Premier League 2016-17 previews No17: Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham's Harry Kane

Guardian writers’ predicted position 3rd (NB: this is not necessarily David Hytner’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position 3rd

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 8-1

Mauricio Pochettino wanted to sign Victor Wanyama from his former club Southampton in the summer of last year. It did not happen. Southampton made it plain that they would not countenance it. Above all, the timing was wrong.

Pochettino shrugged and he told Daniel Levy, his chairman at Tottenham Hotspur, not to worry. He had a backup plan, which was to turn the defender Eric Dier into a high-calibre defensive midfielder. There was external scepticism at the time but it proved to be a masterstroke. Dier was one of the stand-out players in what was a stellar season for the club.

Job done? Position locked down? Apparently not. Pochettino moved again for Wanyama this summer and, this time, the timing was right. The commanding Kenyan became his first signing of the close season and, at £11m, it felt like value, too.

Tottenham

Pochettino was in a position of strength but he wanted to build; he wanted more. The manager knew that he would be without Mousa Dembélé, his other starting central midfielder, for the first four games of the season because of the punishment for his eye gouge on Chelsea’s Diego Costa last May. But, also, he wanted greater competition, options and flexibility. Dier and Dembélé will not be able to play all of the time, particularly as there is a campaign in the more gruelling Champions League to factor in.

The move for Wanyama cut to the heart of Pochettino’s approach; how he is seeking to grow the club and why there are credible reasons for optimism at Tottenham regarding the short and longer term.

Pochettino is obsessed by profiling, and it takes in data that relates to conditioning, nutrition and sports science. In terms of recruitment, his signings must tick specific boxes, physically and mentally. Wanyama, whom Pochettino brought to Southampton from Celtic in July 2013 for £12.5m, ticks them all.

Pochettino’s players are imposing – almost all of his favoured starting XI from last season stood at six feet or higher – and they have tremendous stamina. Moreover, they must be tactically flexible and able to play in at least two positions. Wanyama offers an option in central defence. One of Pochettino’s reasons for selling Andros Townsend to Newcastle United last January was that the winger shone on only one flank.

Tottenham

Pochettino also insists upon good characters and there are no big-time Charlies in his squad these days. One small example from last week shone a light on the collective attitude. It was the day for the broadcasters to film their walk-up shots and take other assorted photographs, and players can consider it a pain and behave as such. At Tottenham, it went smoothly and professionally.

The clincher on the Wanyama deal was the fee, which was relatively low because he had only one year to run on his contract. With the stadium rebuild to finance, these things matter at Tottenham; largesse over the next two years is a nonstarter. They intend to enter the 61,000-capacity arena in 2018-19.

The note of worry at Tottenham concerns the manner in which their rivals have attacked the transfer market. It is difficult to quantify how greatly the other top clubs will be improved by their signings but it is clear that when two of them (and counting?) have lavished nine-figure sums on fees alone, it represents a shake-up. Tottenham cannot compete on these terms at present and they have felt the tremors, which have emanated most strongly from Manchester. This Premier League is going to be so tough.

But the glass feels half-full, primarily because of Pochettino and the precision and vigour of his methods. In so many ways, he is the ideal manager for Tottenham, as they plot the transition into the new stadium. The Argentinian is determined to make stars, rather than buy them, and he leads from the front with his work ethic and attention to detail.

He is in at 7am every day, he leaves at 7pm and, in a sport of fine margins, he is constantly seeking the edge. Everybody at the club will tell you that his analytics are extraordinary. After training, the wonders of modern technology allow for the footage to be sent to the screen in his office and, together with his coaches, he re-watches every minute of it. Nothing escapes scrutiny. What he and the staff discuss informs the next session.

The clarity and decisiveness has been reflected in the transfer market, where the club are no longer linked with scores of players. Frankly, it is most un-Tottenham-like. They also moved early for their biggest targets – Wanyama and the Holland striker Vincent Janssen, who joined on 12 July for £17m from AZ Alkmaar. The 22-year-old will provide much-needed cover for Harry Kane.

Tottenham probably need another game-changing option from the bench; a player with the pace to get in behind and make things happen – hence the interest in Marseille’s £11m-rated winger Georges-Kévin Nkoudou. But while the club remain alive to other possibilities, there will be no scramble to complete the squad as the deadline nears.

The resignation on Tuesday of the head of recruitment, Paul Mitchell, who boiled over with frustration and felt that he could not continue, offered a reminder of the constraints in his area at the club – and the pressures to deliver for Levy. Mitchell will serve a period of notice, which will go beyond the end of the summer transfer window.

Pochettino has offloaded Federico Fazio to Roma on loan and sold Alex Pritchard to Norwich City for £8m. Nabil Bentaleb will also leave, having not been involved with the squad during pre-season. This is typical of Pochettino. If a player is not a part of his plans, he wants them a long way from the group. The feeling has been that Pochettino does not trust the midfielder in possession. Bentaleb has been guilty of losing the ball in risky areas, which is not something that Dier or Dembélé do.

There is little else to be trimmed, apart from DeAndre Yedlin and possibly Clinton Njie, and Pochettino will rely on the club’s academy-developed talent to fill in any gaps. The fourth-choice centre-half will be Cameron Carter-Vickers, who has been likened to Ledley King in terms of physique and temperament, and Shayon Harrison could be an option behind Kane and Janssen up front.

Kyle Walker-Peters has the advantage of being able to play at left-back as well as right-back and there are high hopes for Josh Onomah, an England team-mate from July’s European Under-19 Championship. The midfielder is maturing physically and everybody at the club seems to love him. Ditto another midfielder, Harry Winks, and then there is the 17-year-old Marcus Edwards, around whom there is such a buzz. The little No10, who has a sweet left foot and low centre of gravity, is expected to make his first-team debut this season.

Pochettino has faith in the club’s academy players – and in himself to bring them on – and he has faith in what is a young first XI, in which the vast majority are only going to get better. There is the sense of momentum, a connection between fans and the team and it has added up to a rare feelgood factor, particularly when the Champions League and the stadium are considered.

Tottenham will play their European ties at Wembley this season and their matches in all competitions there next time out, as the work on their new home is finished, and the prospect of a partisan 90,000 in attendance at the national stadium is thrilling for them. The club have 51,000 supporters on a paid-for waiting list for season tickets.

The large surface at Wembley should also help. Pochettino has mentioned how White Hart Lane is one of the tightest pitches in the league and perhaps it might work against them when visiting teams sit deep and mass men behind the ball.

The stadium is rising fast. The north-east corner of the existing ground has been demolished and, with the bottom and first floors completed on the new one, the work on level two can begin. By the end of the year, it will stand five storeys tall – higher than White Hart Lane. That will be when people truly realise it is coming.

There was much to like about Tottenham last season and, even in the explosive 2-2 draw at Chelsea, when they had nine men booked and their title hopes perished, Pochettino was delighted to see the collective fight. No longer, he said, could Tottenham be viewed as soft touches. On the other hand, the loss of composure after Eden Hazard’s 83rd-minute equaliser, when there was still time for the winning goal, was comprehensive.

Pochettino is hopeful that his players have learned from that lesson and others, and he has targeted a fast start, as rival teams bed in their signings. Tottenham are settled and the club feel secure – they have finished in the top six in each of the past seven seasons and three times in the top four. They have a magnificent training ground and, in two years’ time, they will have the largest club stadium in London. There is plenty to look forward to. Pochettino has stoked the anticipation.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner, for The Guardian on Thursday 11th August 2016 08.52 Europe/London

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