Mauricio Pochettino demands Spurs find killer instinct as Liverpool await

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David Hytner

Mauricio Pochettino laughed a touch uneasily and made the symbol for a telephone with his thumb and little finger. “If we play in the same way against Liverpool as we did against Watford, rather than take off players, I will be on the phone to say: ‘Houston, we have a problem,’” he said.

The Tottenham manager has had the international break to stew upon the 2-1 loss at Watford and it feels as though it will take more than a redemptive victory over Liverpool at Wembley on Saturday lunchtime to flush it from his system.

Watford hurt him badly, and not only because his team were guilty of switching off twice to concede goals at set pieces and, in the process, throw away a 1-0 lead. Pochettino knew that something was wrong after the breakthrough 3-0 away win over Manchester United in the previous game. He had felt it. The players were a little too self-congratulatory.

Pochettino took steps to address it and he even went public on the eve of the Watford game at his press conference to warn Spurs would “crash” if they bought into the hype that followed Old Trafford.

It made no difference. In Pochettino’s words, his team played the first half “as if it were a testimonial”. He added: “It was like we thought: ‘It is a nice afternoon in Watford, Elton John is in the stands.’ It was like going to Hyde Park with my child.”

The Liverpool game was always going to be big. But when Pochettino offered further detail on those frustrating days before Watford, shining a light on the issue he is obsessed with tackling – that of his squad’s mentality – he made it even bigger.

“After Manchester United, all the signals from the team were that we were going to crash,” Pochettino said. “We cannot talk about winning the Premier League [after Old Trafford] and the job is done. You needed to come in and ask for more training. Of course, I am the guilty one because I saw but I could not change the situation. We weren’t right in the way we prepared and that is why it’s still so painful.

“To win now against Liverpool can change the mood and the perception but if we win, we would then have to win against Brighton next Saturday because you need to be consistent. It’s not to be focused and right in one game and then the job is done. Football is about energy over 10 months.”

Pochettino’s preparations for Liverpool have not been ideal. Like every top manager, he has been unable to work fully with many of his players because of their international commitments. But he has lost Dele Alli to an injury sustained on England duty, which has represented a blow, and it has been possible to detect a degree of friction between Tottenham and the Football Association over the matter.

Then, there has been the Hugo Lloris drink-driving conviction, a distracting episode that has brought a slew of negative headlines. Now that the gory details of just how drunk the captain was have been revealed in court, he faces a challenge to refocus on his football, although that will have to wait. The club say they expect him to be out for “several weeks” with the thigh injury he sustained against United.

“We arrive after two weeks and we didn’t talk too much about Liverpool,” Pochettino told reporters. “You learn today that football is not only what happens on the pitch, it’s many things that happen around and we need to be ready to deal with all these situations that, in the end, affect the result. I am learning a lot.”

The Liverpool game was supposed to have been the first one at the rebuilt White Hart Lane but that hope faded some time ago. The delays on the new stadium have vexed the club and supporters alike and it feels as though no week is complete without rumours of further problems. Tottenham say that they will not move until November, at the earliest. Nobody would be surprised if it turned into the new year.

Pochettino has been beset by issues since the summer, when nine of his most important players reported late for pre-season after their exertions in reaching the final weekend of the World Cup. He maintains that he was relaxed about the club signing nobody during the transfer period (Liverpool, by contrast, spent £156.3m on four new faces), although it is easy to imagine that stance being tested as the schedule intensifies.

 

Pochettino has been without Son Heung-min for the last three matches, after giving him permission to play for South Korea at the Asian Games. The good news was that Son’s team won gold to earn an exemption from military service but the bad is that he has done a lot of travelling and must now battle fatigue. Harry Kane, meanwhile, has also been under the microscope. Has his form dipped? The remorseless questioning is a by-product of his A-list status.

In the face of such a buffeting, Tottenham have made a largely positive start to the season but Pochettino has highlighted the difference between perception and reality on more than one occasion of late, offering the impression that there are problems beneath the surface. Chief among them is what goes on between his players’ ears.

“It is about attitude and saying: ‘We are aggressive and we try to win,’” Pochettino said. “We need to be focused for 95 minutes. If not, if you are disrespectful, you always pay in football. If it is not today, you pay tomorrow.

“To respect the opponent is to score one, two, three, four, five, 10 goals. To not show respect is to think: ‘They are a poor team, we play so slow and 2-0 or 3-0 is enough. Now we wait for the end of the game.’ To show respect for the opponent is to go and kill with every single action. That is how I understand football.”

 

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