Following the almost non-stop turmoil of last season, Tottenham’s 2014/15 pre-season has been notable for its lack of headlines. Aside from a well publicized attempt to snatch Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton, Spurs have just made a couple of low profile acquisitions in Swansea’s Ben Davies and Michael Vorm and future prospect Eric Dier from Sporting Lisbon.
Often such sedate transfer activity will cause frenzy amongst fans hungry for high profile signings and new blood, but this summer things are a little different. The club and the manager have made it clear that they don’t intend to repeat last summer’s mistakes (i.e. bring in multiple big names with no Premier League experience), but would rather work with the players already at the club. Rather than transfers, the focus would be on building a team in pre-season with the right attitude and a coherent style of play.
Perhaps this is just Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy’s way of spinning his parsimony (lest we forget, despite all the spending Tottenham actually made money from transfers last summer) but this time it does seem to make sense and the pre-season results have been promising.
Most regular Tottenham watchers will know deep down that despite Gareth Bale’s heroics in the 2012/13 season, the team hasn’t really looked fluid going forward since the Harry Redknapp days. Andre Villas-Boas’ systems never quite seemed to get the best out of the team and Tim Sherwood seemed unsure of exactly what he wanted to do, tinkering repeatedly over his short stint in charge.
Pochettino, by contrast, appears to have already created a clear style of play during pre-season. Utilizing a high press and fluid attacking movement, the difference between Tottenham last season and Tottenham in pre-season has been remarkable. Last season, central midfielders would often look isolated from attacking players leading to endless sideways passes to the flanks and little of the fabled “verticality”.
In pre-season, when Spurs have gone forward, players in possession always seem to have a couple of options ahead of them and the team are attacking with greater speed and less predictability, a handy combination.
It is, of course, just pre-season and there is every chance that Spurs will not be able to replicate their pre-season form once the Premier League season begins. Plenty of questions also remain at least from the perspective of an outside observer.
Who will partner Etienne Capoue in central midfield and what lies ahead for the others?
Etienne Capoue barely featured for Tottenham last season following his move from Toulouse last summer. The imposing defensive midfielder was stricken by injury, and then appeared to fall out of favor with interim manager Tim Sherwood. In pre-season the Frenchman has been an ever-present. Capoue is not blessed with immense speed or agility but instead uses his strength, length and ability to read the game to shutdown attacks. He is also an adept passer of the ball with a particular knack for playing vertical, central passes to more attacking midfielders. With Sandro still struggling for fitness and form, Capoue seems close to a lock to start as the deepest lying midfielder in Pochettino’s favoured 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation.
The big question is who will line up alongside Capoue when the season kicks off in two weeks time? Thus far Pochettino has plumped for younger players such as Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb, Tom Carroll and Lewis Holtby. This suggests that Pochettino wants a nimble, tenacious, quick passer alongside Capoue rather than a bigger, destroyer or box to box type player. Pre-season form would suggest that Mason and Bentaleb are front runners to start against West Ham. This could spell trouble for the likes of Moussa Dembele and Paulinho in particular. Neither is particularly nimble or quick to spot a pass. The archetypal player in this role is perhaps Tottenham transfer target Morgan Schneiderlin though his high price tag may make Pochettino think twice. Whoever Capoue’s partner is, that player will have a vital role in connecting Tottenham’s central midfield with the attack, an area where Tottenham struggled mightily last season.
Is a striking group of Soldado, Adebayor and Kane enough to work with?
Tottenham haven’t really had a reliable, top-class striker since Dimitar Berbatov left the club in 2008 and last season was no different. Spurs spent big money signing Roberto Soldado, but the Spaniard was out of sorts all season and ended up with just two goals from open play in the Premier League. The second half of the season was characterized by the reemergence of Emmanuel Adebayor following a reported bust up with Villas-Boas. Sherwood reinstated the Togo striker to the starting lineup to great effect, but Adebayor still tailed off significantly towards the end of the season and doubts remain about his reliability. Youngster Harry Kane has showed glimpses of his potential at various points last season but he is still developing as a player and it remains unclear exactly where his best position is.
