In a week of contradictions from Mauricio Pochettino, his team served up a performance which epitomised the lack of clarity coming from their leader as they failed to beat bottom-of-the-table Watford at home.
The team selection went against the rumours and represented more of the same, rather than the defensive re-build that some had said were coming. He did change to a back three, however, which saw Davinson Sanchez get 45 minutes alongside the rest of Pochettino’s favoured back four. He abandoned that system at half-time, though, as his team trailed, and the additional defender was proving unnecessary. Sanchez was sacrificed but had been far from the worst in the back line.
Pochettino has flip-flopped with his views several times over the last nine months, and it is not clear whether he is simply suffering some inner turmoil and, therefore, saying what he genuinely feels at the time (only to change his views weeks later), or whether he is attempting to send different messages to different people: the team, the fans, his boss. The problem is that these messages are all being sent in public and so the lack of clarity is apparent to all.
A month ago Pochettino seemed to see the January transfer window as a silver bullet, saying ‘January is going to be a good opportunity […] to fix this situation’ – music to the ears of most fans. But in the pre-match press conference this week he had changed his tune: ‘I believe in the players that are in Tottenham today. […] I am going to stick with players because I know have the quality [sic].’
Post-match he was left hinting that he’d changed his mind once more: ‘if we need something we need to act.’
The mixed messages have been around for a while, and the players certainly seem to be suffering from a lack of clarity on the pitch, unsure of themselves and the approach to scoring goals… and stopping them going in.
Against Watford Pochettino focussed attacks through the wing-backs, amassing a vast number of crosses in the first half; crossing is statistically an inefficient means of scoring, and has often been a last resort for Pochettino’s Tottenham, who normally have Christian Eriksen picking the lock between the opposition defence and midfield. But here it was Plan A, and Watford’s centre-backs seemed to relish the opportunity to head and kick crosses away at will, their back three amassing 33 clearances between them throughout the game.
Pochettino’s team selection was questionable, and he corrected it at half-time, adding Son Heung-min to the attacking threat and immediately seeing his team’s attacking impetus grow. The attempts at goal were lacking, though, and with nobody playing in the area that Eriksen would typically patrol, Spurs lacked creativity. Erik Lamela was eventually brought on to add invention, and his sprightly cameo from the right was helpful, but meant that Son was shifted from the wing, where he had been effective at running into space. This meant that he was often playing in amongst traffic and subsequently he struggled to get shots away. Pochettino seemed to be struggling to get the best out of his team.
Had this performance come from Pochettino changing things up and attempting to inject some new life into the team I would have been far more accepting. But there are players keeping their place in team despite turning out disappointing display after disappointing display, particularly Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen and – although he wasn’t a complete disaster in this particular match – Serge Aurier. Pochettino’s ruthless banishing of the ‘Kaboul cabal’ in his first season was the starting point for his regime. He needs to work out quickly which of his current squad members he can rely on as Spurs are already five points off fourth, and that gap will grow if things don’t quickly improve.