Gaal came to nothing once the Man Utd job became available, so a two-horse race ensued seemingly between the successful and celebrated Ajax coach, Frank de Boer and the celebrated but trophy-free Pochettino.   With distinct rumblings of discontent from many in the fanbase, Pochettino was hired.  Thought not to be a big enough name & to have proven little in spells at Espanyol & then Southampton, many felt underwhelmed by his appointment.  Others, like myself, were intrigued by his systems, encouraged by the love his former Southampton charges seemed to have for him and entirely hopeful that Pochettino's hard-work ethics & inclusiveness could blend the disparate bunch of personalities in the Spurs squad into something they only rarely achieved last season; namely to be at least the sum of their parts.  

Happily, the general reports coming from the squad are positive and amusingly a number of the training pictures released show clearly tired players.  Their fitness will not be in doubt come the start of the season; they've worked hard for it.

Personnel: how to turn 34 into 25

The World Cup is likely to cast a shadow long into this season for many teams & Tottenham are no exception.  By virtue of the extended & needed breaks given to players involved in the latter stages of the tournament, only Lloris and Bentaleb have been seen on the pitch of the 6 Spurs players that featured there.  Paulinho, Dembele, Vertonghen and Chadli are all functionally AWOL at the moment & question marks remain: we don't know if the coach rates them, at all.

With days to go before the season starts, Pochettino admitted he had 'too many players' and emphasised a desire for a squad of 25.  With Benoit Assou-Ekotto seemingly cut entirely adrift and the signings of Ben Davies, Michel Vorm & Eric Dier, that leaves a clear squad of 32 without the mooted recruitment of Mateo Musacchio or Morgan Schneiderlin, two potential transfers that may occur, particularly likely the purchase of the well regarded Villareal centre back.

Held against this backdrop, possible sales become essential and young players can be sure to be entering the loan system.  Tom Carroll & Ezekiel Fryers are young & have been fringe players in pre-season so seem certain to be sent out but where do the sales come from?  Ryan Mason has returned from oblivion to look decent when tried but is old enough to be in the 'now or never' bracket & plays in a position that is well over-staffed.  Personally, I believe there to be enough noise around the idea that Vertonghen is staying & has signed a (thus far unreported) new contract for it to be true & despite some early summer rumours, Paulinho doesn't appear to be for sale.  But Dembele and Chadli, along with Holtby, Naughton, Kaboul, Chiriches, Sandro and maybe Capoue, maybe Townsend are all potentially vulnerable to bids & Dawson, despite 9 1/2 years of service, is thought completely surplus to requirements. 

Maybe 4, 5 or even six of these could be leaving and pre-season hasn't very well cleared the picture with Capoue and Holtby (both rumoured to have had problems with attitude last season) having featured to decent effect.  Naughton and one or maybe both of Dawson and Kaboul must be available, with the  incoming reinforcements being notably defensive thus far, but with Walker injured to start Naughton becomes required & Dawson is rumoured to be reluctant to go.

Sandro has hit the '2 years on his contract' point that alerts Levy to selling & is rumoured to be poles apart regarding any potential new deal so is vulnerable & Chiriches' future, despite a good deal of hope for him from fans, appears entirely dodgy.  Who knows what goes on behind the scenes...

Who plays:

This is simple, Lloris, signed to a new long term deal starts, Vorm, new in, backs-up & plays Europa League whilst Brad does a bit of coaching, a bit of punditry & cheerleads for the club in the States.

Walker is the nominal first choice & distinct back-up is thin on the ground if, as expected, Naughton leaves. Kaboul & Dier are unsatisfactory but plausible cover players and maybe young Fredericks will get time, he has a lot of energy! For all that it could be that the hoped signing of DeAndre Yedlin will look functionally necessary come January.

Left back:
Ben Davies' signing was thought to spell the demise of Danny Rose, who surprised everyone by signing a new contract and declaring himself happy to compete for a place; indeed, he's looked effective in pre-season and may have edge the starter spot for the season's opener against West Ham. Either way, finally there's depth here.

As stated earlier, it's presumed that Vertonghen is happy to stay, he has said as much & he could well be partnered by Pochettino's countryman, Mateo Musacchio, a well regarded 23 year old thought to be signing imminently.  Beyond that, though young, one presumes Eric Dier has signed with the promise of some game time, leaving Kaboul, Chiriches & Dawson looking like 2 players too many for one squad spot.

Central/Defensive midfield:
Pre-season has seen Mason, Capoue, Carroll, Sandro & Bentaleb play here and Holtby is versatile enough to play anywhere across midfield. However, arguably last year's starting first choicers Paulinho and Dembele have been away & with the potential addition of Morgan Schneiderlin, who Pochettino sees long term playing in his central 2 is a question only he can answer.  I think Bentaleb deserves time this year & personally would like to see Paulinho alongside Capoue but it's hard to be definitive.

