West Ham vs Tottenham: Get set for battle of the young upwardly mobile London rivals

Bilic’s West Ham v Pochettino’s Tottenham – tonight’s game pitches together two clubs who are going places, with developing football philosophies, money-spinning new grounds in store and promising foreign managers

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The Independent Football

Tottenham’s trips to the Boleyn Ground nearly always mean something. It was Spurs who reopened West Ham’s ground in December 1944 after it had been hit by a Nazi V-1 bomb. It was Spurs who attracted the biggest crowd in its history, 42,322 for a 2-2 thriller in October 1970. It was Spurs who won 3-2 in 2013,  4-3 in 2007, and lost 4-3 10 years before that.

This has always been a great match between two teams squabbling across their overlapping corners of London. Tonight it will be held at Upton Park for the final time, before West Ham move into the Olympic Stadium, as Spurs were once so keen to do before deciding to rebuild White Hart Lane.

These are two clubs fighting over much of the same space in the English game. Both have big fan bases but have been left behind by Chelsea and Arsenal in the Champions League era. Both have an eye on foreign investment, which could help to take them closer to those two clubs whose ambitions are far more global. Both have put their trust in a new, passionate, charismatic manager, hoping they can build a new sense of identity.

Of course, they are not competing as absolute equals. This season Spurs are four places and 11 points ahead of West Ham in the Premier League table, and have been a better team for some time. Only Spurs have played in the Champions League in recent years. Only West Ham have played in the Championship. But they are certainly close enough to notice each other. 

All of which is why tonight’s game is so important. Add to that the special dynamic at the Boleyn Ground, where the atmosphere is improving almost every week as  the number of games left  there ticks down, and this evening’s could be a classic of the season.

There is certainly every reason to expect that West Ham will raise their level for Spurs’ visit, as they have for most of the big teams this season. Even though Slaven Bilic’s team have more league points than ever after 27 games, there is still a suspicion that they are a side whose level adjusts to meet that of their opponents. This is why they have beaten Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea this season, while being unconvincing much of the rest of the time.

That interpretation might suggest that Bilic is more of a motivator than a tactician, though the West Ham manager was keen to deny it yesterday. “One of our greatest games of the season was away at Crystal Palace [3-1 win], or at home with Newcastle [2-0 win],” he said. “So it is not only [that we perform] against the big, big teams. Also we played one  of our worst games of the season, Spurs away [1-4], and they are a big team.”

Bilic’s own explanation is that West Ham are a better team when they have space in which to counter-attack, and find it harder when they have to take the initiative. “Sometimes it is easier to play against those [big] teams, because you are using the space in behind them,” he explained. “It is very difficult to play against teams that are behind the ball, organised, and there is no space, like against Sunderland.”

This will be a very different game, though, as Bilic knows after the chastening experience at White Hart Lane in November. That 4-1 defeat could easily have been worse, and Bilic described it afterwards as a “shock”, as his team were run off the pitch by Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs.

Yesterday, Bilic spoke warmly of the job Pochettino has done in N17, while pointing out that Spurs have had good players before. “Pochettino has done extremely well,” Bilic said. “What he has done with Spurs, it is amazing, not only because of the quality, which they have all the time, but the energy, which is better than before.” 

What Pochettino has done at Spurs is what Bilic has yet to do at West Ham, instilling a clear philosophy of how to play football into his players. West Ham will likely have the best player on the pitch tonight  in Dimitri Payet, but Spurs are the better team. Of course, Pochettino has had his job  for one year longer than  Bilic, and these processes take time, but this will be a big test of the Croatian’s abilities.

Because, 10 miles up the road at Tottenham, Spurs have turned into a formidable team this year. The whole group has coalesced around Pochettino’s doctrine, and every player who did not has left. The Argentine spelled out yesterday that there is something far more important than charisma to his management, which is trust. When Pochettino arrived he insisted that the whole team shake hands before training. It has now passed from a rule into a habit, representing the mutual respect across the whole squad. 

Pochettino called it “a small thing which means a lot to create a real team” and “to show you are interested in the people with whom you shake hands”. This is the family unit he has created at Spurs. “Sometimes I shout too, and sometimes too much. But sometimes managers shout a lot from the touchline and inside they are a pussycat. To show character is not only to shout.”

This is the difference between talking and walking, and it explains why Tottenham are the team they are, and why the pressured atmosphere tonight will not distract them from their ambitions. Every week the players are asked if they have the character to be champions, and every week they prove they do.

“To show character is to take the ball, take a risk and to play in the way that we play,” Pochettino said. “To be brave is not to kick someone. It is to take the ball and play. We cannot forget that we play football, not rugby or boxing. To show character is not to kick someone, it is to take the ball and take risks in a different position. This is when you are brave.”