LONDON, United Kingdom, Jan 9 – Tottenham have been derided as a soft touch for decades, but the sight of Eden Hazard being hounded into submission showed Mauricio Pochettino’s side are finally shedding their nice-guy image.
The perception of Tottenham as entertaining but ultimately flawed under-achievers has haunted a succession of managers at the north London club.
But Pochettino has worked tirelessly to imbue his squad with a more ruthless streak and Tuesday’s hard-fought 1-0 win over Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final first leg suggested his efforts have not been in vain.
Tangible evidence of Tottenham’s new-found steely side could be seen in the way Hazard trudged wearily down the Wembley tunnel at full-time.
In a bid to subdue Chelsea’s influential playmaker, Hazard was subjected to 90 minutes of intense tackling from Tottenham, who fouled the Belgian seven times — more than any other team this season.
While Tottenham were aggressive in their approach, it was hardly the work of a group of hatchet men intent on kicking an opponent into submission.
Pochettino wanted Hazard to realise nothing would come easily for him, that Tottenham players would be hassling him at every turn.
It was the kind of shrewd game-plan that teams from Pochettino’s native Argentina have often used successfully and it worked to perfection against Chelsea.
Hazard, already hampered by Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri’s decision to use him as a centre forward, found it difficult to find the space to flourish as Tottenham crowded him out time and again.
The Spurs boss would not go into detail when asked about his team’s treatment of Hazard, but he did acknowledge he was the man to stop.
“He has unbelievable quality. He was involved in the game a lot,” Pochettino said.
“It is so difficult to stop him. We are talking about a player on the same level as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.”
– Glory game –
Such a smart yet cynical approach would, in the past, have been anathema to a club raised on the legendary Danny Blanchflower’s famous claim that “the game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish”.
Yet Pochettino has no qualms about his desire to make Tottenham more streetwise.
“If you think about how we can improve our squad, it’s not only about adding quality players, but sometimes you need to be a little bit naughty,” Pochettino said this week.
“We are so nice and in that game we showed that we can be a little naughty.”
While Harry Kane, whose penalty winner made him Tottenham’s fourth highest all-time scorer, remains Pochettino’s most valuable asset, it was the tenacity of a well-drilled defence that emerged as the key to victory against Chelsea.
With Tottenham searching for their first trophy since 2008, maintaining that hard-nosed style will be essential if Pochettino is at last to win the first silverware of his managerial career.
There have been too many moments in Pochettino’s reign when Tottenham have shrunk in the spotlight.
A second-half capitulation at Chelsea handed Leicester the 2016 title, while defeats to Chelsea in the 2015 League Cup final and the 2017 FA Cup semi-final were also painful.
Most damning of all was the limp loss to Manchester United in last season’s FA Cup semi-final.
But, having seen Hazard stifled so effectively, Pochettino expects Tottenham to rise to the big occasion more successfully in future.
“It’s a huge experience for us to be more mature,” he said, with his team third in the Premier League and through to the Champions League knockout stages.
“The season we are doing is fantastic. The effort is amazing, how we run, how we compete.
“Whether we win titles or not I’m so proud of this squad.”