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Mauricio Pochettino’s ability to adore Tottenham’s misfits and makeweights is the force behind this momentous Champions League achievement

From Moussa Sissoko to Fernando Llorente, no one expected these players to still be at Spurs in 2019, let alone be the men directly responsible for sending a team running on fumes into the Champions League final

Jonathan Liew
Thursday 09 May 2019 15:56 BST
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Mauricio Pochettino labels Tottenham players 'superheroes' after win over Ajax

The first thing you notice, watching it back, is that nobody is where they’re meant to be. Moussa Sissoko is nominally a box-to-box midfielder, but as he plays the long ball from which Tottenham Hotspur will score their winning goal, he’s the furthest man back. Son Heung-min is Tottenham’s leading goal threat, yet as he slips the ball to Sissoko with 94 minutes and 52 seconds on the clock, he’s retreating into his own half, away from goal. Toby Alderweireld is at right back. Jan Vertonghen is on the left wing. As the second leg of the Champions League final winds to a close, Tottenham are in disarray.

Still, Sissoko lumps the ball hopefully forward. In a way, it’s a notable turn of events even to have found himself at this point. One year ago, if you’d asked Tottenham fans what they thought of Sissoko, you’d have got a rough split of opinions. Some wanted him gone in the summer. Others wanted him gone even sooner.

Most importantly, there were precious few signs of affection from Mauricio Pochettino: in two years at the club, he had completed 90 minutes in the Premier League just seven times, slotted either into the centre of midfield or the right wing, depending on where there was a vacancy. Approaching the age of 30, Sissoko would have been seriously considering his options.

This season, however, something has clicked. Given a long run in the side and a consistent role at the base of the midfield, Sissoko has responded with the best football of his career. His ability to dribble the ball through the centre of midfield has launched numerous Tottenham counter attacks. His sound positional sense and refusal to be brushed off the ball has got them out of defensive trouble on numerous occasions. His passing has improved with confidence, too. Now, though, there’s no time for any of that. It’s got to go big.

The ball takes to the skies, and underneath it Fernando Llorente jostles for position. For much of his time at Tottenham, Llorente too has laboured in the shadow of the player he used to be. Two seasons into his career, his Premier League ledger reads: 35 games, two goals. His lack of speed and unsophisticated passing range have often made him a poor fit for a Tottenham side that prefer to attack fluidly rather than directly. His finishing has been patchy. He’s 34 years old, and having come close to a move in January, may yet move on in the summer.

But even if he does go, Llorente has ensured he will never be forgotten. He’s run his heart out, got himself into good positions, shown glimpses of the form that earned him two seasons at Juventus and 24 caps in the greatest Spain team of this or any other generation. His winning goal against Manchester City in the quarter-final may have ricocheted fortuitously off his hip, but you still need to be there, find the space, make the run, lose your marker.

Llorente certainly hasn’t lost his marker this time. Under the aerial ball, Matthijs de Ligt is breathing down his neck, tugging at his arm, gripping his waist. Llorente may be giving away 15 years on the brilliant young Ajax captain, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s how to win an aerial ball. Take a look over your shoulder. Get your body in position. Block the defender off. And make sure you get something - anything - on it. As Llorente nudges the ball scruffily in the direction of Dele Alli, the clock reads 94 minutes and 58 seconds.

There’s an argument that this has been Dele’s worst season at Tottenham so far. In terms of goals and assists, it’s been the least productive season of his adult life, going back to his Milton Keynes days: just five goals in the league, seven in all competitions. He’s missed large parts of the season through a hamstring injury, denying him form and rhythm. He’s no longer a first-choice England starter, and if you were looking at his numbers alone, you might even be tempted to wonder whether we had seen the best of him.

Yet in its own small way, this may end up being the pivotal season of Dele’s career. Against big teams, Pochettino has often deployed him as a sort of attack dog in the final third: pressing from the front, trying to win the ball high, nullifying the opposition playmaker. He may be scoring less, but he’s doing more. And in one of the biggest games of his career, he’s done a fine job, running more than anybody bar Christian Eriksen.

