‘Pochettino will make several changes from last weekend’s defeat by Arsenal and Alli could be rested after struggling at the Emirates Stadium,’ read the report in The Times on Tuesday, and journalist Matt Hughes was not alone in being surprised to see a team sheet from Dortmund showing just four changes from the side that lost so flimsily in the north London derby. If anything, this line-up looked stronger, with Serge Aurier and Danny Rose replacing the wing-backs, Harry Winks returning to central midfield and the first sighting of Son Heung-min, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen on the same pitch since the 4-1 demolition of Liverpool. That is quite for the team for a match Tottenham had earned the right to dodge.
This was incredibly strong and decisive management from Pochettino, who resisted the easy – and entirely understandable – option of resting Alli and Kane after their under-par performances against Arsenal. Tottenham could have taken the possible 2-0 defeat, safe in the knowledge that they had already qualified for the group stages, and Pochettino could have thrown up his hands and talked about saving players for a difficult December. And everybody would have nodded, though a headline statistic of ‘four defeats in six’ would start to make this decent campaign look unfairly disastrous.
Instead, the Argentine challenged his players to put things right, to clear up their own mess, to show both the gumption and the guile that was missing at the Emirates. He demanded improvement from his players and also delivered on his side of the bargain, making tactical tweaks that made it easier for his players to perform to their potential. Having made the mistake of moving Davinson Sanchez wide to accommodate Eric Dier in his central defence in London, he swapped them around in Dortmund to fully utilise the Colombian’s pace. But by far the most effective change was the withdrawal of Alli into a deeper role.
As effective as Alli can be in the opposition box as a No. 10, that role comes with its own difficulties – it is far easier to drift out of the game and become anonymous, as it is essentially a reactive position. And the less you have the ball, the more you are are determined to make every touch count, which in Alli’s case leads to failed flicks and first-time passes that look sloppy if it’s the only time he touches the ball in five or six long minutes. Pulled further back into central midfield in Germany, Alli was more involved in general play, building up both rhythm and confidence. His two assists for Tottenham’s goals were his first since September.
Dele Alli's contributions in the last month:
2 goals vs Madrid
2 assists vs Dortmund
MOTM performance against Liverpool
Yet some fans think we would be better off without him in the team.
— . (@TheKaneEra) November 21, 2017
“For me the position he played today he can play easy because of the characteristics of him. He can play behind striker or like a No.8 because he has the quality and talent and capacity to cope with different positions, he has that,” said Pochettino, clearly both elated and relieved that his plan had not just brought victory and the unlikeliest of outcomes – topping the group of death – but a performance that immediately restores confidence after Saturday. A crack could have become a chasm.
From the ominous shadow of ‘four defeats in six’, Pochettino has rescued a ‘three wins in four’ situation that more closely resembles their 8/10 season. There is now a chance that no more difficult questions will be asked until mid-December and a trip to the Etihad.