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“Lads, it’s Tottenham.”
There can rarely have been a more damning dismissal of a side as Sir Alex Ferguson’s now-famous team talk before Manchester United faced Tottenham. Roy Keane recalled the incident in his second autobiography, remembering how he was dreading a lengthy and detailed analysis of Spurs when he knew United would “do these.” Ferguson picked up on the mood and acknowledged his side wasn’t just better, but that Tottenham was mentally flaky.
That is Tottenham and has been for at least four decades: nice enough, capable of pretty football but essentially lacking the moral fiber that might have made it a serious title challenger.
At least, it was Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham is rather different. It went to Stoke City on Monday–the proverbially difficult away trip, even if Stoke’s form has waned of late–was ahead within nine minutes and finished the game off with three goals in the second half to cut the gap on Leicester City to five points with four games remaining.
The previous match, having seen Leicester extend its lead to 10 points, Spurs endured 70 goal-less minutes against Manchester United before three goals in a rapid burst sealed the game.
Even the week before that, when it drew at Liverpool, it had the wherewithal to come from behind. Tottenham may not win the league this season, but if it does fail, it won’t be because of shortcomings of character.
At the very worst, Tottenham should come out of this having had its best title tilt in half a century, looking at a bright young side based around Harry Kane and Dele Alli that should leave it well-placed for the future. This being Spurs, though, its fans must have contemplated the doomsday scenario, which is that Tottenham does not win the league, Pochettino is lured away by Manchester United (or Paris Saint-Germain, or whoever) and the team, without its leader, breaks up to remain forever alongside the West Ham of the late 1990s or the Yugoslavia of the early 90s as one of the great teams that could have been.
Pochettino’s contract doesn’t expire until June 2019, so there is no reason for panic yet–particularly given he represents himself and, quite understandably, may think he has more important things to worry about than negotiations on a deal that still has three years to run–but talks have been ongoing since January and everybody at Tottenham will sleep easier when an extension on better terms is agreed. Nor is there any indication that he is particularly motivated by money or that he may be looking to change. Rather, he seems enthused by the project, taking Tottenham into its redeveloped stadium with a team that is discernibly his.
In that sense, he seems a throwback to the days when managers sought to build empires, when they regarded their job not merely as being getting results in the present but laying down foundations for the future. In doing so, Pochettino is giving English football as a whole a much-needed boost.
For years, clubs have invested huge sums in academies and development, yet their first teams have been staffed almost exclusively by imports. Chelsea is not the only example but it does provide the starkest problem of the blockage that exists between the youth team and first team. It has just won back-to-back UEFA Youth Leagues (having been runner-up in the tournament’s predecessor, the NextGen series, in 2013).
It has won four of the last six FA Youth Cups and has reached the final this season. Yet the last academy player to become a Chelsea first-team regular was John Terry in 1998.
Pochettino, preferring to work with biddable and keen youngsters rather than cynical experience, has gone against the grain and has promoted youth–a process begun, it’s only fair to note, by his predecessor, Tim Sherwood–and he has been richly rewarded. Kane is not noticeably quick, he is not noticeably powerful, he is not outstanding in the air, he won’t dribble past three men in the blink of an eye, he has the wan neatness of a doomed RAF pilot in a World War II movie, but his movement and intelligence are such that after 21 league goals last season, he’s scored 24 this campaign to lead the league.
And that’s despite scoring only once in his first nine league goals this season, a run that prompted a blizzard of doubt–from critics if not from himself. Perhaps his years out on loan helped, but it’s fair to say that nobody at Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich City or, coincidentally, Leicester City–he began the famous playoff semifinal second leg against Watford in 2013 on the bench, alongside Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy–realized what a stellar talent he was. It’s regular first-team minutes with a consistent plan that have allowed him to flourish to the point that, at 22, he is a certain starter for England at Euro 2016 if he is fit.
Almost as certain is Alli, who turned 20 last week. Quick, industrious, skillful and imaginative, he is the sort of creative midfield spark England has lacked since Paul Gascoigne’s demise, and his understanding with Kane has clearly been a major part of both of their development. Others might have been unsettled by missing an open goal as Alli did having rounded the keeper on Monday; he simply scored his second of the night a few minutes later.
Kane also scored twice, the first the sort of surgical finish through a crowd of players that is becoming his trademark. There was a ruthlessness about the win that was very un-Tottenham-like. Kane and Alli, under Pochettino’s guidance, have transformed Spurs. They might also be transforming England.