A new era begins at Tottenham
It's that time of year again; the start of the new Premier League season. Somehow, though, the heart doesn't beat quite so quickly this year as it has done in recent years. The memories of last season still linger; 69 points and a sixth-place finish might have been respectable, but the standard and style of football and the lack of commitment in some players was not. For many longtime Spurs fans, 2013-14 brought back memories of the dog days of the late '90s.
Nor is a trip to West Ham the sort of start many would have picked. Normally a team Tottenham expect to beat, West Ham did the treble over the Spurs last season. The first defeat -- a 3-0 thrashing at White Hart Lane -- marked the beginning of the end for Andre Villas-Boas; the second knocked Spurs out of the Capital One Cup; the third, an abject 2-0 defeat at Upton Park characterised by Emmanuel Adebayor and Paulinho both competing to get out of the way of a free kick. A repeat of any of these three games would be hard to take first up.
Yet there could be no better way of putting clear blue water between this season and last, a sign that this Spurs team actually means business and a chance for Mauricio Pochettino to show he has stamped his mark on the team. So far the signs are encouraging. The preseason friendlies have gone about as well as they could have done and club insiders say Pochettino has been pushing the players far harder in training than they were under Harry Redknapp, AVB or Tim Sherwood. Two, sometimes three, sessions a day have been the norm.
Pochettino's message has been clear -- he isn't content to ease himself gently into the new season. In many previous years, Tottenham seemed to have spent the first four or five games getting themselves match-fit, but this time around the Argentine manager expects every player to be ready from the moment the whistle blows at 3pm on Saturday.
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The big unknown is confidence. There was a lack of belief -- both in themselves and each other -- in the Spurs team last season that will take time to restore. No matter how much the new manager tells them that things are different now, any new confidence will necessarily be fragile. True confidence only comes with time.
Herein lies Pochettino's first test. How resilient is his team? How will the players react if they go a goal down after 10 minutes? Will they become more tentative, with thoughts returning to last season? Or will they have the mental strength to come back? Pochettino doesn't know the answer. Nor do his players. Preseason counts for nothing once the competitive matches start. The tackles come in harder, the crowd gets edgier and the TV cameras are unforgiving.
All that Pochettino can do is put out his best side and hope the team play to his instructions. The question here is whether he knows his best side. Few fans do, and with another two weeks till the transfer deadline, any team he puts out could be work in progress. Some players pick themselves. Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Ben Davies and Christian Eriksen all have to play if they are fit. Other than that, it's anyone's guess. Kyle Naughton is likely to start at right-back in the absence of the injured Kyle Walker. But should Younes Kaboul or Vlad Chiriches partner Vertonghen in the centre of defence?
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Elsewhere, positions are equally up for grabs. Who plays in the centre of midfield? Paulinho and Sandro would be a natural pairing, but the former has been desperately out of form, and the latter doesn't appear to be one of Pochettino's favourites. So maybe Lewis Holtby or Mousa Dembele instead? Erik Lamela looks certain to start on one wing, but who plays on the other? Aaron Lennon or Andros Townsend? My pick would be Townsend. Lennon has had more than enough chances and has failed to move up a grade. Then there's the striker. Adebayor or Roberto Soldado?
These are not easy choices, and Pochettino will inevitably be defined by the ones he makes. What he really needs is time, but the Premier League doesn't allow that. One bad defeat and a manager's judgment is invariably scrutinised. A victory against West Ham on Saturday would mean everything to the manager and players; proof that all the hard work they've put in during the summer hasn't been wasted. But a draw would also give the team something to build on, and Pochettino's first objective will to be avoid defeat.
The reality, of course, is that this is just the first in a 38-match campaign. Teams who last the distance will finish in the top four. Much as Spurs would like a win and take a draw, what most fans will want to see is a change of style. It wasn't losing to West Ham three times last season that irked many, it was the rudderless manner of the defeats. If Tottenham lose on Saturday, they should at least do so with some adventure.