Tottenham learn from their mistakes to put Real Madrid, BVB in the shade
Mauricio Pochettino watched last season's Champions League draw in view of the cameras but afterwards he wished he had stayed hidden in his office. The Tottenham manager's wry smile, which he later described as "unguarded", betrayed his delight at a group containing Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow, but he was made to look complacent as Spurs fell at the first hurdle and into the Europa League.
A year later, Pochettino did not make the same mistake and he was nowhere to be seen as Spurs were drawn in a dangerous-looking group with holders Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia.
"The season before, we were watching the draw and we thought: 'Oh Monaco, Leverkusen and CSKA. We have a chance to go to the next stage.' Then this [year's] draw we thought: 'OK we are going to compete ... and we say nothing'. And look now -- we are first, top of the table," Pochettino said on Tuesday, as Spurs were confirmed as group winners with a game to spare after a 2-1 win in Dortmund.
Learning from last season's mistakes has been the key to Tottenham's unexpected form in the Champions League and even before they had beaten Dortmund for a second time, Pochettino hailed their progress.
"At the same period, one year ago, we were in Monaco, and after that game we were out of the Champions League. Now we are in the next stage. The team has stepped-up," he said on Monday.
Pochettino struggled to put a finger on last season's Champions League failure, insisting it was "more mental than physical or tactical", but he knew where they needed to improve. He felt his players were too passive in the final third and not clinical enough in front of goal (they scored just once from open play in the four matches against Monaco and Leverkusen) and this time it has been different.
Son Heung-Min, who missed a golden chance at the start of last season's opening game with Monaco, scored Spurs' first chance of this year's competition and they have gone on to net 12 times in five matches.
The manager also identified a lack of "passion" and "aggression" in the 2-1 defeat to Monaco and he was so angry at half time that he punched a TV, nearly breaking it. Pochettino felt the loss had set the "dynamic" for the rest of their group and he was determined that Spurs make a fast start this year. They did, racing into a 2-0 lead against Dortmund after just 15 minutes. They have not looked back.
And Pochettino questioned himself, wondering if his decisions were brave enough. But there was nothing cowardly about picking a midfield of Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen and Moussa Sissoko for the 1-1 draw at Real Madrid last month, or taking the game to the 11-time winners in the 3-1 win at Wembley.
Above all, however, Pochettino's inexperienced team was too naive last year, when their high-intensity, all-action football was countered by cannier, more patient operators, who knew how to win in the Champions League.
If Monaco and Leverkusen did a number on Spurs in the matches at Wembley, this year it was Spurs who mugged their more-fancied opponents, putting three goals past Dortmund at home and drawing at Real, despite having around 35 percent of possession in each game.
"I am so proud of them. They're doing a fantastic job. They needed to be mature in different situations. We are competing with the best teams in Europe and doing fantastic," Pochettino said in Dortmund.
Pochettino began the week facing up to Spurs' continued failure away from home at their top six rivals after Saturday's damaging 2-0 defeat to Arsenal but on Tuesday he was able to point to more progress following another landmark result in Europe.
Learning from mistakes has been a theme of Spurs' rise under Pochettino -- just look at the way he turned around their home form, or finished last season after the disappointment of 2015-16 -- and their European form is another example. But last Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Arsenal, Pochettino's 16th failure to win away at the "Big Six" in 17 attempts, proves there are still obstacles to overcome and it leaves Spurs in the position of being more likely to win the Champions League than the Premier League, which no-one would have predicted after last season.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.