Tottenham in the spotlight: A forensic analysis of Mauricio Pochettino during derby draw with Arsenal

Poch Watch: The most difficult period of Pochettino’s time at Tottenham culminated in a north London derby. We kept a close eye on the Spurs boss throughout the 2-2 draw

Luke Brown
Emirates Stadium
Monday 02 September 2019 12:49
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Unai Emery praises Arsenal for comeback against Tottenham

2.05pm, Tottenham arrive at the Emirates

August 2019 has undoubtedly been the most difficult month of Mauricio Pochettino’s five-year spell managing Tottenham Hotspur.

Just weeks after losing to Liverpool in the final of the Champions League, Spurs have made an inauspicious start to the new campaign, losing their last match at home to Newcastle United. Contract disputes and tactical disagreements have resulted in a divided dressing room — with Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen both dropping out of the starting XI — and, on Friday, bookmakers suspended betting on Pochettino becoming the first Premier League manager to leave his post this season.

A day previous, Pochettino had met Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy for dinner. The pair discussed “everything”, in the words of Pochettino, who has spent the past few weeks repeatedly complaining about the longer European transfer window, as well as not so subtly hinting at his lack of involvement in the club’s transfer dealings. “I am not in charge and I know nothing about the situation of my players,” he had sniped after a friendly in Munich, ahead of the new season.

To make matters worse, Tottenham next face local rivals Arsenal, who had lost their last match to Liverpool but remained buoyant after an ambitious summer that had seen them spend close to £150m on new signings. Pochettino used his pre-match press conference to mock the “stupid” rumour that he was on the verge of quitting Tottenham. But he also understood that his Spurs side were in very real danger of finding themselves in the eye of a storm.

Tottenham arrive at The Emirates

On Sunday afternoon, Pochettino arrives at The Emirates with the rest of his team shortly after 2pm. Everybody departing the team bus knows that Spurs can ill-afford another poor performance.

3.59pm, Sky Sports pre-match interview

Recent Pochettino press conferences have been unrelentingly dour affairs, punctuated by gripes, groans and comments so cryptic even a Bletchley Park codebreaker would have a tough time deciphering them. But in the hour ahead of the match Pochettino cuts a relaxed figure.

He has selected Eriksen to start. And he bats away the inevitable pre-match question with ease.

“Yes, I talked with Eriksen after training,” he says on Sky Sports. “He is committed with us and of course he is in the right frame of mind to play.”

Pochettino also confirms that Tottenham will be playing a back four, despite the absence of an established right-back in their starting line-up.

4.32pm, Davinson Sánchez exposed

It takes Pochettino precisely two minutes to jump out of his red leather seat in the away team dugout.

The decision to start Sánchez on the right was not made without thorough research. In the week ahead of the match Pochettino and his assistants, Jesús Pérez and Miguel D’Agostino, made sure to watch old videos of a teenage Sánchez playing on both sides of defence for Atlético Nacional in the Colombian top flight. Sánchez also trained in the position throughout the week and did so again during the pre-match warm-up, just before kick-off.

But — contrary to some reports — he had never played on the right for Ajax in the Eredivisie. And he had never played on the right under Pochettino at Spurs. Deciding to start him there in the north London derby was a risk. Arsenal waste no time in targeting him.

Davinson Sanchez endured a tough afternoon

With the match barely a minute old, Alexandre Lacazette passes to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who skilfully back heels the ball down the right flank. A flat-footed Sánchez is caught ball watching, as Sead Kolašinac scuttles past him and pulls it back to Nicolas Pépé, who shoots wastefully over the bar.

It is an ominous start for Sánchez.

Pochettino reacts to the attack in an agitated fashion. Up out of his seat, he strides over to the touchline, waving both of his arms around as his defenders trot sheepishly back into position. By the end of the match, Pochettino will have jumped out of his seat a further 34 times. He will have sunk down to his haunches four times. And, on one dramatic occasion, with the game hanging firmly in the balance, he will have dropped down onto his hands and knees and toppled forwards, screaming helplessly into the turf.

4.41pm, Tottenham take control...

