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Sam Marlow writes about the philosophy motivating the signing of Georges-Kevin N’Koudou by Pochettino at Tottenham.
Pochettino is moulding Tottenham in his image, building a side founded on intensity, pressing and the energetic overloading of the central areas. However, the mainstream media outlets and fans alike, have both been questioning if Spurs have been departing from this philosophy after the catastrophic end to last season. Tottenham signed Janssen, Wanyama, Sissoko, Lopez and N’Koudou in the summer, and it will be very interesting to see the latest evolution of Pochettino’s team and what he has learnt over the summer.
Georges-Kévin N’Koudou, generally unknown in England was signed from Marseilles, making 28 league appearances and scoring 5 goals last season. In a league not renowned for competitiveness and the intense football found in the Premier League, it would seem strange for Mauricio Pochettino to take such a gamble on N’Koudou. This is where the pieces Tottenham’s footballing identity puzzle strangely start to fit together.
It has been well documented that the defining influence on Pochettino’s career was Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa’s template for a successful team relies heavily on youngsters, one of whom was Mauricio Pochettino at Newell’s in Argentina in the early 1990s. 25 years later, Bielsa managed N’Koudou at Marseilles. One would assume that Bielsa will have been consulted before the signing of the Frenchman. This signing makes more sense, the deeper you look into the history of Pochettino and Bielsa.
Claudio Vivas, who was a colleague of Bielsa in Argentina and in Spain said: “I’m quite sure Bielsa will always be a reference point for Pochettino. When Mauricio stopped playing in 2008, he joined Marcelo at the Under-21 tournament in Toulon with Chile, when Bielsa was then working with the new generation of players. Mauricio was able to see Bielsa’s methods directly as he was about to become a manager himself. I like Mauricio’s Tottenham. They are aggressive, effective, treat the ball well and are ready to take advantage of pressing in small spaces. Tottenham represent this kind of football, fast-paced and defined by collective pressing.”
Bielsa’s standard set up is a 3-3-3-1 formation, which is different to how Spurs have set up under Pochettino although the principles are much the same. Eric Dier has shifted into a half-back midfielder, acting like a limited libero, whilst Alderweireld and Vertonghen have formed a solid partnership just behind. Dembele and Alli are not by any means traditional central midfielders, having the freedom to drive attacks from deep in the knowledge Dier will maintain defensive security should Tottenham lose the ball. This is what facilitates the vertical and direct attacks through the central channels (lateral-volantes), something which has defined how Pochettino’s teams have played.
What both Bielsa and Pochettino aim to do, is control the centre of the pitch. The way the Argentinian sets Spurs up involves Dier, Alli and Dembele as the standard central midfielders, complemented by Lamela and Eriksen acting as inside forwards. Both Lamela and Eriksen regularly drift to the number 10 role, congesting the central channels, whilst Rose and Walker stretch the play out wide.
Returning to the question of N’Koudou, who on first appearances seems a more traditional winger, Pochettino will struggle to find a way to fit him into this system. What Pochettino has complained about so far this season is Tottenham’s lack of penetration, pace and aggression. After the Liverpool game, he lamented the fact Spurs lack a player like Mane, hinting at Eriksen’s shortcomings as a direct attacking force. Eriksen was dropped against Sunderland replaced by Sissoko, whilst N’Koudou is yet to feature in the Premier League.
The Bielsa blueprint is there, and the next step for Spurs is to deliver the penetrative, swashbuckling football which they have so far failed to deliver this season. Pochettino’s challenge is to balance this attacking firepower with control. The signing of Wanyama, N’Koudou and Sissoko starts to make sense if you look at Tottenham’s plans through the lens of a Bielsa-style team.
In danger of great oversimplification, the general shared principle of both Argentinians is that “running is everything”. Bielsa is renowned for overworking his teams to the point of exhaustion, leading to tail offs at the end of the season. This will make uncomfortable reading for Spurs fans who will undoubtedly remember the final weeks of Tottenham’s season last year. Pochettino’s first action when he joined from Southampton was to implement double training sessions, much in the image of how Bielsa operates.
The 4 principles which Bielsa looks for in a player to fit his system are concentration, perpetual focus, flexibility and improvisation (concentración, permanente movilidad, rotación y repenitización). If Bielsa has recommended N’Koudou to Pochettino, it is undoubtedly the fact that he will possess these characteristics.
Looking at N’Koudou’s time in France, he mainly featured as a winger. Spurs fans questioned the reasons behind this deal when Clinton N’Jie appears to be much the same sort of player. The ruthless nature in which Spurs have shifted on Chadli, Mason, Pritchard, Fazio and Bentaleb shows the way Pochettino thinks about his players. All of these players are undoubtedly talented but they also lack the characteristics that make up the profile of a player as described above.
After the Monaco defeat, Pochettino sounded angry and at times indignant at the way his players performed. He spoke about his own difficulties in motivating the players and referenced multiple times the lack of passion and aggression. This was refreshing to see when at times the modern football manager remains clinical and scientific when talking about football. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Pochettino sounded more like Tim Sherwood than Andre Villas-Boas.
Bielsa once said: “If players weren’t humans, I’d never lose.” Pochettino seems to be getting to grips with the human side of football where his predecessors have failed. In the past year, Rose, Eriksen, Dier, Kane, Alli and Walker have all signed new long term contracts which is clearly indicative of the positive atmosphere and collective spirit at the club. Over the coming weeks and months, we will begin to see the latest evolution in Tottenham’s philosophy as Pochettino builds a team which will be closer to the Bielsa ideals he has revered for so long.