Remarkably, Tottenham Hotspur’s game against Leicester City at White Hart Lane is a battle between two teams in contention for a Champions League spot — thanks largely to their respective managers in Mauricio Pochettino and Claudio Ranieri
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With Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Manchester United struggling for consistency this season, a huge opportunity has opened up for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City to finish in the top four and consequently qualify for the UEFA Champions League for next season.
While Ranieri’s Foxes have already reached their goal of 40 points this season — something the Italian insisted was the aim even when they were on 39 points — Spurs have started to build some real momentum going into the second half of the campaign.
The two sides clashed in the FA Cup 3rd round over the weekend, and the 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane in that game means that Mauricio Pochettino will face Claudio Ranieri four times in total this season. Thus far, the sides have cancelled each other out in each game, but the third battle between the Premier League’s top two managers this season is likely to throw up more talking points.
Pochettino has breathed new life into Tottenham
“Lads, it’s Tottenham.” Sir Alex Ferguson’s typically pithy quip was his entire team-talk ahead of one meeting between Manchester United and Spurs, and it beautifully sums up how the North London side have been perceived in recent years. Although they had a brief period of success under Harry Redknapp, the departure of Gareth Bale among other stars meant they never stood a chance to sustain it.
Gary Neville’s scathing assessment of Tottenham on Monday Night Football as a ‘weak team’ — with respect to their mentality more than anything else — was essentially a more verbose version of his manager’s team-talk. The former Manchester United defender suggested that Pochettino would have to change the mentality around the club and its players.
This season, there have been signs that the Argentine is doing just that. As such, his work at White Hart Lane cannot be overstated. In contrast to the team that was heavily reliant on Gareth Bale, Pochettino is putting together a young, fit, technically brilliant and tactically astute unit — one that does not depend on the individual brilliance of a single player — that has already pulled off some big wins against some of the better teams in the Premier League.
The marriage of work-rate and creativity has given birth to an exciting brand of football that makes Tottenham one of the most watch-able sides in the league. Pochettino’s trust in younger players is remarkable, but is also a testament to his coaching ability. The former Southampton boss has been able to ensure that the likes of Eric Dier and Dele Alli among others have met his exacting standards, and in doing so, the players have developed greatly as footballers.
Arguably Pochettino’s greatest achievement this season, however, is that he has managed to bring about a change in the way Spurs are perceived. The tags of perennial chokers and mentally-weak pushovers have slowly been shed, and Tottenham are now rightly seen as a resilient side that can mix it up with the best in the division, while being consistent when facing sides from the bottom half.
Of course, the job is far from done, and Pochettino now has to make sure his side’s hard work on the pitch translates to a Top 4 finish come the end of the season. However, if the season so far is any indication, that is well within Tottenham’s reach. As for Pochettino, the unanimous praise he has received has been second to only one other manager in England’s top flight — Claudio Ranieri.
Ranieri’s Leicester notably different to Spurs, but just as effective
In terms of playing styles, there are some obvious similarities between Tottenham and Leicester. Both teams cover a lot of ground, press relentlessly high up the pitch, and are very effective on the counter-attack. However, Claudio Ranieri’s genius this season has been to take advantage of the strongest attributes of his key players.
They key difference between the sides is that Tottenham are much more of a ‘team’ compared to Leicester, who despite their collective effort would not be second in the league without the individual qualities of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. Ranieri does not have quality all over the pitch as Pochettino does, but by sticking to the basics and being consistent at it, the former Chelsea boss has managed to catapult his side to the top of the Premier League table.
Given many predicted Leicester to be relegated, the season they have had is all the more remarkable. Most saliently, it highlights how important it is for a team to have a clear identity, which can only come with continuity.
While Liverpool have had a managerial change midway through the season and consequently a change in the style of play, Manchester United have struggled to find a balance between attack and defence, and have ended up doing neither particularly well. Chelsea have failed to replicate their expansive football of the previous season, and their attempts to do so have left an ageing, slow defence exposed.
Perhaps it’s not entirely co-incidental that Arsenal, Leicester and Manchester City — sides who know exactly what they’re about — are the three top teams in the Premier League. Leicester City have been the best counter-attacking team in the league, and have been ruthlessly efficient on the break. So much so, in fact, that they have managed to score from counter-attacks despite teams preparing expressly to try and prevent that from happening. Just ask Louis van Gaal.
Ranieri has adapted to the players he had at his disposal, and in doing so, has managed to bring out the best in them. The camaraderie and togetherness within the squad is almost tangible in every game they play, and their collective effort all over the pitch — thanks in particular to unsung heroes like N’golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater — has provided the platform for the artistic Riyah Mahrez to express his creativity and flair.
The counter-attacking style of football has also meant that Jamie Vardy has benefited greatly. The England international’s strongest attribute is his ability to get in behind the back four and finish off chances, and that is precisely what he has done time and again this season.
Ranieri has simply focussed on the basics this season, and has managed to achieve great success doing it.
The clash against Tottenham Hotspur, then, promises to be a hugely entertaining affair, and regardless of what happens on Wednesday, it will be the top two managers of the league this season shaking hands at the full-time whistle.
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