Tottenham eyes Champions League amid Pochettino's youth movement
DENVER – After finishing fifth or better in five of the last six Premier League seasons, Tottenham Hotspur’s goal is clear: get back into the Champions League. To make that happen, second-year manager Mauricio Pochettino will have to harness a young squad into one that can consistently perform at the same level as England’s best.
“I think when you have a new manager in the first season, there’s always a little bit of a transition period. I think now, we know exactly what he wants from us,” left back Ben Davies told SI.com in Colorado, where Spurs played in the 2015 MLS All-Star Game. “We know exactly how he wants us to play, and I think that’s going to set us in good stead this year. Everyone’s aware of their responsibilities on the field, and that makes a big difference.”
Spurs’ first-team squad boasts an average age of just younger than 25. Harry Kane, who was second in the Premier League behind Sergio Agüero as he equaled Teddy Sheringham, Jurgen Klinsmann and Gareth Bale’s club-record 21 goals last season, just turned 22 the day before the All-Star Game.
Tottenham boasts eight homegrown players from the club’s youth ranks, with whom Pochettino has focused on implementing a high-energy, positive system.
It’s a similar strategy that saw Southampton climb from 15th when he took over in January 2013 to eighth when he left after the following season.
“It’s great for us young players that the manager puts his faith in us and gives us a chance,” said England Under-21 international Eric Dier. “Obviously, when he gives us a chance, we just have to take it.”
Rather than spending big money on veteran players who could push the club over the top, Pochettino put his faith in the hunger and adaptability of those younger players. Whether that kind of strategy can qualify a club for the Champions League when the perennial competitors address immediate needs by opening their bank accounts remains to be seen.
Manchester City spent £52 million on Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph; Arsenal bought Petr Čech for around £11 million; Manchester United added Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian and Memphis Depay for £75 million; and Liverpool bought Roberto Firmino, Nathaniel Clyne and Christian Benteke for £64 million.
Spurs’ most expensive signing was Toby Alderweireld from Atlético Madrid, on which the club spent £11.5 million—money more than recouped on Paulinho’s transfer to Guangzhou Evergrande and Étienne Capoue’s move to Watford.
As a side benefit to taking in more money than it spends, Tottenham creates a more stable environment in which players aren’t constantly subjected to transfer rumors. The one exception, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, 28, now looks set to step at least one more season.
“I think we’ve got a settled squad here now. We’ve got a good 20 or so players, and I think maybe in previous seasons, we didn’t have that strength in depth,” Davies said. “Hopefully, that can play a big part for us in the times where the games become tough and maybe it’s not about the quality of the performance but about the amount of work and effort you have to put in.”
Lloris, the Spurs captain and France’s No. 1, will be a key component if the club is to finally break back into the Champions League after a five-year absence. United signed Sergio Romero from Sampdoria, and Real Madrid bought Kiko Casilla from Espanyol, seemingly ending the reshuffling of goalkeepers around Europe’s top clubs.
“Ever since everyone’s come back, there’s been no doubt about anyone’s future,” Dier said. “It’s a perfect working environment. Everyone’s working towards the same goal.”
Dier, 21, who made England’s preliminary squad for the U-21 European Championship, will likely play in a reserve role, barring injuries. Others, including Kane, Davies (22), Nabil Bentaleb (20), Christian Eriksen (23) and Kyle Walker (25) should be mainstays in important matches in Pochettino’s 4-3-3.
One of the manager’s biggest challenges is getting those less experienced players performing at a consistently high level. Figuring in Europa League action and the injuries that inevitably crop up during a long Premier League season with no winter break, Spurs will have to play well weekly, or twice weekly, regardless of the 11 players on the field in any particular game.
The club’s longest winning streak in 2014-15 spanned three games, which it accomplished twice. Compared to two four-game streaks for Chelsea, six- and seven-game streaks for City, an eight-match run from Arsenal and two six-game winning streaks for United, Tottenham is still a little less reliable. At the same time, Pochettino’s team never lost more than two in a row.
“We have a great group with a lot of young lads who want to go higher and higher and prove themselves, so I think it’s a good challenge for us,” Chadli said. “I think it’s about consistency. We had some very good periods last season. We struggled a bit also in some periods, but I think to be fair, we have a good group and everybody wants to work and to go to Champions League.”
But can Tottenham get it done?
It won’t have to wait long for an important test, coming up against Manchester United at Old Trafford on the first day of the season.
“We’ve got to be confident,” Davies said. “We’ve got to be willing to say that we think we can win. If we go into the game knowing we can play as well as we can, then hopefully we’ll have a shot.”