Amidst a huge turnout at Wembley in solidarity with the victims of the attacks in Paris, football itself took a backseat last night. But when two young and exciting teams that play contrasting styles clash, no matter what the context, it is difficult for football addicts to not make some mental notes about the game itself. Delle Alli’s smooth transition from club football into the senior national team was definitely a large post-it note stuck on the refrigerator door for later rumination. Less than a year ago, Alli was a breakout local schoolboy at Milton Keynes Dons who replaced leaving skipper Stephen Gleeson as a holding midfielder with an eye for goal in League One. But, of course, that was before Mauricio Pochettino noticed glimpses of a young Englishman with the work-rate and technique to start for Tottenham Hotspurs in him.
Alli is not the first player to be called up to The Three Lions squad while improving tremendously under Pochettino. In his two seasons at Spurs the Argentine, who needed an interpreter during his preceding spell at the St. Mary’s, has also overseen the national team call-ups for Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Ryan Mason. In his debut season at Southampton, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, Calum Chambers, Nathaniel Clyne and Luke Shaw were called up to the England senior team. That the Saints academy has been the best in England for a while, producing most notably a certain Welsh left-back who exploded as a wide attacker under Harry Redknapp, takes nothing away from this accomplishment.
Mauricio Roberto Pochettino Trossero used to be a centreback in his playing days before he took over as manager at Espanyol, a club where he is a veteran of almost three hundred appearances, in 2009. An Argentine centreback is a pantomime villain in football circles, for their reputation of hard tackling and dirty fouling to stop flowing opposition attacks and Pochettino lived up to this when he gave away a penalty against England in the 2002 FIFA World Cup for English darling David Beckham to convert and send England into the knockout stages. But no one could have quite predicted that he would continue to help the English three World Cups later, albeit in classier fashion.
Pochettino came to England from Espanyol with a mixed record at Espanyol, where he lifted the club from relegation pits in his first season and made them stay in the comforts of the middle of the table for two more seasons before things went a full circle and he left in the November of 2012. The South American with continental European training found refuge at a newly promoted and struggling Southampton and with a minimal transition period in which he made full use of the youth academy and his predecessor Nigel Adkin’s record-breaking signings, a team that comprehensively beat defending champions Manchester City, the SAS Liverpool, and defending European champions Chelsea, was born.
Pochettino’s preferred formation is the contemporary staple 4-2-3-1 where the most important players for the system are the holding midfielders in front of defense. While he guided Southampton to a reasonable 14th place, the best of Pochettino was yet to come. Bulldozing midfielder Victor Wanyama was signed from Celtic to partner Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield and ball-playing Croatian centreback Dejan Lovren came in from Lyon. These two players revolutionized how Southampton played with Wanyama becoming a defensive enforcer and Lovren becoming the focal point for a team playing out from the back instead of the usual upfield pinging of the ball that cash-strapped teams opt for. But with a talent drain that reinforced traditional balances of bargaining power imminent, a frustrated Poch made the switch to North London where the riches from Gareth Bale’s record transfer were at the risk of being squandered by poor management.
At White Hart Lane, Pochettino dipped into the reserves to give consistent starts to players like Kane and Mason while building a team around the silky feet of Christian Eriksen. Dier and Alli were transferred in for paltry sums while more than twenty contracted players were either released or sold. Vlad Chiriches started making a mess as the ball-playing centreback (much like Lovren after his transfer to Liverpool) and this thrust Dier into first-team action where the former Sporting Lisbon youngster thrived. But midfield remained a problem with Paulinho abandoning his post more often than not to try (and fail) to score goals. Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, a star for Algeria at the preceding World Cup, showed signs of a reliable partnership around the same time Harry Kane revealed himself as the new beacon of hope for English football. Only Chelsea, City, Manchester United and Arsenal finished above Spurs and that was true testament to the remarkable improvements that Pochettino brought to the club.
Injuries to Mason and Bentaleb means Spurs have to play Dier and Alli in midfield but this has looked to be an unlikely improvement more than a stop-gap measure so far. Hijacking Toby Alderweireld’s move to his former club from Atletico Madrid, Pochettino showed glimpses of his maturity as a manager who not only believed in his system but understood the missing pieces he needed for it to work. Toby, Dier and Vertonghen now form a three-man defensive shield that is arguably the best in the league, winning their boss a Premier League Manager of the Month award in September. Tottenham are now a backup striker away from cementing a top four finish and that is an understatement for how good they have become. As long as he keeps supplying exciting local talent who are well-drilled in the responsibilities of their role but at the same time not afraid to let rip when they come up against resolute defending, fans of all clubs can sit back and enjoy a ride on the Pochetrain. Who knows, he might win England a first major trophy in decades in the process.