8 Biggest Concerns for Mauricio Pochettino Ahead of New Premier League Season

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2014

8 Biggest Concerns for Mauricio Pochettino Ahead of New Premier League Season

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    Mauricio Pochettino begins his first campaign in charge of Tottenham this weekend. What might be worrying the Argentine ahead of his team's opening game with West Ham United?
    Mauricio Pochettino begins his first campaign in charge of Tottenham this weekend. What might be worrying the Argentine ahead of his team's opening game with West Ham United?Jan Kruger/Getty Images

    Mauricio Pochettino's first pre-season in charge of Tottenham Hotspur has gone relatively smoothly. His team have gone unbeaten, and looked in decent shape doing so.

    "The team is showing a lot of energy," Pochettino told his club's official website after a 2-1 win over Schalke last Saturday he deemed satisfactory. "This is our style, our philosophy and now we have a week to go until the start of the season."

    The countdown to the Premier League beginning is a little less than that now, of course.

    Pochettino should be encouraged by the efforts and burgeoning form of one of the Premier League's stronger squads. Still, there are almost certainly a few things that will be causing the new Tottenham boss some concern.

    Some are more prominent than others. Some could even be rectified within a few weeks of the season beginning. They are all issues Pochettino will hope to see to correcting, remedying or letting them be sorted naturally over the coming months.

    Check back on Friday on Bleacher Report for a further piece looking at the key selection issues ahead for Pochettino ahead of Spurs' first game of the season.

    First up for today, an injury concern.

Walker's Ongoing Pelvic Problem

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    In action here against Chicago Fire, Kyle Walker's pre-season has latterly been disrupted by a persistent pelvic problem.
    In action here against Chicago Fire, Kyle Walker's pre-season has latterly been disrupted by a persistent pelvic problem.Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    Kyle Walker's final appearance of 2013-14 came in Tottenham's 3-1 home Europa League loss to Benfica in March. The pelvic injury that subsequently ended his season and caused him to miss the World Cup is continuing to cause him problems.

    The right-back managed a half each against Toronto and Chicago Fire but then missed the wins over Celtic and Schalke.

    Speaking to the assembled press post-Schalke, including the Daily Express' Gerry Cox, Pochettino confirmed there is some uncertainty as to when Walker will be full-fit:

    Kyle is good some days, on other days he has a bad feeling. We believe he may recover soon, but we need to be calm with him because it is an injury that he has had for five months. It is difficult to say today whether he will be fit for next week.

    Pochettino does have other options at right-back in the form of Kyle Naughton and Ryan Fredericks. The former is the more likely to come in for Walker. He finished last season in decent fashion and has upped his game accordingly over the course of pre-season.

    It only takes Naughton or Fredericks suffering an injury for Spurs to suddenly be in a bit of bother at right-back (unless a mooted move for DeAndre Yedlin comes off in the meantime). Pochettino and Walker will both hope a solution for his ongoing injury issue can quickly be found.

Can Soldado Regain His Scoring Touch?

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    Roberto Soldado's Spurs team-mates congratulate him after the Spaniard scored against Schalke.
    Roberto Soldado's Spurs team-mates congratulate him after the Spaniard scored against Schalke.Jan Kruger/Getty Images

    Not long into the second half against Schalke last Saturday, Roberto Soldado skied an Andros Townsend cut-back high over the crossbar.

    With the ball coming at the Spaniard slightly off the ground it was not the easiest hit at the angle he approached it. Still, it was a chance you would have fancied an in-form Soldado to bury. Instead the errant finish was a reminder of the many chances he missed in the latter half of last season (with only one goal coming in 2014, albeit with some mitigating circumstances).

    For now, this can be written off as just a bad moment. In the same game Soldado scored with a fine reaction header after Ralf Fahrmann could only push forward Townsend's long-distance shot. The striker has also netted against Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire this summer.

    With some good accompanying performances along the way too, Soldado's form is encouraging. Nonetheless, both he and his manager will be keen for him to score this season proper as soon as possible.

    It would certainly boost the player's confidence early on. It would also help to alleviate any doubts in Pochettino's mind about Soldado's ability to do a job for him.

    For his part, Soldado appears raring to go.

