Pochettino's in-form, confident Spurs have what it takes to beat Chelsea
Remember last August when all anybody could talk about was how many foreign masters of the footballing universe were now prowling the technical areas of England's elite clubs? The names tripped giddily off the cognoscenti tongue: Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger -- I know, but there's always optimism in the summer before Le Collapse -- Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochett-
Hang on. Who let the Spurs manager into this exclusive club of Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A winners? Will someone please call security and alert them that Mauricio somehow sneaked past the velvet ropes without a single major trophy on his CV?
Wait, what's that piece of paper in his hand? Is that a letter of recommendation? "Mauricio Pochettino is the best manager in the Premier League," said Sir Alex Ferguson last year. Whoa. Right this way, in that case, is there anything we can get you besides the FA Cup and the Premier League title?
Never mind that Ferguson anointed Pochettino in the spring of 2016, when Guardiola and Conte were just glints in the eyes of their current clubs and Mourinho was languishing on his personal Elba. The Manager Before Moyes, as I like to call Ferguson, was already smitten by the tactical and motivational acumen of Pochettino, who in three seasons at White Hart Lane has lifted a young and hungry side from "Spursian" levels of irrelevance to genuine title contenders.
Not even the fact that last season's team went Full Tottenham down the stretch to finish third -- anyone remember who came second? -- could dim the aura of the 45-year-old. And this season his managerial sheen has only grown brighter.
On Saturday, Spurs play Chelsea in a FA Cup semifinal that pits the league's top two teams in a battle that is freighted with as much psychological significance as trophy-winning luster. In the past month, Pochettino's men have clawed back from a seemingly insurmountable 13-point chasm to a scarily manageable gap of four, with six games remaining.
Normally, I'd revel in the sound of Chelsea fans' nerves jangling, except they're not audible over the moans of the mortally-wounded wildebeest inhabiting the Emirates. Even if, God willing, Spurs fail in their quest for a first title since 1961, they are already virtually guaranteed to remove the albatross of all albatrosses: After 21 consecutive years of finishing behind their North London neighbors Arsenal, their long-suffering supporters are finally able to sing, as they did deliriously last weekend while dismantling Bournemouth 4-0:
And now, the end is near;
The Gooners face their final curtain.
I'll spare you the rest of the charming, highly imaginative verses, but suffice it to say their lyricism leaves something to be desired. And you can understand how this moment of horror has come to pass. Spurs possess everything that Arsenal lacks: confidence, cohesion and a clue.
Add in a modern, forward-thinking manager, who has been able to bring out the best in his players, four of whom -- Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker -- were named to the PFA Premier League Team of the Year. And to think that all this good fortune could have been avoided if only Spurs' head honcho Daniel Levy had been able to recruit his first choice as manager: Louis "That Is A Stupid Question" van Gaal.
So instead of Spurs getting the well-pedigreed and highly self-regarding manager, who never met a square or back pass he didn't like, they ended up with the feisty former Argentina international, who favors an attacking style played at speed and with verve.
Pochettino had always prided himself on tactical flexibility, but it was in England where his ideas took on revolutionary status. For all its furious intensity, the Premier League had never seen a team deploy a high press before Pochettino's arrival at Southampton in 2013. Now most teams use some version of it, but nobody swarms better than Spurs.
If Conte looked exasperated last weekend at Old Trafford, where his team was hounded out of its finely-honed rhythm by the ferocity of Man United's man-marking -- Chelsea's physio has yet to be able to exhume Eden Hazard from Ander Herrera's pocket -- the Blues will be hard pressed (my apologies) to handle Spurs' relentless, will-sapping style at Wembley. Pochettino's philosophy is simple: He wants his players to be everywhere at once or to exhaust themselves trying.
It helps to have the meanest defense in the league anchored by Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, as well as a powerful and technically assured central midfield with the fearless and graceful Dele Alli and the under-rated Christian Eriksen, who has created more chances for others than a guy wielding a stack of twenties in a dance club and England's latest patron saint, Harry Kane.
But even when Spurs are at their rampant best, as they were against Bournemouth, Pochettino has the look of a man constantly suffering. He is like a coiled spring in his technical area, poised to erupt at any moment over a poor decision or missed assignment.
Mousa Dembele had one of the most statistically mind-boggling games in Premier League history, completing 63 of 64 passes for a 98.4% success rate, but Pochettino shook his head over the one errant ball and bellowed "Vamos" -- "come on."
Take heart, however, that in the end, this is Tottenham, a team with more false dawns than Spain has false nines. Last season, when league-leading Leicester were apparently wobbling and could feel the fetid breath of the surging Spurs on their necks, all that Poch's Puppies needed were wins over a couple of mid-table opponents -- West Brom and Chelsea -- and the stage would be set for a nerve-shredding denouement.
Instead, they followed in the doomed footsteps of every other Tottenham squad for the past 55 years, as they surrendered a late, tying goal to Tony Pulis and Co. at home, before unraveling completely in a toxic encounter at Stamford Bridge, where they lost their heads and a 2-0 second-half lead.
When the final whistle blew that night, sealing Leicester's title in the process, Pochettino could be seen on the field attempting to extricate his players from one of several brawls. "This is the end of the season, the emotion, we are human," he said.
It's no small burden knowing that outside of Spurs' zip code, you'd be lucky to have found a single person with a beating heart who was rooting for them to spoil Leicester's fairy tale.
"The world tried to kill us last season," Pochettino said last week. "Now we are focused on fighting only our opponent, not other teams or the media. Now it's fair play."
It's probably Chelsea's title to lose; they have the experience, the lead, an easier run-in and a maniacally-focused manager. But Saturday's encounter is the FA Cup, a competition that brings out the magic in young, plucky sides that spend less than $200 million on summer transfers.
"We are playing with so much confidence," said Vertonghen. "We have nothing to be afraid of."
Alas, he's right. And that is what makes me so terrified.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.