Despite spending a fraction of the money of title rivals like Manchester City, Tottenham are expected to challenge for the title…or be branded as failures
There is so much to admire about what Mauricio Pochettino has done at Tottenham Hotspur and the club’s second place finish in the Premier League last season deservedly drew enormous praise. However, the hopes that Spurs could go one better this time round are already in tatters and it is their record away from home against their direct rivals that is now in the spotlight.
Saturday’s 4-1 defeat to table-topping Manchester City, their heaviest since May 2016, was perhaps not so remarkable given the imperious form of Pep Guardiola’s side but did add to a statistic that Tottenham will be desperate to set right.
During Pochettino’s three-year spell in north London, Spurs have won only once in 18 away matches against the established top-six – City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
After running Chelsea close and finishing as runners-up last season, Spurs were eight points better off than Manchester City but Saturday’s defeat leaves Tottenham, 21 points behind the leaders and currently in seventh. The battle now is simply to remain in the Champions League positions.
Pochettino was bullish in his response when the statistic was pointed out after defeat to City: “I think we play 19 teams in the Premier League, no? You see me concerned? Not really. No.
“It’s about how you finish in the league and position in the table.
“Last season we were above Manchester City in the table. This season we are below. Maybe we need to improve our results not only away from home but at home.”
It is worth pointing out that injuries to Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld have denied Pochettino two important first-choice players and that despite this apparently damning statistic are still only three points behind Liverpool in fourth.
Perhaps even more importantly, Tottenham this season have been far better balancing their Champions League commitments and in Europe’s biggest competition, Pochettino’s side have excelled – shrugging off Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund to top their group.
A point not lost on Pochettino: “The expectation was massive during the season, yes we struggled maybe with different competitions but in the Champions League we are doing fantastic. In the Premier League we are not in the position we wanted but we are fighting for the top four.”
City ruthlessly exposed Tottenham on Saturday and Pochettino’s characteristic high-pressing style was negated by Pep Guardiola’s side’s ability to by-pass this and exploit spaces left behind.
Many teams have gone the other way and sat deep only to be picked apart by City and their record suggests no one has yet found a way to stop them but as Harry Kane and Deli Alli looked to press from the front, goalkeeper Ederson’s incredible distribution allowed City to easily combat this.
Might Pochettino have done things differently on reflection? Probably but it still may well have had no impact on the game.
The former Newell’s Old Boys defender was certainly not in the mood to give excuses.
“Look, I don’t want to say anything today. I don’t want to find an excuse. That is football, today the reality was 4-1, they won, they were better and I think they are doing fantastic.
“Of course in football one team can win the Premier and if you are second, third, fourth and going to play the Champions League, it doesn’t matter if you are one point or 20 points away. At the end it’s about the place in the table.”
Despite this unwanted record against their Premier League rivals, Pochettino has already shown enough tactical flexibility to avoid being labelled with some of the criticism that is sometimes leveled at his mentor, Marcelo Bielsa.
The influence is still clear but Pochettino has done enough to suggest that this statistic is not down to some managerial weakness exploited by the league’s best.
After all, two points dropped from a Champions League group that looked on paper like a difficult proposition show Spurs don’t have a problem against world class opposition.
Trophies may still elude this Tottenham side but Pochettino has brought a clear and attractive style of football, carried that across into European competition, provided plenty of chances to youth players and given supporters the best Spurs side in years.
“They [City] are doing so well, they are performing, and for many clubs it will hurt a lot because the gap is massive,” Pochettino lamented.
“But I think we are doing a fantastic job in the last few seasons and the team is doing what it needs to do — learn, improve, step by step, to one day try to be in the place that Manchester City are in today.”
And this could be the problem. Pochettino is still the man to do that but will Tottenham’s finances allow them to challenge the likes of City? The new stadium paves the way for a brighter future but in the short-term while Spurs are not able to spend the type of money their rivals are, or pay the salaries, is a title challenge that realistic?