Tottenham’s slim title hopes were all but ended in a 2-0 loss to Liverpool on Saturday. For all his good work, Mauricio Pochettino should shoulder the blame.
Before the weekend’s fixtures, perhaps only Tottenham Hotspur could lay claim to genuine title hopes. After Arsenal lost to Chelsea the previous week and Liverpool failed to replicate their 2016 form as soon as the New Year came, only Spurs were within double-digit points of the Blues and even then, they languished nine points off the pace and were shrouded in doubts regarding their squad depth given substantial injuries in key positions.
Nonetheless, Spurs were a challenger, however faint. Or at least that was until Mauricio Pochettino got in his own way.
The Argentine has been lauded with praise regarding the impressive job he has done at White Hart Lane. Investing wisely in the transfer market, nurturing youth and also improving players already within the confounds of the North London club, Pochettino has brought a semblance of consistency and stability to a team that, while enjoying relative success under a variety of managers, always had the feel that it was closer to calamity than contentment.
But while he is deserving of recognition and reverence, he should not be exempt from critique. The 2-0 loss to Liverpool on Saturday was a prime example of where the usually tactically astute Pochettino became a little too cute, getting in his and his team’s way.
Jurgen Klopp’s team have struggled to unpick diligent and disciplined defences of late. Rory Smith of the New York Times stated on twitter after the FA Cup loss to Wolves that they lacked a player with nous and guile to engineer opportunities in a tightly-packed final third. While I don’t wholly agree with him, his point still carries some weight pertaining to the attacking deficiencies of the Merseysiders; they rely on their pace and their intensity to overawe the opposition.
Such an approach, though, often requires space, something that opposing teams have not been willing to give them. Then Spurs rocked up to Anfield. High on confidence after winning seven of their last nine Premier League games, unbeaten in all of them, scoring 22 goals and conceding just five, including an impressive 2-0 victory over Chelsea, Pochettino, rather than stick with the style that many lesser sides have utilised against Liverpool, decided to press high up the pitch, attempting to exploit his own side’s usually superior power, pace and overall athleticism.
The tactic played straight into hands of their hosts. Liverpool, in a blistering first half display, scored twice in two minutes and could have had more if not for some wasteful attacking play at crucial moments. Personnel restrictions did dictate Pochettino’s selection to an extent. No Jan Vertonghen at centre-half and no Danny Rose at left-back limited his trust in his defence if a soak-up-the-pressure approach was implemented.
Nevertheless, to play in a way that enhances the primary strength of your opponent, especially an opponent as dangerous as Liverpool, is foolish, naive and ultimately costly.
Now Spurs have slipped behind Manchester City and are just a point ahead of the team that gave them the run-around at the weekend. Pochettino got cute and it didn’t work. For all his excellent work at the Lane, there is still room for improvement, for both him and his team.