Attacking midfield/wing forwards:
One thing that seems very apparent this year is that Chief Levy's £30m investment is the prodigious talents of Erik Lamela will be given every chance to be realised.  Pochettino seemingly favours a fluid, interchangable 3 behind his main forward and whilst there are concerns about his workrate in this system, Eriksen deserves the chance to kick on from his excellent debut season.  Beyond these two the third place is quite open; it's possible Harry Kane could drop back from a forward role to nominally a left forward role and Lennon, ever the coach's darling but eternally frustrating to the fans, has figured thus far.  Both Townsend and Chadli could be either sold, loaned or key, there's simply no way of knowing right now.

Seemingly a straightforward situation here with Adebayor staying.  He and Soldado rotate or compete and Kane backs up.  Adebayor is still better than anyone likely available on the open market and could well, like Lambert before for Pochettino, be key.

How are they going to play?

Pochettino teams are renowned for being hard working & high pressing who take chances with quick transitional passes between the lines and adhere to fairly strict but fluid tactics.  Tottenham are well set to adapt to these tactics with most of the squad having playing a vaguely similar system initially under Villas Boas. The in vogue 4-2-3-1 formation is the starting point and general feedback from the squad has been that training sessions have thus far been 'hard but enjoyable'.  Whilst Tottenham's media is less open than Southampton's was, it is to be hoped that the excellent squad bonding sessions seen under Pochettino at Southampton have been replicated at Spurs and it is with this in mind that it has been frustrating that the coach has been unable to incorporate a full squad until very recently, with notably Paulinho having been given an extended break after the World Cup.  None of the World Cup players toured the USA, which will have been a very good squad bonding opportunity & that was a real shame.

As such, it would not be too much of a surprise to see Pochettino start the season using a base of those players who have worked longest with him, though with many transfers yet to be finalised, personnel could change very rapidly.

Pochettino's Southampton team ranked in the league last year thus:

2nd:  Offsides won, (most) Turnovers, (most) Dispossed
3rd:  Tackles, Offsides, Crosses
4th:  Fouls, No. of attempted passes
5th:   Assists, No. of successful passes
7th:  Goals, Shots per Game

What some of these numbers show are a team that passes the ball a lot, takes risks with it's passes & general play, is direct and combative.

The pre-season matches have shown these traits in abundance & Pochettino's style has been evident immediately  Particularly, directness and work rate have been easy to identify and an increase in runners from midfield being caught offside has implied quick transitional play.  The ever energetic Holtby has shown the way in harassing & hustling whereas Capoue has shown  a good range of passing from his withdrawn midfield role..
Full backs have joined up with play high up the park, centre backs have split wide and the attacking midfield 3 have constantly rotated positions and worked hard to look for quick passes in behind defences.

The biggest contrasts I can identify is that Tottenham 2013/14 were not much of a crossing team nor were they particularly combative in relation to tackling or fouling being generally more disciplined, especially under Villas Boas.  Pochettino seems to accept a degree of fouling in his team's play & indeed accepts the trade off between trying to get a player in and the inevitable slew of offsides this invokes.

The main concern I have for the season is that which plagued Southampton.  The energy required to adhere to Pochettino's system often left them tired late on and vulnerable to a late opposition surge.  By this stage he seemed tactically stoic and had no obvious solution or alternative.  Maybe the strength of Tottenham's bench will allow him to mix substitutes more effectively to allow his system to remain effective for longer into the game?
Whatever- fitness will be paramount and last season's fitness record of the squad was terrible; this is a clear area of concern & one which may need addressing if injuries become prevalent once more.  It is hoped Pochettino & his team have some fresh ideas on injury prevention & effective rotation to avoid too many unnecessary absences and mid-season burnout.


As ever, I have high hopes of a top 4 finish!

Whilst recognising that the better teams in the league become ever stronger and the gap between the regular European contenders and the rest becomes ever larger, it is entirely feasible for Tottenham to match or exceed their points total from last year.  Regularly dispatching the lesser teams wasn't the problem, total capitulation against the better teams was.  Better form after Europa League matches is imperative as is more control in big games.  Hopefully, the fact that Pochettino is patently more organised than Sherwood and more open than Villas Boas should be a good blend.  He is an inclusive and positive coach tasked with getting more out of an undoubtedly talented group of players.  Remedial work has been done on the defence and there are many options going forward.

Most likely is a battling 5th (indeed a model I devised for the season suggested 6th :(  ) but whilst it's easy to presume that all the big teams are strengthening and improving, it's hugely unlikely to be plain sailing for all the big teams, because well, just because!

Thanks for reading.


Thanks for visiting 'The Big Ripple'!

Make sure you check back throughout the season as i'll be continuing my WEEKLY ROUND UP of stats and points of intrigue (usually posted Sunday/Monday), throwing out a few statistical articles as the season wears on and generally trying to provide entertaining, vaguely original commentary because, well, it's good fun.

All the best!

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