How could Mauricio Pochettino – former clubs Espanyol and Southampton, zero trophies – ever be an inspiration to Pep Guardiola –former clubs Barcelona and Bayern Munich, 21 trophies?
It’s because Pochettino is in the process of transforming Tottenham into the Premier League’s most formidable and promising team - in a manner that could well serve as a template for the Manchester City manager.
Guardiola appears to be adapting his football to the peculiarities of the British game – as his two-and-a-half-hour training sessions of second balls would confirm – and if he needs an example of how to better integrate then he would do well to consider the successes of the former Argentina defender.
Tottenham were sixth in 2013-14 when Pochettino replaced Tim Sherwood; a mix of continuity and progressiveness has gradually improved the club in all aspects since then. Spurs are a team with backbone; a team who take the initiative, a team who can find consistent results against title-chasing teams and the best of the rest alike. The same currently could not be said about City.
Eight of the squad which featured for Andre Villas-Boas in 2013-14 are still key players for Pochettino; the ones who proved hungry and adaptable enough for his demands. Hugo Lloris, Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Harry Kane were all at the club before Pochettino arrived from Southampton. That is a remarkably stable group – especially for a club like Spurs who have been periodically picked off for their best players by top clubs in the recent past. It is interesting to note that reports are currently linking City with moves for Spurs' full-backs Walker and Rose.
The ones who couldn’t hack it or proved bad fits have been discarded. Pochettino has pared the Spurs squad right back – indeed one of the chief criticisms he faces is a reliance on the same core group to carry him through a season. There are echoes of Guardiola here and his preference to work with as small a group as possible - and the Argentine has won strong praise from his opposite number.
“They press very high, dominate many things on the pitch. They are one of the best teams in the Premier League," Guardiola explained.
“Tottenham are a good team,” he stated. “They are really playing good. As a fan of football, I love to see them. They are brilliant. It is the third season there; they play how he wants."
Guardiola is still attempting to impart his own message to certain City players who appear destined to have no future. Perhaps an overrating of his own coaching abilities led Guardiola to believe he could get the same kind of football out of the likes of Aleksandr Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Jesus Navas that he could get out of Gerard Pique, Philipp Lahm and Pedro Rodriguez.
Pochettino seems to have initially recognised – and continues to do so – that only certain types fit the bill. He has had very few – if any – blind spots in his preferred XI since arriving at Spurs whereas it baffles certain observers to see Guardiola persist with square pegs in round holes. Sure there have been some transfer-duds along the way for Spurs – Vincent Janssen and Mousa Sissoko are in the process of being judged that way – but signings like first-team stalwarts Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier and Dele Alli have been nothing short of masterstrokes.
Alderweireld – in particular – was an astute signing. Only four clubs conceded more goals than Tottenham during Pochettino’s first Premier League season with the club and that is why the Belgian – a real defender – was summoned. Guardiola’s disinclination to protect a clean sheet would appear to fly in the face of this logic.
The best victory of all – the blooding of Harry Kane – also typifies a lost art of the original Guardiola management formula. Aside from a few minutes here and there, Pep has not brought through the City youngsters in his first season like he did at Barcelona.
Pochettino was not fazed as he entrusted the raw young Kane with the chief striking position during his first season at White Hart Lane. Kane has grasped the opportunity – as have fellow youngsters Dier and Alli – to give Spurs the ideal mix between youth, experience and his presence gives a sense of identification between the supporters and one of their own on the field.
That core has been solidified over the course of the past couple of seasons with contract extensions offered to all key performers since the start of this campaign. There is certainty about the players who Pochettino deems necessary to move Tottenham onward to their new future and their new stadium. Right now it looks like Guardiola could change nine or 10 of his first team such has been the confusion and lack of clarity in their play. There is a clear Tottenham identity and on their day they play better, more effective football than anyone in the Premier League.
With some of the best native talent in the country and a title challenge in the offing Pochettino is at a place nearly three years into his Spurs reign that Guardiola would happily accept for himself by that stage. The only thing that Pochettino lacks is tangible on-field success. It won’t do if Spurs are contenders and never winners. And that’s where Pochettino still has plenty to learn from Pep.