Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment as Head Coach of Tottenham Hotspur – a position regarded in recent times as something of a poisoned chalice – has bloggers, tweeters and forum-dwellers alike scrabbling to work out who will be in and who will be out; which players will fit into his rather specific way of working, and which are less suited to his style.
Pochettino’s 2013/14 Southampton side became known for their fast-paced attacking football, exhibiting high tempo pressing in midfield, impressive levels of ball retention throughout the team, and full-back play reminiscent of the Brazilian national team circa 1998. Importantly from Spurs chairman Daniel Levy’s point of view, this style was achieved with a youthful and mostly English squad.
Last season, Pochettino’s team was the second youngest in the Premier League, with an average age of just over 24 years, and of the 15 players to make 10 or more Premier League starts for Southampton, nine were Englishmen.
Tottenham’s is a squad bursting with untapped talent, and it will be interesting to see what effect Pochettino will have on the group. He helped to raise Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw and Jay Rodriguez to new levels at Southampton, and his new employers will hope he can work similar wonders with the talent lurking under the surface at Spurs. Although there are gems for him to uncover, there are also clearly a number of players who won't fit in with the new regime and therefore face uncertain futures.
Pochettino will need to make some prompt assessments if Tottenham are to sell those players this summer while their stock is still high, but which players might the Argentine favour, and which may be shown the door?
The potential winners
Kyle Walker - 24, right-back
In Pochettino’s Southampton side, the full-backs played unusually high up the pitch, becoming auxiliary midfield players and getting to the by-line often. Southampton averaged 23 crosses per game last season – funnily enough, the same figure as Tottenham – which put them joint-fourth in the Premier League. With wide players that mostly look to come inside, many of these crosses came from full-backs Luke Shaw (who averaged 0.7 accurate crosses per game), Callum Chambers (0.8) and Nathan Clyne (0.6).
The first choice Spurs full-backs are almost equally as ambitious, and should fit well into the Pochettino philosophy; Kyle Walker and Danny Rose both averaged 0.7 accurate crosses per game in 2013/14. However, with Danny Rose clearly struggling with the defensive side of his game, the left-back position may well be identified as one in need of strengthening. Walker on the other side, though, had a good season, and was greatly missed when sidelined with a pelvic injury for the final two-and-a-half months of the campaign. He will surely be a key weapon for the new man
Erik Lamela - 22, winger
Lamela, like many of the talents Tottenham recruited last summer, failed to make the desired impact in a first season dogged by injury. A serious back injury kept him out for the second half of the season and he will be conscious that he has a point to prove in 2014/15.
Lamela would seem to be a good match for the Adam Lallana role, playing nominally on the wing but frequently drifting inside to link up with a front-man. Pochettino has proven that he is capable of bringing the best out of individuals, and who better to coax Lamela’s ability from within than a fellow Argentine?
Daniel Levy will not want to see his hefty investment go to waste, and could well insist that his new coach shows specific interest in maximising the £30 million man’s potential.
Harry Kane - 20, forward
Levy has invested heavily in Spurs' academy since he arrived at the club, spending millions on the state of the art training centre at Bull’s Cross. The talent is now there and some of the young players are pressing for first team appearances.
Kane is one such player; he is a versatile forward who was given an opportunity to impress at the end of last season under Tim Sherwood. He is a reasonably close match to Rickie Lambert, in that he enjoys dropping deep to link play, as well as drifting into wide areas to keep defenders on their toes.
At Southampton, Pochettino gave competitive minutes to young forward Sam Gallagher – a player younger and less advanced than Kane – and so it seems logical that Kane should continue to be given first team opportunities.
The potential losers
Aaron Lennon - 27, winger
Pochettino’s wingers tend to be in the ‘inverted’ mould, playing high up the pitch, and looking to come inside and add support to the central striker. As such, Southampton mostly relied on their full-backs to provide width.