...Not that the game seems as though it is destined to end in such fashion when Eriksen opens the scoring within the first ten minutes.

Christian Eriksen scores Tottenham’s first goal against Arsenal

That it should be Eriksen who stabs Spurs into the lead vindicates Pochettino’s decision to start him, having come so close to ousting him in the summer. A source close to the Tottenham dressing room has told The Independent that — at the end of the club’s pre-season — Pochettino was close to ostracising Eriksen completely given his longstanding reservations about keeping players in the final year of their contract. He eventually cooled, but nevertheless left Eriksen on the bench for two of the club’s opening three matches. In both home games, his presence was greatly missed, with Spurs reversing a deficit against Aston Villa after he came on, but unable to do so again against Newcastle.

Pochettino is a stubborn man with an unmistakably autocratic management style, and during his managerial career the players he has fallen out with have not tended to stroll back into his team. It would have therefore galled him to recall both Eriksen and Vertonghen — the latter of whom he dropped for questioning his tactics in front of the rest of the dressing room. But it is to his credit. Tottenham desperately need both for the blood and thunder of a north London derby.

A little surprisingly, Pochettino does not join in the celebrations when Eriksen scores his first goal of the season. He does not even turn to watch them. Instead, he beckons over both Vertonghen and Sánchez, barking instructions at them as they sip from their water bottles. He also maintains a constant dialogue with Danny Rose and Son Heung-min — the Spurs players closest to him in the first-half — instructing both to hug the touchline whenever Eriksen or Harry Winks bring the ball forward from midfield.

In the 40th minute, Harry Kane doubles Tottenham’s advantage from the penalty spot. But Pochettino does not watch the England captain drill the ball into the corner of Bernd Leno’s net. Instead, he is still bickering with the fourth official, Andre Marriner, over a decision that did not go Tottenham’s way a few moments earlier.

Spurs celebrate after Kane converts from the spot

5.17pm, Alexandre Lacazette pulls one back

Rose knows that he has made a mistake. With only seconds remaining until half-time, he handles the ball in his own penalty box. He knows that it’s a penalty. The Emirates knows that it’s a penalty. But — crucially — Martin Atkinson does not know that it’s a penalty. Not yet, anyway.

With the hopelessness of a condemned man, Rose flees forward with the ball at his feet, lest a hurried clearance looks very much like an admission of guilt. On the touchline just a few yards away, Pochettino is furious. He stares in disbelief with his open palms outstretched, his arms falling slowly to his side as a panicked Rose kicks the ball directly into Mattéo Guendouzi’s shins.

Arsenal pounce and work the ball wide. Pépé passes to Lacazette, who lashes a powerful shot beyond Lloris. With just 57 seconds remaining of the half, Arsenal have scored.

As Lacazette is mobbed and Rose keeps a safe distance away from the touchline, Pochettino turns away from the fullback to shake his head at D’Agostino. He briefly returns to his seat only for the half-time whistle to sound only seconds later. Pochettino gets up and disappears down the tunnel without even a second look at his shellshocked players.

Lacazette celebrates his goal

5.58pm, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang equalises

Whatever Pochettino says to his players at half-time doesn’t appear to have all that much effect. Arsenal resume the second-half where they left off: dominating possession, flying forward and peppering Lloris’ goal with shots. An equaliser is inevitable.

It comes in the 71st minute. The outstanding Guendouzi lofts a pass in between Vertonghen and Rose — a problem area for Spurs all afternoon. Aubameyang glides into the space behind, prodding a neat volley beyond the helpless Lloris. Arsenal are level. And it’s no more than they deserve.

Pochettino is already on his feet for the goal, having been in an animated conversation with Marriner, again, over Atkinson’s decision to penalise Kane for a robust challenge on Arsenal substitute Dani Ceballos. As Aubameyang’s volley flies in, he stands with his arms crossed, statue still on the edge of his technical area, holding his pose for several seconds as the Emirates erupts in a blur of red and yellow around him.

It is a mildly comical image, albeit one precious few people in the stadium will see.

