By Will Jennings
Tottenham Hotspurs’ remarkable season should not be remembered by their eventual crumble at the London Stadium on Friday night. Such a legacy of 2016-17 would be grossly unfair. As Antonio Conte’s rampant Chelsea march towards a fully-deserved Premier League title owing to a combination of their adept foreign recruitment, tactical astuteness and ruthless attacking, the work of Mauricio Pochettino and his players 15 miles north must not be forgotten. Bottle jobs? Nonsense.
Spurs have the sixth highest wage bill in the top flight. Before their encounter with a well-drilled, disciplined and motivated West Ham in Stratford, they had enjoyed a run of nine consecutive victories. Through his brilliant coaching at Enfield, Pochettino has nurtured a flourishing group of young, talented and driven home-grown players with an insatiable appetite to work and succeed. Let us hear nothing of ‘bottle jobs’.
Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier are blossoming as Arsene Wenger’s obsolete methods continue to inhibit the development of Danny Welbeck, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a few miles down the road. Yes, injuries at the Emirates have played their part but that fails to detract from the notion that 22 years of red hegemony in North London have been terminated. St Totteringham’s Day has been cancelled. Everybody at the Lane should be proud.
The rapid development of this indefatigable, high-pressing and fundamentally appealing Spurs side has been staggering. The natural ability of Pochettino’s young players is axiomatic, but the role of the progressive coaching they have received has also functioned as central to their success. The sky is the limit for Kane, Alli, Dier and co.
Spurs’ success has not been the sole product of Pochettino’s blooding of young, domesticated talent. His recruitment has been superb, bringing in the dynamic likes of Son Heung-min, Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier, all of whom provide additional energy, zeal and offensive verve to these pre-existing traits that were present last season. Victor Wanyama continues to function as an impenetrable shield in front of a wall-resembling back-four, relentlessly winning possession and taking the ball forward with drive and purpose. The defence Pochettino has constructed resembles a Theresa May soundbite, being characterised by ‘strength’ and ‘stability’ as opposed to the fragility and vulnerability that runs rampant in this modern era. His side are a pleasure to watch.
Spurs are flexible. At 1-0 on Friday night, Pochettino opted to twist rather than stick, withdrawing the excellent Jan Vertonghen for the more enterprising Moussa Dembele and switching to Conte-esque 3-4-3. Granted, his gamble was unsuccessful, but such tactical adaptability is testament to Pochettino’s adeptness in building such a versatile squad. The reasons for his side’s success unambiguously start with him.
Conte will correctly triumph in this term’s Manager of Season award, but Pochettino – and arguably Tony Pulis – would surely come a close second. Comparisons between Conte and Spurs’ Argentinian mastermind are unfair: the former’s squad is built on Russian riches, investment from abroad and exorbitant wages, the latter’s on collective spirit, work-rate and teamwork.
Watching Spurs makes Pochettino’s off-field influence so conspicuous. Indeed, the coach seems to have effectively engendered an atmosphere off the pitch that is conducive to unity, jollity and therefore victory, an achievement albeit facilitated by the presence of so many young Englishmen. However, it was Pochettino who provided such considerable opportunity for these players, offered them the grounding to work together and flourish in such a spirited environment. His success has been profound.
Uncertainty remains, however. With Spurs’ Wembley record in both Europe and the FA Cup functioning as far less than convincing, next season’s move may serve to hinder their seemingly inexorable rise. When season-ticket holders relocate, atmosphere changes, while it will take time for Pochettino’s side to adjust to their new temporary home. Fans – as well as all the neutrals Spurs, have entertained this term – can only hope such a transition will not be to the detriment of further progress.
But Pochettino will be wary of the challenges that remain. He will be aware of the work that still needs to be done, the unequivocal necessity of bringing in a dependable understudy for the terrific Harry Kane and the need to recruit one or two even more potent attacking players. Vincent Janssen has yet to deliver. If Alli, Son or Christian Eriksen pick up injuries then Spurs will lack the strength in depth that the superior Chelsea possess in so much abundance. This side is not complete.
But such debate should wait for another day. On the weekend where Chelsea’s ascent to the title appears to have been all but confirmed owing to West Ham’s defensive defiance, it is Spurs’ sensational season that deserves equal commemoration. Under Pochettino’s stewardship, they have developed from a youthful side with idealistic promise to one that possesses aesthetic joy and a viable chance of toppling the Abramovich riches. Yes, they’ve come up short. But for the united, home grown and spirited atmosphere that Pochettino has so ingeniously fostered, we should all be thankful.