Tottenham's misfits and makeweights have helped reach the Champions League final (Getty)

As the ball rolls towards him on the edge of the Ajax penalty area, Dele realises that with Lisandro Magallan hunting him down, there’ll only be time for a single touch. Further, he realises that if he flicks the ball around the corner, into the gap between the centre-halves, there may just be a runner moving into the space. That runner is Lucas Moura.

Few eyebrows were raised when Lucas moved to the Premier League from Paris Saint-Germain in January 2018. He had barely played all season, been publicly disowned by their manager Unai Emery, and with his dreams of playing for Brazil at the World Cup in tatters, it was legitimate to wonder whether he would ever fulfil the rich potential of his early years.

He’s still not a first choice at Spurs. If everyone is fit, then Harry Kane leads the line, Son and Eriksen and Dele revolve around him, and the very particular skillset of Lucas will have to make do with the bench. He’s not tall - just 5ft 8in - but he’s a scrapper, with exceptional balance and a low centre of gravity. His ability to gather and turn with the ball at speed is unmatched in the squad. And in a 10-yard sprint, there are few players you’d back to beat him. Nicolas Tagliafico, the left-back tracking Lucas’s run, is quick. But he’s not going to get there.

Sissoko, to Llorente, to Dele, to Lucas. What links them all? At various times, they’ve all endured lengthy spells on the sidelines. They’ve faced severe criticism, dealt with setbacks, had their credentials questioned, their future discussed. A lot of the dissent has even been internal. And perhaps at another club, they would have become part of the natural wastage of football’s culture of disposable labour: marginalised, frozen out, “listening to offers”.

But Tottenham isn’t most clubs, and Pochettino isn’t most managers. In a simple and very basic way, Pochettino seems to adore footballers in a way few others do. Anyone can love a brilliant footballer. But Pochettino loves them all: the brilliant ones, the golden ones, the naughty ones, the iffy ones who he reckons, with just a bit of love and care, could be brilliant one day. It’s why he bristles at questions over personnel and selection, and a perceived focus on missing players rather than those on the pitch.

Pochettino loves players that fall short of many other managers (Getty)

“For you, it’s difficult to understand our rotation,” he said after the game, addressing the media. “When we play with one, with another. To achieve big things, it’s very clear that you need 25 players. Maybe with 11 players, you can win some games. But to reach the final of the Champions League, you need 24 or 25. And the relationship must always be honest.

“Lucas Moura, when he arrived, was in a difficult and tough moment. Always we believed, and pushed him. Always we respected him. And look: he scored three goals. The team is more important than any name. If you are honest and you show respect to 25 players that you need to manage every single day, this type of thing can happen.”

This is a Tottenham side running on fumes. To describe them as the least likely Champions League finalists since Chelsea in 2012 is not to do them a disservice, but to put the magnitude of their achievement in context. To reach a first European final in 35 years is momentous enough. To do it with this team of misfits and makeweights, of fringe players and flawed players, is some feat.

To reach the Champions League final is the true testament of Pochettino’s work (Reuters)

Their progress may feel like a gigantic stroke of luck. What if the VAR officials had spotted Llorente’s handball against Manchester City? What if Sergio Aguero had been onside? What if Borussia Dortmund had converted one of their several hundred chances? What if Magallan hadn’t slipped over at a crucial moment? What if David Neres hadn’t hit the post in the first leg or Hakim Ziyech in the second? How - in short - are Tottenham still standing?

That’s not a question with a simple answer. But if Tottenham’s chances were slim at the outset, they would have been non-existent without the resounding unity that Pochettino has cultivated over months and years. Sissoko goes into the summer a punchline, and ends it a world-beater. Llorente buries himself for a team he may end up leaving. The gifted and flamboyant Dele lays on two unselfish assists when he could have gone himself. And Lucas rises from the PSG scrapheap to score a hat-trick in a Champions League semi-final. In a way, it’s like that old African proverb: if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

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