Arsenal celebrate their equaliser vs Spurs

Pochettino has often been criticised for his underwhelming in-game management. In response to Arsenal’s second goal he brings on Giovani Lo Celso for Son. Tottenham’s final summer signing receives his initial instructions from Pérez while Pochettino strolls restlessly down the touchline, returning to address Lo Celso before his introduction. He wraps his arm around the player and with his free hand points towards Winks, his finger following the England international around the pitch for a good 20 seconds.

The instruction is a simple one: sit alongside Winks in the heart of midfield. Don’t leave him isolated. Help to stem the tide.

6.23pm, Moussa Sissoko does a Moussa Sissoko

Pochettino is down on his haunches for the fourth time.

Arsenal come close to scoring a winner. Several times. And then, in the dying seconds, Harry Kane breaks. But he’s too far out to take a shot. Instead, he plays a brilliant pass to precisely the one man Pochettino does not want to see with the chance to win Tottenham the game in the final minute.

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Moussa Sissoko.

He snatches at the shot and it sails harmlessly over the crossbar. It is at this point that Pochettino topples over completely, his head bowed, his eyes closed and the jeers of the Emirates ringing loudly in his ears.

7.06pm, Sky Sports post-match interview

Pochettino makes a quick exit as Atkinson blows his whistle for the final time. He shakes hands with Emery and the pair exchange rueful smiles, before turning abruptly for the tunnel.

But before he can return to the away dressing room, Pochettino has to fulfil the first of a number of post-match media commitments.

The managers shake hands

“It was a fantastic game and I think we did very well,” he tells Geoff Shreeves on Sky Sports. Pochettino is relaxed and he is happy with the point Tottenham have earned. He is also in the mood to provide an explanation for some of his recent behaviour.

“If you are emotional, you cannot keep your emotions inside, because you care. You care about the club. You care about the team. You care about the fans,” he says. “And when you start to feel things are not right, it is not easy to be a clown and to laugh. To put your best face in front of everyone. I am very emotional. But that is why we are going to start a sixth season [at Tottenham]. Because I care about Tottenham.”

It is a theme he will return to in his post-match press conference, in front of the written press.

7.28pm, A relaxed post-match presser

Ever since the summer, when Pochettino began routinely snapping at any journalists bold enough to ask him questions about the club’s transfer activity, or even about an individual player, the Tottenham manager’s press conferences have been uncomfortably fraught.

Not today. Tottenham may have allowed a two-goal lead to slip to their greatest rivals, but Pochettino is happy with their afternoon’s work. He arrives a few minutes after Emery, laughing and joking with Pérez, and after praising his “amazing and brilliant” team — as well as buoyantly declaring he is “so optimistic and positive that we have the quality to build again” — he is quickly onto his favourite topic: the European transfer window deadline.

Pochettino repeatedly criticised the longer European transfer window last season. On the eve of this one, he described English clubs as “vulnerable”. And after his side’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City, he described it as unfair for teams who must “every season rebuild the team”.

He does not wait to be asked about it directly. Instead he gives short shrift to a question on Tottenham’s recent defensive troubles to arrive at the topic himself.

“I think the most important thing is to all the on the same page,” he says. “With clear minds, players like Christian are different players. And tomorrow they are going to be focused 100 per cent on Tottenham and not thinking about other things, which makes management so difficult.”

Before leaving, he adds that it would now be “almost impossible” for Eriksen to leave the club this week.

Clearly, Pochettino believes the European window is to blame for all of Tottenham’s recent woes. And, in fairness to that theory, it is something he has maintained for several weeks now, long before the club’s underwhelming start to the new campaign. It is also a bold strategy, with his emphatic assertion that the club’s problems are now over guaranteed to raise expectations after the international break, when Spurs face Crystal Palace, Olympiakos and Leicester City inside seven days.

After one final question, on how Sánchez fared in an unfamiliar position, Pochettino and Pérez depart for the Tottenham bus. For now, it would appear Pochettino’s troubles are over — that is, unless, the European transfer window is not the primary source of all the disharmony at the club. In which case, his troubles would only truly be beginning.

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