Plan B or not Plan B…
Before Mauricio Pochettino joined Tottenham Hotspur there were warnings from those who had watched him closely at Southampton that his one big failing was his inflexibility. It was so pleasing, then, to see him suspend his renowned pressing system for our match against Arsenal in September, so early in his reign. It demonstrated that, when required, he was able to change his tactics to suit the occasion. It put our minds at ease about that particular criticism.
On that day we were a compact unit that defended deep and soaked up pressure, with Younes Kaboul outstanding at the back in a system he was familiar and comfortable with. Six months later, against Burnley on Sunday, questions were rightly raised during and after the game as to why Pochettino didn’t make changes, albeit in-game changes on this occasion; to the personnel (sooner, at least), to the system, to the approach.
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?
It may be a little uncouth to use Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in which he ponders suicide in order to create a football analogy. And, on the surface, it seems that I’ve chosen the title of this particular blog on the basis of the rhyme. Actually, though, the subsequent lines fit well too.
There have been times when we have seen flaws in some of what Pochettino has attempted, and ‘taking Arms’ might well end the troubles. In, instead, retaining the status quo, the same problems that were prevalent earlier in the season have remained fairly close to surface, even during our good periods.
An example commonly used is that our full-backs have frequently been exposed – take your pick from any number of the following reasons as to why that might be the case:
– a lack of defensive work ethic from the player ahead of them.
– a lack of cover from central midfield.
– a lack of tactical nous.
– a lack of ability.
– some or all of the above.
Likewise, we’ve seen our central midfield walked through as if it were absent when teams have managed to break through our press – the problem being that when one element of the press fails, the whole thing tends to fail. Pochettino has not yet addressed either of these issues.
Pochettino famously began his career at Newell’s Old Boys and played under Marcelo Bielsa, from whom his managerial philosophies have stemmed. The excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking wrote of Bielsa:
“…he’s an ideologue and a purist, arguably too extreme and inflexible to be successful at the highest level, but a wonderful inspiration.”
It sometimes feels as though Pochettino is so determined that his way is the right way of playing that he is unable to adapt to circumstance. The Burnley match was a good example (though there have been others); at 0-0 and with barely a chance created for Spurs, it was a surprise to see the same eleven emerge from the tunnel. When they arranged themselves in the same way on the pitch, eyesbrows were raised. That Paulinho lasted the full ninety was deemed by most (myself included) as utterly inconceivable (albeit he was part of a team that helped to keep its first clean sheet since we played West Brom, another game in which he started). And not bringing on Townsend or Lamela sooner meant that we were unlikely to change the flow of the match.
Burnley’s game plan was to pen us in when we had possession, forcing us to play long balls forward, which they then dealt with easily. Or they’d press the deepest-lying midfield players to the extent where our back four just passed back and forth across the line, unable to find the feet of an occupied teammate in midfield. But in Townsend we had a player waiting in the wings (if you’ll excuse the pun) who offers the ability to run in behind defenders – who we could play long balls over the top to when penned in. Or even just ask to beat his man in tight spaces, get beyond the intense Burnley press, and try to make them change their own game to accommodate him. That ignores the fact that he scored for England in midweek, and so might have carried a little more oomph than usual. Pochettino waited too long to make the change, though, and Townsend ended up touching the ball just once in his eight minute cameo.
Our Head Coach could fairly cite a lack of options within the squad as part of the reason why he has not changed things up more readily. He only has four or five players outside of his favoured first eleven that he seemingly trusts. In fact, in this interview Southampton fan Connor Armstrong suggested the same had happened at their club; Connor said that he would attribute Pochettino’s inflexibility “to the fact that beyond 14 or maybe 15 players, Saints have very little by way of options.” On Sunday, Pochettino had enough options to change shape or personnel – he could have brought on Stambouli to free up Mason to break forward more, or he could have introduced Soldado to move to a system with two strikers. But perhaps his lack of flexibility is deliberate.
Earlier in the season – during Borussia Dortmund’s ‘crisis’ – I read this piece by Raphael Honigstein. Honigstein wrote:
“Schmidt and Klopp don’t believe in having a Plan B.
They’re exposed in that sense but they’re happy with that trade-off. Anyone who’s familiar with their respective bodies of work is aware that their ideas are fundamentally sound. But that’s only part of the job. Because their tactics are highly demanding, physically and mentally, of their players, they need to make sure that the players continue to buy into it.
As soon as one or two key figures start believing that the team would be better off with a less frenetic pace, they’d be finished as coaches. The great secret of Europe’s best coaches isn’t so much that they’re smarter than their peers but that they find ways to get their players to implement their ideas.”
Buy-in from each of the squad is vital, especially in a system such as Pochettino’s (or Bielsa’s) where each individual plays such a vital role. Of course, if Pochettino can mirror anything like Klopp’s successes we would be very happy to stick by him, even if he never tinkers, never changes a thing. And a fairer test will come next season, when he’s had a summer of working with Paul Mitchell, Rob Mackenzie and co to identify targets, as well as a pre-season of working with a squad made-up (hopefully) of players that not only buy into his system, but will stick with it during difficult periods.
But until then, I can’t help but feel that it’s important that Pochettino shows a little more flexibility – particularly in-game. If we are unable to impose our style on the opposition for whatever reason (be it fatigue, confidence or tactics) then something needs to change – either the players’ attitudes, the players themselves, or the system. I would be far more happy to see us play like we did against Arsenal, or the home game against Everton – using tactics that aren’t Bielsa-inspired, but that do get the result.
Pochettino and Klopp would argue, I’d guess, that that would show weakness; it would show that they are not fully committed to the system. But if the system is failing, it’s better to amend it or find one that does work, and then to explain to the players post-match what went wrong and why.
So we suffer the Leicester, the QPR and the Burnley of outrageous fortune, or we take arms against our own sea of troubles (in the form of an auxiliary midfielder, perhaps!) and end them.