    No puedo esperar más por volver a White Hart Lane / Can't wait to get back to White Hart Lane http://t.co/oUuOBOPuAI

    — Roberto Soldado (@R9Soldado) August 8, 2014

Getting Paulinho Confident Again

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    Paulinho squares up against Germany's Arsenal attacker Mesut Ozil during Brazil's embarrassing World Cup defeat to the eventual winners.
    Paulinho squares up against Germany's Arsenal attacker Mesut Ozil during Brazil's embarrassing World Cup defeat to the eventual winners.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

    "Stuttering Paulinho is Brazil’s problem after Mexico expose flaws," read the headline for a column by Zico in The Guardian during the World Cup this summer. The former Brazil star reasoned "he is a problem now because he is a shadow of the player who last year proved so important in creative and defensive duties."

    As it was, the Selecao would make the semi-finals of the tournament before being thrashed by eventual winners Germany. By that point, Paulinho was performing slightly better than some of his team-mates. Still, Zico's assessment had some truth to it.

    The Paulinho that Tottenham saw last season was mostly better than the one Brazil saw this summer.

    He played well alongside Mousa Dembele early on following his move from Corinthians. A winner away at Cardiff City and good performances in home victories over Stoke City and Aston Villa were among his individual highlights too.

    Suspension around Christmas followed by an injury lay-off into the New Year did not aid Paulinho's progress, though. Nor did the change of management that left him one of several players scrambling to assert themselves in a changed environment.

    Paulinho is now dealing with more upheaval with club and country following further changes.

    Since he did not feature in pre-season we do not know exactly what his new Spurs boss Pochettino has in mind for him.

    If Paulinho is part of his plans, he will be working to try and reestablish the confident, boisterous midfielder the north London club originally paid for. There was enough evidence of him in a challenging past year that hopes he might still come to the fore again are not unfounded. 

Integrating Players Back from the World Cup

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    Nabil Bentaleb returned to the Spurs fold well against Schalke in his first game back following the World Cup.
    Nabil Bentaleb returned to the Spurs fold well against Schalke in his first game back following the World Cup.Jan Kruger/Getty Images

    Along with the Belgian trio of Nacer Chadli, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen, and new signing, Holland goalkeeper Michel Vorm, Paulinho is one of Tottenham's World Cup performers yet to play a game under Pochettino (Cameroon's Benoit Assou-Ekotto does not seem at all to be part of his plans).

    Algeria's Nabil Bentaleb and France's Hugo Lloris were back in action this past weekend. Bringing them back into the fold proved no issue. Bentaleb looked confident and relatively sharp, Lloris typically alert and agile.

    The return—or arrival in Vorm's case—of the others should not prove too problematic for Pochettino. They have been back in training for a couple of weeks, enough time for them to get a good idea and experience the changes he is implementing at Spurs.

    Pochettino will have to be somewhat careful, however, with how he integrates these players.

    There have good understandings developed between those who have featured throughout pre-season. Changes are inevitable given the quality of those yet to play, but they must be considered carefully.

    It is not a major worry if handled right. But it is an aspect of management Pochettino has not previously had to deal with at either Espanyol or Southampton, and should not be overlooked.

Trimming the Squad While the Season Is Underway

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    The team Pochettino fielded against Schalke could be notably different to the one he is selecting come the end of August.
    The team Pochettino fielded against Schalke could be notably different to the one he is selecting come the end of August.Jan Kruger/Getty Images

    The Daily Telegraph's Matt Law has reported "Tottenham Hotspur are willing to listen to offers for an entire team’s worth of players in their desperate attempt to cut down the size of Mauricio Pochettino’s squad."

    Spurs' official website currently lists their first-team squad as having 30 players (not including Jordan Archer, on loan to Northampton). Pochettino is unsurprisingly keen to trim it to a more manageable number.

    He told Ben Pearce of the Tottenham & Wood Green Journal last weekend:

    I think we need to take a decision now to decide how many players to keep, because we have more than 25. For me, it’s too many players. My idea is 25, no more than 25.

    Law wrote in his Telegraph piece that "Townsend, Lennon, Soldado, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto, Naughton, Chiriches, Sandro, Capoue, Chadli and Dembele all up for sale by north London club."

    In addition, Spurs are still reportedly after players such as Southampton midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin (mentioned in the aforementioned piece).

    Pochettino has a tricky balancing act at hand. Shaping a Premier League squad to his liking is difficult enough. Doing so with the season underway is even tougher.

    Most of those listed are likely to still be involved, at least in the first week or two. It is not ideal to be managing and selecting players that could be gone before the month is out, but it is a necessity for the time being.