This leaves Pochettino in a bit of a quandary. On paper, Adebayor and Soldado competing for a lone striker position with Harry Kane backing up doesn’t look too bad. Two high profile strikers backed up by a young, promising player seems a good mix. But when the high profile players cannot be relied upon for goals and form, it creates a problem. Does Pochettino sign a Wilfried Bony type and risk antagonizing Soldado and Adebayor? Or does Pochettino see if the three strikers at his disposal can find form in a rejuvenated system? At present, links to strikers seem to be lukewarm so perhaps Pochettino will wait and see then test the transfer waters, if necessary, in the winter window.
Who will be Vertonghen’s partner at centre back?
After a decent season under Villas-Boas in 2012/13, Tottenham’s defensive line endured a nightmare last season. Younes Kaboul continued to struggle with injury and Jan Vertonghen found himself at left back on multiple occasions under AVB and then seemed out of sorts for the rest of the season. Michael Dawson seemed to lose another step of pace making him a liability in the face of pacy strikers like Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez. Vlad Chiriches was probably the best of the bunch, however, he too struggled with injury and showed a tendency to take too many risks at the back.
It appears that Vertonghen will be retained this season despite supposed interest from Barcelona and the Belgian will most likely start at center back. Who will be alongside him is, at present, anybody’s guess. Kaboul still looks unfit having struggled with injury for most of the past two seasons. Dawson’s days as a top tier center back appear numbered and Chiriches has played no part in pre-season due to injury (or perhaps an intention to sell). Tottenham purchased a promising young prospect in Eric Dier but it would be asking a lot for the 20 year old to fill in straight away. At present, the most likely partner for Vertonghen is probably a player that has not yet signed for Spurs: Villareal’s Mateo Musacchio. The Argentine looks a solid, skillful player and has received rave reviews in La Liga. Yet, should he move to Spurs (recent reports suggest the move is pretty complicated), it will nevertheless be tough for Musacchio to quickly build a solid partnership with Vertonghen having not had any pre-season with Spurs or any previous Premier League experience. Pochettino worked wonders with Jose Fonte and Dejan Lovren at Southampton last season and he may have to work his magic once again as Spurs’ back line remains unconvincing for now.
Who will be captain?
Since the retirement of Ledley King, Tottenham have lacked a bona fide captain figure – a player who is reliable, a good communicator and able to inspire the team. Michael Dawson has done an admirable job but he has never looked entirely comfortable as a captain, perhaps because his position in the starting lineup has often been precarious. Whether Dawson stays or goes, the time seems right for a new captain at White Hart Lane.
The logical choice would be Hugo Lloris, captain of France and a constant presence in the Tottenham starting lineup, particularly as he has just signed a new five year contract. The only downside may be that, not being an outfield player, he may not have quite the same influence on the pitch as a center back or a midfielder. If Pochettino decides that he wants an outfield player as captain the only other option really is Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen’s attitude was criticized at times last season as his concentration went walkabout on occasion as well as making his dissatisfaction with playing left back very public. Yet he is the only real guaranteed starter in the team (should he stay) aside from Kyle Walker who does not seem ready to be captain. Whomever Pochettino decides to choose, the captain will need to be a player who plays regularly, can inspire his teammates and keep heads up when things aren’t going to plan.
Will Eriksen start?
Tottenham were roundly derided for their transfer activity last summer with Lamela and Soldado coming in for the most stick. One player though managed to outperform his transfer fee and that was Christian Eriksen. In the second half of the season, the highly rated Dane was the focus of almost all of Tottenham’s attacking play. With his radar vision and sumptuous free kicks, he quickly became a White Hart Lane favorite and was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season.
There is however a suspicion that Eriksen might not quite fit into Pochettino’s system. Pochettino’s high press is key to the style he wants Spurs to play and, for all his qualities, pressing is not something Eriksen does particularly well. This presents a problem for Pochettino as Eriksen is clearly a phenomenal attacking talent. Pochettino will most likely try and work Eriksen into the starting 11 and try to improve his pressing but there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that Eriksen’s defensive shortcomings will mean he is not an automatic starter. It would have seemed unfathomable for Eriksen not to start at the end of last season but Pochettino is known to be a hard taskmaster. It would not be a total surprise if last season’s revelation finds himself in the same position as Juan Mata at Chelsea before his move to Manchester United.