Aaron Lennon is one of very few ‘traditional’ wingers left in the Premier League – he nearly always plays on his natural side, and his main goal is to provide width on that side, and deliver balls into the box. Of course, that does not always happen, and he quite often comes inside – especially as he has got older and injuries have taken their toll on his pace. However, even in spite of his slightly adapted game, he does not contribute enough to be a wing-forward in a Pochettino 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
Last season Lennon returned one goal and three assists in 26 starts and one substitute appearance. The previous season he managed four goals and seven assists in 33 starts and one substitute appearance – that was the first time since 2006/07 that he had achieved more than 10 combined goals or assists in the league. Contrast this with Rodriguez (15 goals, three assists in 30 starts and three substitute appearances) and Lallana (nine goals and six assists in 37 starts and one substitute appearance) and it becomes fairly obvious that Lennon will need to significantly ‘up his game’ if he is to be relied upon.
Mousa Dembele - 26, midfielder
Mousa Dembele seems - on the surface - to be an upgrade on the ‘Jack Cork role’ from Pochettino’s midfield at Southampton. He had remarkably similar defensive statistics to Cork last season: each averaged 2.3 tackles per game, each averaged one interception per game, and Dembele has 1.1 clearances per game compared to Cork’s 1.7. Their shots per game (0.5 for Dembele vs 0.6 for Cork) were nearly identical, but Dembele’s 1.1 key passes per game bettered Cork’s 0.6 and the Belgian also had a better pass accuracy (90.8% compared to 86.3%).
What Dembele lacks, though, is the ability to press. Cork is a tidy, organised player who does a lot of good work for the team which often goes unnoticed – helping the team maintain shape, pressing quickly where appropriate. Dembele’s more languid style does not lend itself to pressing and, indeed, it was Gylfi Sigurdsson replacing Dembele at half-time against Southampton that led to an improvement in Spurs’ midfield energy in that particular fixture, with Sigurdsson also scoring the late winner.
It seems barmy to suggest that a player as technically gifted as Dembele will be cast aside, especially as the Sandro/Dembele pivot did so well in André Villas-Boas’ first season in charge. But as good as Dembele is - and he truly is one of the best dribblers to grace the White Hart Lane pitch - he is a very niche player with a very specific and restrictive skillset. His lack of final pass, shot, and his indifferent decision-making have held him back from being the Luka Modric replacement that Spurs crave.
Kyle Naughton - 25, right-back
Kyle Naughton was much-improved towards the end of last season when he moved into his preferred right-back role, having had most of his previous opportunities at left-back. However, he is a somewhat old fashioned full-back and was ill-suited to playing the adventurous style that was asked of him.
His 0.4 accurate crosses per game compared to Walker’s 0.7, and 0.6 key passes compared to Walker’s 1.2 show that in some ways he is almost literally half the offensive threat of his friend and former Sheffield United team-mate.
It would make sense for Pochettino to move Naughton on and to either promote from within, or look to sign Southampton’s Callum Chambers, who is very talented and still slightly beneath the radar of the bigger clubs.
The jury's out
Lewis Holtby - a keen presser, but tends to drift in and out of matches, and often tires after an hour - not a trait his new manager will approve of.
Paulinho - supreme athlete who will run for 90 minutes, but often lacks finesse and struggles with his passing and shooting.
Roberto Soldado - neat and tidy footballer, but one who has totally lost the goal touch that led to him banging in 56 goals across the previous two seasons in La Liga.
Andros Townsend - natural talent who sometimes suffers from tunnel-vision, and who could really benefit from tactical coaching.
Nacer Chadli - physically impressive, but tends to play on the periphery of games, and can lack intensity.
Of course, it's by no means certain that Pochettino will want to recreate exactly the type of team he had at Southampton. Indeed, he will need to prove himself adaptable and get the best from the talent at his disposal. In an interview with The Guardian’s Sid Lowe, Ramón Planes - Espanyol’s sporting director during Pochettino's stint as manager of the Catalan club - said: "I spoke to him about football a lot and I don't think he had one single model.”
Likewise, it is vital that any manager learns lessons from every job. Critics have suggested Southampton lacked a ‘Plan B’ in the season just gone, and it would therefore be unsurprising if Pochettino kept on some players who perhaps don't fit the mould in order to be able to change games in his favour.
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