A Tough 1st Game Against West Ham

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    Tottenham and West Ham get ready to battle again.
    Tottenham and West Ham get ready to battle again.Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    The middle of last season's trilogy with West Ham United—a 2-1 Capital One Cup loss shortly after Andre Villas-Boas' departure—can be excused. In an eventful, tiring pre-Christmas week, Tottenham played okay but suffered a late sucker punch to dump them out of the competition.

    The Premier League meetings with the Hammers were less excusable. Spurs were dire in 3-0 and 2-0 losses, home and away respectively. The first loss was particularly bad, a performance and result that in hindsight hinted at the issues that would undermine Villas-Boas' last days.

    Pochettino is not the Portuguese, and Spurs do not have to be the same team as last season. But coming on the first day of the season, a match with a big city rival that beat on them considerably last year is not an ideal start.

    West Ham's summer has not been the smoothest. Speculation over manager Sam Allardyce's future continues to bubble under. Late last month the Daily Mail's Rob Shepherd suggested he might be sacked before the season even began.

    Spurs are a game apart for the east London club, however. No matter the circumstances, more often than not, they are up for this game in a manner not always evident in their other fixtures.

    Pochettino will not baulk at such a potentially fiery start to his first season with Spurs. He will not expect his team to either. But he will be aware a slow start could be swiftly punished if, as expected, West Ham are motivated.

How Will Tottenham Handle Their 1st Top-4 Tests?

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    Tottenham were often left chasing fruitlessly behind Liverpool and other top-four rivals last season.
    Tottenham were often left chasing fruitlessly behind Liverpool and other top-four rivals last season.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

    Played eight, won zero, drew one, lost seven. Scored two, conceded 27.

    So read Tottenham's record against the Premier League's eventual top-four of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal last season.

    Spurs missing out on a Champions League place was not traumatic in itself. They have got used to that. But the humiliating nature of the defeats that led to their eventual sixth-place finish (also behind Everton) made it all the worse.

    The north Londoners do not have long to wait until they test themselves against a potential top-four rival this season. After London derbies with West Ham and Queens Park Rangers, they face Liverpool at White Hart Lane on Sunday 31 August.

    The Reds are now without Luis Suarez, the talented but loathsome individual who punished Spurs in both meetings so severely last season. Brendan Rodgers' side are still a fine team.

    In addition to remaining stars such as Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge, others such as Serbian winger Lazar Markovic (who caused Spurs problems in the Europa League last season) and former Southampton trio Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren have been added to their ranks.

    Ex-Saints boss Pochettino will be familiar with that latter group, something that may play in Spurs' favour. More pressingly he must work to rebuild the shattered confidence Spurs are to need if they are going to compete with teams like Liverpool.

    The Argentine will primarily attempt to do so through his team's football. As he told the official matchday programme for the Schalke game: "We have an extremely talented group of players here and we want to encourage them to play an attacking, high-tempo style of football that gets the best from their talent and to impose that style against every opposition we encounter."

    That is a good intention. But he should not underestimate the psychological damage potentially done by last season's suffering.

Balancing His Playing Options Between Cup Competitions

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    Tottenham were knocked out of the Europa League last 16 by Benfica last season.
    Tottenham were knocked out of the Europa League last 16 by Benfica last season.Michael Steele/Getty Images

    Tottenham return to European competition next Thursday when they take on Limassol in the first leg of the Europa League qualifying round.

    At Southampton, Pochettino voiced his dislike for the tournament on multiple occasions. Circumstances have changed for him now.

    "It’s true that the next Europa League gives us the possibility, if we win it, to be in the Champions League," he told Sky Sports last week. "It’s different now, it’s a different point of view."

    With the Capital One Cup and FA Cup to deal with too, should Spurs make the Europa League group stage, Pochettino will have to work on balancing his play options between the competitions.

    As noted on an earlier page, he has the numbers to make a go of it. But making the numbers work is easier said than done.

    Players will naturally play in more than one of the competitions. With particular periods of the season when the fixtures pile up (especially around Christmas and New Year's), fatigue and niggles are unavoidable.

    A lot of this is potentially in the distance. But over the coming weeks, Pochettino will plant the seeds of themes and preferences in his team that will grow from there.

    Even choices made now that seem good, could wither soon enough. It is an inexact science, one that will test Pochettino soon enough.