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 Posted by John Crace
Aug 18, 2014

Pochettino getting best of Spurs squad

The FC crew breaks down Arsenal and Tottenham's narrow victories.

What a difference a goal makes.

Two minutes into injury time, I was standing in the Spurs end at Upton Park thinking, "Same old, same old." Then up pops makeshift right-back Eric Dier in the inside-left position to round the keeper, and suddenly all is well with the world again. The perfect start to the season. Three points and last season's three defeats to West Ham forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Few were expecting an opening-day classic, and those expectations were met. After a promising first 10 minutes in which Spurs dominated possession, West Ham took control of the game and should have had it won by halftime. But they failed to take advantage of both the penalty and the extra man after Kyle Naughton was sent off. The home side might have even wrapped up the game late, only for Hugo Lloris to make an excellent point-blank save from Stewart Downing.

After the game, manager Mauricio Pochettino spoke of Spurs' newfound resilience, suggesting that last season the team might have crumbled when finding itself a man down with an hour still to play. He had a point, but this was still far from an accomplished Spurs performance.

There were still far too few genuine chances created, and the Tottenham players -- Younes Kaboul, in particular -- were guilty of giving the ball away far too often. Against better teams than West Ham, they would have been dead and buried long before their injury-time salvation.

There were excuses. This was only the first game of the season, and many players on both sides looked far from match fit. Pochettino also put out a fairly makeshift team. Kyle Walker was injured, and Paulinho, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Nacer Chadli didn't even make it to the subs' bench. Why these four were considered still too tired after their World Cup exertions while Nabil Bentaleb was fit to start was a question many Spurs might have legitimately asked. There are also two more weeks until the transfer window closes, and it would be a surprise if several of the current squad weren't moved out and a couple of key signings made.

- Fitch: Revenge served sweet for Spurs
- Hirshey: The perils of premature prediction
- Mitten: Frustration replaces optimism

That said, there were also genuine reasons for optimism. Lloris apart, this was a game won by Spurs' less-sung players. After his promising form in preseason, Erik Lamela was once again a disappointment, and Aaron Lennon, Christian Eriksen and Emmanuel Adebayor were for the most part anonymous.

The key players who held it together for Spurs were Dier, Etienne Capoue and Bentaleb -- along with Andros Townsend and Lewis Holtby, who came on as second-half substitutes for Lennon and Lamela and caused West Ham far more problems in the 30 minutes they played than either of those they replaced had in the previous hour. It would be a surprise if both didn't make the starting XI for the next Premier League game against QPR.

It was often claimed at Southampton that Pochettino's greatest skill as manager was getting the best out of players that had been thought relatively ordinary. On the basis of Saturday's game, it looks as if he might be pulling off the same trick at Tottenham. That won't be quite enough, though.

At Spurs, his challenge will also be to get players who are considered to be world class to live up to their reputations. He still has work to do in that department.

These are still early days, though, and Pochettino will soon be able to start integrating some of the bigger-name players back into the team. Possibly as early as Thursday when Spurs play their Europa League qualifier against Limassol of Cyprus -- a match that shouldn't present too much of a challenge.

John Crace

John Crace is a columnist and feature writer for The Guardian. He is a THFC season-ticket holder and has written the books "Harry's Games: Inside the Mind of Harry Redknapp" and "Vertigo: One Football Fan's Fear of Success." Follow him on Twitter @digestedread.

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