Commentary

Pochettino adds variety as Spurs embark on busy stretch of games

Players, executives, coaches, managers, fans and pundits all bemoan schedules crammed with games, termed “fixture congestion” in England.

Such burdens are severe tests for all concerned, with fatigue, injury, suspension and attrition stretching the minds and bodies of players and the abilities of coaches and managers. Yet such difficult stretches are also proving grounds for those regulars who back up the starters, and the backups for the backups.

Setting out on a particularly arduous path this weekend is Tottenham, handed seven games in three competitions during a 23-day stretch starting Saturday against West Bromwich Albion. It’s been nearly two weeks since Tottenham inflicted on Manchester City -- winner of its first six league games -- a 2-0 defeat that edged Spurs to within a point of the Premier League leader. A brutal run of games will soon enough bring back pain and exhaustion no matter how refreshed they may feel after the FIFA international break.

Spurs rolled into the break on the momentum of three straight wins (in all competitions) triggered by the implementation of “Plan B” by manager Mauricio Pochettino: a change to a 4-1-4-1 formation from the 4-2-3-1 he had been using. By pressing higher up the field, Spurs are generating more turnovers by their opponents and more chances for themselves. Offseason signing Victor Wanyama played superbly as the lone holding midfielder against Man City, but what will Pochettino do with Eric Dier recovered from a hamstring problem and tougher foes than West Brom on the horizon?

Such questions are precisely why Pochettino took this route in the first place.

“When I was at Espanyol and Southampton, and at the beginning here at Tottenham, when we didn’t take a good result, there were some comments that it was because we didn’t have a plan B,” Pochettino said to The Guardian. “Now, we have a plan B. It is important to try to play in different ways in different games -- always with the same concept and values but with different positions on the pitch. It is good for us and, sometimes, very complicated for the opponent.”

City certainly found the system and ensuing problems complicated, yet after rolling from the start of the season unbeaten and playing a good team away from home right before the break a loss was not unexpected. Pochettino has used the scheme against Middlesbrough, CSKA Moscow, and Man City successfully and knows during the break opponents will have studied its nuances intent on exposing the flaws.

But said foes have rarely seen Mousa Dembele. Hamstring problems and a suspension have limited him to just one start this season, against Sunderland, and an injured foot is probably going to keep him out of the West Brom game. In the Sunderland match, Dembele played in central midfield alongside Wanyama in a 4-2-3-1 and Dier lined up at centerback.

Dier came off the bench against City; otherwise, he’s started every game. Wanyama has played every minute, exceptionally in most cases. The manager has another offseason signing, Moussa Sissoko, adept in the middle or out wide. Defensive mid is not a glamour position, yet Pochettino has taken steps to add candidates – and competitors – for Dier in that slot and also installed a formational change to increase his tactical options.

So when the manager says Dier is not guaranteed a starting place, he’s not necessarily spouting the usual motivational spin. He’s just stating a fact that will soon be borne out as games pile up quickly, with matches at Leverkusen, Liverpool and Arsenal and a home date against defending champion Leicester City included in the next seven. And the first two league games away after the next international break are Chelsea and Manchester United.

“We’ll see what happens, but football is about 25 [players],” Pochettino said. “Maybe last season there was only Dier. This season we want to improve our squad. It’s not a problem. The players need to feel the competition. There is Wanyama in his position, too. And don’t forget Harry Winks, who is coming and pushing a lot from behind. You have to look forward and carry on working.”
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