Mauricio Pochettino’s disregard for the Carabao Cup may have spared Tottenham players another medicinal dose of Robbie Williams.
It’s what Pochettino does, when he fears his team has forgotten everything he needs them to believe in.
“I play them the video for Love My Life by Robbie Williams, a song that sums it all up. It’s a hymn to feeling empowered, loving life and being at oneself. It is where it all starts.”
It is possible to love life too much when 2-0 up against West Ham, so Pochettino may give the lads a break ahead of the visit to Old Trafford at lunchtime.
The recent games that matter — the draw at Real Madrid and hammering of Liverpool — have alerted everybody to Spurs again. Graeme Souness has decided they are the most realistic threat to Manchester City and are the best Tottenham team in his time in football.
“There’s something about them,” diagnosed Souey this week, with his customary flair for specifics.
It will likely take more than Fergie’s famous dismissive three-word team talk — ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’ — to see them off today.
So, this is the perfect time — or maybe the worst time — for Pochettino to launch Brave New World, a diary of his life in football, chiefly covering last season — probably the most enjoyable football diary since Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game?.
Of course, there is care for his brand. Pochettino reminds us what he was up against. He tells us Spurs “used to be a side without any real battling spirit”. When he arrived there was one senior player who just didn’t do Mondays. And after they lost that first League Cup final to Chelsea, another player mockingly sung Jose Mourinho’s name.
But otherwise Brave New World is an intriguing battle of contradictions, down to the football Pochettino wants his team to play: “controlled disorder”.
Even if he doesn’t give Robbie another spin this morning, he will expect his players to go out at Old Trafford feeling they are powerful, beautiful, and free — as long as that doesn’t interfere with their coordinated pressing.
Pochettino believes he has always been able to detect a “universal energy”, an aura that accompanies people, “which gives lots of information about them”. He was “engulfed” by Fergie’s aura when they met for dinner.
“I believe there is a science behind it,” he says. Though the scientists would likely tell you otherwise, which may explain why Pochettino sometimes becomes frustrated and wonders if he’s on the right track at all.
He walks around the Tottenham training ground watching the under-10s play and comparing their demeanour to his own players, studying the expressions on their faces in film of training.
It is a recurring theme; his need, after setbacks, to remind his players they once played for fun.
“It can have miraculous effects because, after reminding them that this is not a job but something they used to love, it takes players deep into their consciences and they each go back to a certain point in their past.
“You don’t know exactly where — they may remember playing with their father, friends, or starting out in Denmark or Argentina — but it takes you to a reunion with a younger version of yourself; the kid who loved football and the person you are now become one again. When that happens and they go back out to train, they’re enjoying themselves again, laughing, running around and making a momentous effort.”
Of course, the demands he makes — the triple sessions, the ‘Gacon Test’ 150m shuttle runs, the long clinics on pressing — make it easy for players to forget why they once loved playing football.
But Pochettino’s biggest existential battle appears to be with the emotional investment his methods require.
“There is no separation between tactics and emotions,” he insists.
He punched a television after last season’s defeat by Monaco, a game Spurs lost “because of a failure to show passion and excitement at playing in the Champions League.” He is proud of the disciplinary meltdown in the 2-2 draw with Chelsea that put paid to their 2016 title challenge.
A Malaysian lawyer he met told him it showed how much it hurt the players not to win, marking a significant change in the club’s modern history. He flew the man to the training ground to tell the players.
Dejan Lovren — who probably needs to reconnect with a time when he loved football — pops up with a watch as a present for his “footballing father”. Luke Shaw, seemingly forever struggling with dietary issues, tells how Pochettino fed him vegetable smoothies in his office, told him he loved him and called him his son.
Though sometimes Pochettino wonders if a more aloof approach would be more sustainable.
“Is it a good idea to establish deep emotional connections with the players? Is there another way to get the best out of them?” He notes the bitter irony of his emotional detachment from his own family. He has lost touch with his father. And has the “worst possible relationship” with his brothers.
And if Pochettino loves his players so much, why write a book now, breaking the dressing room omertà?
He doesn’t exactly know.
“Maybe it’s a good time to reflect on where I come from and try to piece together the puzzle of what I’ve been and what I am.” In fairness, Brave New World isn’t quite as frank as Only a Game?.
Nobody is called a spoofer. Kyle Walker’s attitude is questioned, but he has left. Young winger Georges-Kévin N’Koudou, driving a flash new car on his first day, is told “he has to show his value”.
And Poch puts a little distance between himself and Moussa Sissoko.
“I think Daniel (Levy)’s thought process was, ‘he’s a good player, but Mauricio will make him better’. We’ll see.”
But there’s not much a player could object to, or won’t have heard to his face. There are hints of the Brentian self-regard that affect some managers who nearly win the Premier League.
Poch feels he may have been a samurai in a past life. But a thread of self-awareness pulls him back from the edge.
“If I’m honest, I feel some of the things I’ve written in this diary do verge on arrogance, on the egotism that can be all-consuming. And the idea of drifting over to the dark side worries me.”
He worries, seemingly daily, about the dark side claiming Eric Dier and Dele Alli. “Praise can cause confusion.”
Much of it comes from his own regrets. His great coaching influence, Marcelo Bielsa, took Pochettino off after five minutes of a trial game for Newell’s Old Boys because he had seen enough and liked what he saw.
Six years later, Bielsa took over at Espanyol and found a different Poch, a player lost in his comfort zone.
After some slackness at training, Bielsa called him in. “It confirms to me just what you’ve become.” It jolted Pochettino back into the Argentina team.
Early on at Spurs, Pochettino had a similar talk with Harry Kane, who may well be the love of his life.
Kane may have always looked and acted like a 30-year-old, but, at 21, Pochettino said he also had the habits of a 30-year-old, “the type that has been around the block”, who was already disappointed with how things had turned out.
Pochettino told Kane how he had cried the day Bielsa told him those home truths. We don’t hear if Harry cried but Pochettino now describes him as “the best player in the world in terms of mental strength, willpower and endeavour”.
He won’t have the hamstrung Kane today and he will worry, as he did after the bad defeat at Anfield last season, that Spurs “can only compete with the best if we are firing on all cylinders”.
If they are fully emotionally invested. He is still piecing together that puzzle.
“Do we have what it takes or not? Are we in it to win? Do we really want it? Are we the wolves or the dogs?”
They forget quickly. The need to hear Robbie Williams again frustrates him. It’s getting harder to read the auras of the younger players. Maybe it’s the mobile phone radiation.
“You have to try to understand them, although that’s often rather laborious. Five minutes before the warm-up, when their boots are on and their shin pads and kits are in place, practically all of them take another look at their mobiles. Is it that important to know if you have a new message right at that time?”
He may have overachieved but whenever Spurs stumble, he finds himself “looking for something that doesn’t exist and trying to square the circle”.
Like Souey, he knows there’s something about Tottenham, and something about Pochettino, but is he yet certain what it is, or where it’s going.
Brave New World is published by W&N
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