Leader inspires fierce spirit of togetherness

Dele Alli and his Tottenham Hotspur team-mates being made to work their socks off during one of manager Mauricio Pochettino's hugely demanding training sessions at the club's Enfield training ground. The outstanding form of the teenager has been a hi
Dele Alli and his Tottenham Hotspur team-mates being made to work their socks off during one of manager Mauricio Pochettino's hugely demanding training sessions at the club's Enfield training ground. The outstanding form of the teenager has been a highlight of Spurs' season.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Pochettino has built on camaraderie as Spurs share common aims, both on and off the pitch

LONDON • Board games and magazines; ketchup and Coke.

The players' area at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground looks more like a high-school common room than the nerve centre of an elite English Premier League football club, but the atmosphere of relaxed endeavour goes a long way towards explaining their success.

Manager Mauricio Pochettino treats his players as intelligent, young adults - and they are responding as academic high-flyers would to an inspirational teacher.

"Like lions, this is what all managers want and expect from their players, to feel and play," he enthused.

Given its retro contents, the players' room described above could easily have been a scene from the 1980s, the previous time that Tottenham were in such a promising position.

  • £30,000
    The weekly wages of Tottenham's lowest-paid player Dele Alli, who is the best performer this season with seven goals and six assists. Spurs do not pay a disproportionate salary to any player, helping enhance camaraderie.

Being second in the table with 13 games to go before today's trip to Manchester City is Tottenham's highest league position at this stage of the season since 1985, although that omen is not a happy one because Peter Shreeves' side finished third, 13 points behind Everton, the runaway champions.

Tottenham have not finished second since 1963, two years after becoming the first club to win the Double in the 20th century.

The London club, though, are not seeking to turn back time - and there is growing evidence that in Pochettino they have a man capable of engineering a great leap forward.

The Argentinian has a clear philosophy of giving his players freedom within a set tactical and cultural framework, all underpinned by a commitment to youth.

The players can drink Coke and have ketchup if they like, but many of them choose not to.

Pochettino's preference for young players is crucial in two respects, because they have the physical capabilities to implement the manager's high-octane pressing game and are also more malleable.

While he gives them freedom off the pitch, his training sessions are hugely demanding in terms of their length, intensity and the sheer amount of detail that the players are expected to take on board.

For visitors to Tottenham's Enfield training base, it is not unusual to see Pochettino physically moving his players around the pitch as they are repeatedly drilled in what to do and where to move in every conceivable circumstance.

Every player is indoctrinated, each idea entrenched, with the result that their movements become second nature and are automatically put into practice in matches.

Watching Tottenham play resembles a cross between a crack army unit on manoeuvres and a world-class dance troupe.

While there is clearly room for improvisation and expression, many of the players appear to be on autopilot, and it works. Like clockwork.

Another Pochettino non-negotiable is absolute unity of purpose, which he has managed to instil quite easily into the squad.

Much of the chemistry in a largely young group has occurred naturally, but Pochettino has also helped with initiatives such as last month's training camp in Barcelona, which was viewed as a masterstroke by the players.

The easy camaraderie that was evident to Catalans as they strolled down Las Ramblas has brought rewards on the pitch, with Tottenham's team spirit shown by them garnering 14 points from losing positions this season, the highest in the Premier League.

Tottenham's strict wage structure has also helped to enhance the esprit de corps because none of the players is on a disproportionate salary after the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor.

Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is the club's highest-paid player on £80,000 (S$162,000) a week but most of the rest of the squad earn £40,000 to £70,000 a week.

Ironically, the lowest-paid player has been their best performer this season, with Dele Alli's new contract worth £30,000 a week.

And the sense of togetherness in the squad is shown by the enthusiasm with which they have taken to Catan, the multi-player board game introduced to the squad by the Belgian players.

Pochettino has also introduced certain specific tactical changes this season, most obviously the use of Alli as a No. 10 - with the 19-year-old contributing seven goals and six assists - and Eric Dier to protect the back four.

Meanwhile, his almost constant rotation of his full-backs, preserving their energy levels, has also made a huge difference to their defensive solidity.

Tottenham conceded 53 goals in 38 games last season, but have let in 19 goals in 25 matches so far, their lowest total at this stage since 1935.

As a result, their goal difference - plus 26 - is the best in the Premier League, which could play a vital role in deciding the title.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'LEADER INSPIRES FIERCE SPIRIT OF TOGETHERNESS'. Print Edition | Subscribe