As Tottenham have powered down this season’s final straight, at first chasing Chelsea and then, via an emotional farewell to White Hart Lane, striding out towards the line, one aspect of their charge has been overshadowed. This has never happened to Mauricio Pochettino before.
It may feel familiar given 12 months ago Spurs had also pursued Leicester, only to find the gap too wide and their opponents too consistent, but this campaign represents a significant departure in Pochettino’s eight-year managerial career.
For the first time, he has overseen a team gathering speed when the finish came into view, not just slightly but significantly, and in doing so debunked the idea his pressing style of play is paid for in fatigue at the end of a long and draining season.
Instead, his teams have consistently dipped at the final furlong, the theory going that his players are worn out from double training sessions, hunting in packs and closing down every full-back’s clearance in the corner.
History backs up theory
The evidence was damning too. In all but the first of his six previous seasons, Pochettino had watched his teams win fewer points per game in their final 12 league fixtures than their first 26, whether it be at Espanyol, Southampton or Tottenham.
Spurs last year dropped dramatically from two points per game to just 1.6 in that crucial period as they conceded the title to Leicester and then threw away second place to Arsenal.
In 2015, Tottenham had also dipped from 1.7 to 1.6, Southampton in 2014 from 1.5 to 1.4, Espanyol in 2012 from 1.4 to 0.8, having suffered a similar slide in 2011 from 1.5 to 0.8.
This year, however, has been different. Tottenham have taken 33 points from their last 12, beating an in-form Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Manchester United, Hull City and Leicester City along the way.
They had taken an impressive two points per game in their first 26 matches but with victory over Hull on Sunday, Spurs have taken 2.8 from their last 12.
Pochettino has always bristled at the suggestion his high-octane tactics lead to underwhelming finishes and instead emphasises the psychological element of staying focused until a campaign is through.
Certainly last year, the circus surrounding Leicester looked as draining for Spurs as any sprint or tackle and his side have learned from that experience, become steelier since and less prone to collapse.
But Pochettino is also nothing if not meticulous. At Hotspur Way, cameras are installed to assess individual efforts in training and players often wear devices so their physical output can be accurately measured.
When asked on Wednesday how he would prevent a recurrence of Tottenham’s loss of form last autumn, Pochettino said: “It is on record, every single match, every single training session, every moment – we record everything.
“Now will be a moment for us, when we go to Hong Kong, to assess the whole season and find the way to fix that. We try to provide better tools to the team when we struggle in some moments. It is a moment for us to improve in our methods.”
Tactical changes that have reaped rewards
It would seem likely therefore he might also have made tactical adjustments to counter fatigue and the statistics indicate Spurs may have started to be more selective in their pressing.
Pochettino’s mantra is to be as dangerous off the ball as on it, to win possession high up the pitch and hurt the opposition before they can recover.
But it has been noticeable that where Tottenham’s attacking players previously chased as far as the opposing goalkeeper, their press is now slightly lower and targeted more towards the front of midfield.
According to whoscored.com. Harry Kane has made a total of only four interceptions this season compared to 21 last term, marking a significant drop from 0.6 per 90 minutes to 0.1.
Tottenham’s most prominent aggressors have followed suit, with Christian Eriksen (1.1 to 0.6), Dele Alli (2.2 to 0.3), Son Heung-min (1 to 0.3) and Mousa Dembele (2.2 to 1.1) all easing off. Alli’s translated to a stark decrease of 60 interceptions last season to just 11 this.
The pattern is similar in terms of both attempted tackles and fouls, suggesting a strategy tweaked towards holding off in the final third and instead pushing hardest when team-mates are closer and the chances greater of success.
That is not to say Pochettino is any less devoted to his methods, far from it. Tottenham have regularly harried teams into submission in recent months, with many beleaguered opponents remarking almost in disbelief at the relentlessness of the side they just faced.
But it might hint at a slight softening in approach and perhaps a recognition that to win titles Spurs will have to be as determined and dynamic in May as they are in August.
This season for Pochettino at least, it is a box he finally ticked.