Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino can appear a difficult man to read.
One month he discusses how much he enjoys change, new challenges, new experiences; the next he says his desire is to remain in charge of Spurs for twenty years.
Yet, and this is important, the two are not mutually exclusive. When Pochettino explains his desire to be challenged, his fondness for change, it’s taken as a sign he is considering his future at Tottenham. That he is looking elsewhere. Instead, the opposite may very well be true.
Since the Argentine arrived at White Hart Lane in May 2014, Tottenham have evolved from top-four hopeful to Premier League title challenger. That’s change right there.
Pochettino has achieved this on a fraction of the budget of the other top-flight behemoths. Something which certainly sounds like a challenge.
And he has changed the dynamic of the first-team squad, bringing through academy graduates and young English talent instead of buying from abroad. Couldn’t that be classed as a new experience?
So Spurs have, for differing reasons, given the former defender the stimulation he says he needs to enjoy his work. And is unlikely to change any time soon given the club are, finally, set to move into their new home in March. Change, challenge, and a new experience.
Pochettino, however, also deserves plenty of credit for his ability to keep things fresh.
Supposedly the era of a coach staying 20 years at a club is over. Players become burnt out, bored of hearing the same voice on the training pitch over and over again. It’s why Pep Guardiola believes three seasons is optimal for a coach at one club, and perhaps why José Mourinho never goes further at a club.
Yet Pochettino is now in his fifth season in charge of Tottenham and there isn’t even a hint the players are losing interest. In fact, they’re only getting better under the Argentine.
The latest change
So how has Pochettino done this?
Well, he has never been afraid to change tactically and during his time in charge Tottenham have used countless systems – from back fours to three-man defences, midfield pivots to midfield destroyers, fleet-footed wingers to creative No.10s. And Harry Kane. Always Harry Kane.
This ability to adapt has kept Tottenham from becoming predictable. No manager knows exactly how Spurs will line up and that is a huge advantage.
And over the past month, the side’s shape and style has evolved once more, as Football Whispers‘ team persona highlights.
Since the start of December, partly due to injuries, Spurs have used a 4-3-1-2 system and have attempted to control games through possession. Chief in ensuring that happens in Harry Winks.
The England international is a Pochettino favourite: intelligent, technically gifted and assured in possession.
“Harry has the profile of the perfect midfield player,” Pochettino said earlier this season. “His characteristics are perfect. When we talk about midfielders like Xavi and (Andrés) Iniesta, he’s like this type of player. He has this capacity but he needs to take my words in a very positive way – he needs a lot of work.
“I don’t want to praise him too much so his head [grows big]! His perception will be ‘wow!’ And the reality is he still needs to prove himself.”
It’s safe to say Winks is beginning to do that on a weekly basis. He has completed 90 minutes in six of Tottenham’s last seven Premier League games and in their League Cup quarter-final and semi-final matches against Arsenal and Chelsea respectively.
Based in the centre of the midfield three, it’s Winks’ job to collect possession from the centre-backs and move Spurs up the pitch, either by carrying the ball or breaking lines with incisive passing.
The latter is something he does very effectively. In the Premier League this season only five players have averaged more accurate passes per 90 than the 22-year-old (69.11). Of these, 10.21 go backwards, so he isn’t just playing ‘safe’ passes, as the radar below highlights.
Winks is vital to Tottenham’s structure with the ball. And he is helped out by Moussa Sissoko when Spurs don’t have it.
The Frenchman is stationed on the right of the midfield three and is given license to push forward, often using his pace to break beyond high defences. But when Tottenham have to defend, the Frenchman tucks in and helps break up attacks.
At his peak, Mousa Dembélé did the job of both, which enabled Pochettino to field four advanced attackers. But the Belgian is no longer the force of old and may depart this month. Yet Spurs have already moved on, and that is down to their coach.
It’s not just the midfield that he’s tweaked. The attack has, too. And whisper it quietly, Kane is no longer Spurs’ frontman: it’s Son Heung-min.
Below are the average positions from Tottenham’s win over Bournemouth last month.
Son (No.7) is stationed in advance of the England captain, and this is a structural change that has been evident in almost all of Spurs’ matches in December and January.
This switch has paid off, too. As we detailed here, Son has been in stunning form while Kane has struck nine times since the start of December.
That pair’s impact is nothing new. Winks’ is, however. He’s been given the keys to the Tottenham midfield by Pochettino and has excelled. It appears he is also a man who relishes a challenge…