F365 Says: Poch must jump-start Spurs from their comfort zone

Sometimes you wish Mauricio Pochettino would just cut loose.

In public, he’s often reserved, cautious in his second language and mindful of becoming part of the news cycle. Yet at Watford, he was furious – or at least, he had been. When he arrived at the press conference, his slightly flushed cheeks and cold eyes betrayed the dressing-room atmosphere he’d left behind. He’d been having a shout.

He explained why, too. Tottenham found themselves in the lead at Vicarage Road, after their opponents had literally kicked the ball into their own net, but Pochettino was infuriated by what followed.

The game turned: all the intensity ebbed out of his side and, with the assumption that the game was won, control slipped away. Pochettino spoke of a “lack of respect” and of his team’s need to “earn the right” to be considered a contender.

He was right, too.

Which is why his response to Saturday’s defeat to Liverpool was so strange. He was calm.

Spurs had been considerably worse at Wembley and their shambles of a performance allowed an opponent in third gear to stroll to victory.

Jurgen Klopp has great talent at his disposal, but this wasn’t a simple case of one side out-hitting another or a defeat which could be explained away by wage-spend alone.

Instead, it was an afternoon of self-inflicted wounds – of mistakes, careless and costly, which made Tottenham’s aspirations of an unlikely title look laughable.

Admittedly, there were deeper causes. Nobody could deny that this is a tired squad and that the club made a serious recruiting blunder over the summer, but the combination of the two shouldn’t be allowed to provide a blanket excuse.

Pochettino is publicly aiming for the stars, many of his players harbour lofty ambitions too, and the cost of airing those objectives is to be held to a higher standard.

But life at Tottenham seems easy. The training is difficult and the physical burden is immense, but the sense now is of players who are too comfortable in their positions and a starting XI which isn’t subject to nearly enough competition.

Pochettino likes to rotate, he employs a rotating cast of full-backs and does like to chop and change his midfield, but the meritocratic culture which served him so well in the past has been diluted.

Because of their recent past, criticising these players will always seem unfair.

Regardless, whether they are tired, mentally exhausted or just temporarily out of form, allowing them to become immune from criticism on account of loyalty serves no long-term purpose.
Least of all because, when he first arrived at the club, Pochettino spent most of his first season trying to eradicate that culture.

Admittedly, he also attacked many other issues too, including corrosive cliques and pockets of big-wage entitlement, but he created an environment within which places in the side were never assured.

That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. The volume of mistakes and the repeated patterns within games actually suggest the opposite – a situation, perhaps, where there isn’t enough fear for consequences.

It’s a theory rather than a definitive conclusion, but it is one supported by recent performances and events.

One of the contradictions which lies the heart of Pochettino’s tenure has been the unequal treatment afforded to certain players.

Those who he does not like exist in a one-strike world, in which a single, fleeting challenge to his authority can mean a mandatory change of club.

Conversely, those who he favours walk no such tightrope. Andros Townsend was jettisoned for good following a trivial outburst of frustration, while Hugo Lloris retained his manager’s full backing (and the club captaincy) despite being arrested for drunk driving.

Yes, it’s a false equivalency, and Townsend and Lloris are different players of non-equatable worth, but Pochettino does have his favourites and, again, it’s showing.

Which is why his cool tolerance of this run of form has been so aggravating.

Following the loss to Liverpool, for instance, supporters could have been forgiven for wanting to hear a more withering assessment.

There was some justification in Pochettino’s defence of individual players, but – if ever such a point exists – this was perhaps the moment to ease a few first-teamers under the bus. Not for the sake of destroying confidence or relationships, but to taunt them back towards something approaching their highest level.

This side desperately needs some tension. Some edge. Some anger. Insecurity is corrosive inside a football team, but a dose of vulnerability can often be animating.

It’s a balance, of course, and a tricky one, but there has to be an infusion of energy from somewhere. Daniel Levy hasn’t helped, so it’s time for Pochettino to become creative – to do what he can to jump-start this team and shift them from their comfort zone.

Currently, they are a team at ease, one who – perhaps as a result of attitudes above them – have become too accepting of their place within the game and too quick to submit to their disadvantages.

Liverpool wasn’t a defeat, it was a surrender. Just as Watford had been. Just at Inter Milan would also prove to be.

In fact, the losses at Vicarage Road and in San Siro were eerily similar. On both occasions Pochettino’s side held a lead, on both occasions they had chances to add to it.

Both times, though, they were undone by critical lapses in concentration. On Tuesday evening, Mauro Icardi may have scored a very fine equaliser, but Matias Vecino’s late winner was the sort of goal no side should concede in the Champions League.

Just as had been the case at Vicarage Road, chaotic marking and weak, inattentive minds allowed a basic set-piece to destroy an entire game’s work.

Four times in three games Pochettino’s side have now conceded from a dead-ball situation. It’s damning. It’s also the clearest indication that the emotional tone within this squad is not what it should be.

Tired players make mistakes, but complacent ones make these sorts of errors – and the only cure for that lies in the internal culture itself, because there is no cavalry on the horizon, the January transfer-window promises very little and the presumed boost of the new stadium’s opening remains months away.

Bench a star, promote an academy graduate, re-assert some kind of meritocratic principle. Do something. The broader discussion about Tottenham’s nosedive has to involve the failings which have occurred above and around Pochettino, but for now he must remedy the resulting ailments from within.

Seb Stafford-Bloor