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Tottenham vs Arsenal: Will Mauricio Pochettino’s fitness obsession see Spurs past Arsenal’s new faces?

Sculpting players' fitness to steamroll the second half of the season used to be a Wenger trait - but now it is something Pochettino has taken on

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Saturday 10 February 2018 10:47 GMT
Pochettino has revolutionised something that Wenger used to be at the forefront of
Pochettino has revolutionised something that Wenger used to be at the forefront of (Getty)

At the end of the last session before the north London derby, Mauricio Pochettino will bring his main staff into an office at Tottenham Hotspur’s state-of-the-art training base. The Argentine and his assistants will go over all of the data that comes from the GPS vests the players wear as well as other technological innovations, just to make sure they can fully trust what they’re seeing on the grass.

Combined with the figures from the last few seasons, those stats should show one thing and thereby suggest something bigger: that Spurs are at top physical levels; that they’re about to pick up form; that “the express train” is coming - and at speed.

That has been the trait of the first three full seasons under Pochettino. It has been at around this point that they have started to drastically improve, in terms of both results and performance.

Spurs claimed 64 wins in those three campaigns, and a majority of 35 came in the back 19 games of the season. Those figures might be higher were it not for the infamous blow-up at the end of 2015-16, something that is really seen as the psychological effects of losing their first title race rather than anything physical.

And that is the really relevant point here. It is from this period in the last two seasons that Spurs set off on the imposing winning runs - and the two longest of the Pochettino era - that really launched their title challenges. It was this period that saw them streak ahead of better-resourced rivals, that saw them last season jump from fifth to second.

In 2015-16, they went on a six-game streak. In 2016-17, it was nine, and that also saw their points return shoot from 39 in the first half of the season to a remarkable 47 in the second.

That is the real key, rather than consecutive victories: the strength of force that ensured they instantly bounced back from any failures to win.

As a clear illustration of the difference, you only have to look at the fleet-footed energy shown in the 2-0 victory over Manchester United at the end of January, compared to the flatness in the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal back in November.

This is the extra incentive for Arsene Wenger now that the two teams meet again at Wembley, to stop Tottenham in the match and also maybe stop them gathering extra psychological momentum at source. It is all the more important since a Spurs win would put them seven points clear of sixth and likely end Arsenal’s chances of the top four, especially since they just can’t seem to generate anything like the same consistency.

This, however, is also the extra twist to this game.

Such spring winning streaks used to be the Wenger speciality. It was one big way he won all of his Premier League titles. Those campaigns were characterised by Arsenal just picking up a pace that no one could keep up with to surge home. They won 10 consecutive games in 1997-98, 13 in 2001-02 and nine in the unbeaten league season of 2003-04.

All of those are among the Premier League’s longest streaks in 26 years of the competition, while all of Wenger’s best runs have come in the last 19 games of seasons.

Wenger’s best Premier League winning runs at Arsenal

13 2001-02, match 26 to 38

10 1997-98, match 27 to 36

9 2003-04, match 21 to 29

8 1999-2000, match 29 to 36

8 2014-15, match 25 to 32

Only one of them has come in the last few years, though, and that was as far back as 2014-15. While they did win six in a row at the very end of last season, that was when top-four was already gone. The express train never got going in the way it used to.

There are bigger much-discussed football reasons for this, too, but it’s difficult to get away from the argument that Wenger is no longer cutting edge in physical conditioning in the way Pochettino is.

Arsenal outstripped teams because they were the fittest. That was what so stood out about the transformed 1997-98 side.

There is an irony there, too. Stories of Wenger revolutionising Arsenal’s diet and fitness became so repeated and old-hat to the point they first became parodied through jokes about broccoli. Second, that saw people become deaf to them and, third, thereby made people actually forget about them. The last development has especially been the case in an era when Arsenal have seemed to endure a customary injury crisis every season and there have been so many question about the manager’s approach.

Arsene Wenger used to be at the forefront of conditioning players (Getty)

The truth is that Wenger used to be as obsessed with every little detail of the fitness and physical well-being of his players as Pochettino is now.

It was when Arsenal were at a physical peak, around 2001-02, that Pochettino the player began to take a proper interest in how a footballer’s body worked. He would spend hours chatting to Paris Saint-Germain fitness coach Feliciano Di Blasi. Pochettino gradually developed a religious zeal for the topic, before adding a properly scientific rigour as he became a coach.

He would be on top of every development in the field, using every piece of data available. It was also why his first meeting with assistant Jesus Perez when at Espanyol was a meeting of minds. They just saw it the same way, but Pochettino believes Perez is the one that makes the real difference.

“One of the reasons is my guidance next to me,” Pochettino said at his Thursday press conference, patting Perez on the back. “He’s a genius.”

Ozil linked up well with the new signings (Getty)

Nothing is left to chance. Spurs now have six fitness coaches working on deeply detailed programmes for every individual player, with Perez then co-ordinating everything in sophisticated cycles.

The current cycle should see them come to form, and thereby develop what Pochettino has previously described as the “aura” that surrounds winning sides.

That, however, is something else that might chime with Wenger. He didn’t just build winning runs through fitness, but also through building an atmosphere of utter confidence around squads. Wenger would strive to create such mood - or “aura” - that his players get to the point where they are interchanging and expressing themselves through what seems like mere instinct. They appear to have captured that at the moment after the signing of vibrant players in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s still only been one game.

And this is actually a curious difficulty for Pochettino on Saturday. While we should know what Spurs we’re going to get thanks to a lot of science and numbers, we don’t really know what Arsenal we’re going to get, because the front side of the team remains so new and they’re so dictated by emotion; by the vibe around the team.

The very human understanding of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang with Ozil could well make this another unhappy day for Spurs, but Arsenal still have to stop the mechanic certainty of the express train.

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