West Ham United vs. Tottenham Hotspur: Key Selection Decisions for Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino is the latest man charged with turning the nearly-men of English football over the last few years into a genuinely successful proposition. How long the former Southampton boss will have to try and do so is unknown.
Whatever is to come, the process starts in earnest at Upton Park, 3 p.m. UK time.
Heading into the season, Pochettino's squad is just a little short of the 30-man mark. By now he is likely to have a good, perhaps definitive, idea of the starting XI he plans to select from that group (even if he is keeping that to himself). For those of us not in the know, we await his response to key selection decisions with keen interest.
The first selection decision we will explore in this article is the identity of Tottenham's left-back.
Davies or Rose at Left-Back?
Tottenham strengthened at left-back this summer with the signing of Ben Davies from Swansea City. While Zeki Fryers is also in the mix, it seems likely the position will be contested between Davies and Danny Rose.
Davies was bought to be a pillar of reliability. "There is nothing flamboyant about him," wrote The Guardian's Stuart James following the transfer, "he is composed in possession and uses the ball intelligently." He has proved himself to be a sound defender too in two years in the Swansea first-team.
Spurs' first-choice left-back last season, Rose's inconsistency (exacerbated early on by injury) was viewed as potentially counting against him this time round. But off the back of signing a new five-year contract, the 24-year-old has looked increasingly sharp this pre-season.
While Davies and Rose have played a similar amount of time at left-back at the top level, it should not be forgotten that the latter came to the position late.
"This season, first and foremost, I want to stay injury-free," Rose told Spurs' official website. "I had a small, annoying injury at the start of last season that kept me out for a while and when I came back I was a bit inconsistent with my performances so I’m determined to improve on that this time."
Being one of Pochettino's own signings, you might think Davies has the edge to start at left-back. If Rose has been as motivated in training all week as he looked against Schalke, he may have convinced his boss otherwise.
Who Starts at Centre-Back?
Pochettino has not been particularly forthcoming providing team news and injury updates this summer.
A manager keeping his cards close to his chest is understandable, especially one putting things together at a new club.
The "team news" released on Tottenham's official website on Thursday evening kept that up. It confirmed Vlad Chiriches and Michael Dawson are both suffering from the respective back and ankle problems that caused them to miss games in pre-season. It did not rule them out from West Ham, however.
Based on experience, Younes Kaboul and Jan Vertonghen would therefore seem likely to get the nod to play this weekend ahead of new recruit Eric Dier. According to Pochettino, though, the Belgian and his fellow World Cup players might not be ready.
"We need to analyse some players because they arrived late from the World Cup and we need to improve their physical condition," the Argentinian told his pre-match press conference.
Should Vertonghen be deemed a little way off fighting-fitness, that would almost certainly mean Dier again playing alongside Kaboul (Fryers or Milos Veljkovic would be surprise starters if they were selected).
The signing from Sporting Lisbon made an assured bow at White Hart Lane last weekend. But selecting him against a physical West Ham side would be throwing him in the deep end.
Then again, experience does not necessarily mean anything. Kaboul struggled against the Hammers last May, getting sent off. Vertonghen (along with Dawson) struggled just as much the previous October.
Dier might have better luck against a side likely to retain their directness, even if it aims to be prettier rather than punishing.
Finding Balance Between Spurs' Numerous Central Midfielders
As mentioned on the previous page, Pochettino's uncertainty about the condition of players returning from the World Cup means Mousa Dembele and Paulinho's status for Saturday is up in the air.
Neither played in pre-season so we have no idea what their new boss has in mind for them individually. Nor who he might pair them with in what—based on the formation predominantly fielded this summer—will be a two-man central midfield.
Even if Pochettino does not start either of them against West Ham, he still has choices to make.
His much-declared preference for attacking football makes a more defensive-minded presence a must.
Etienne Capoue's commanding work anchoring the midfield in pre-season should have made Pochettino take notice. Even considering for the less competitive environment, the Frenchman was efficient in possession and timely in his interventions when Spurs were under pressure.
Illness disrupted Sandro's summer, but he does not need too much prompting to do a job as midfield enforcer.
As seen against Schalke, Nabil Bentaleb is a little more cultured floating back there, and he can hold his own too. Pochettino's evaluation of the Algerian is particularly intriguing given the teenager's rise to prominence in 2014.
Lewis Holtby has made the most of the absence of Dembele and Paulinho this summer, staking his claim for a regular place with a clutch of energetic, largely positive outings. Although selected further forward on a few occasions, central midfield is the most likely position for a player whose all-encompassing tenacity is his greatest quality.
Holtby might be best suited for the potentially scrappy contest with West Ham (at least if Dembele is not declared fit). A more surprise selection would come in the form of either Tom Carroll or Ryan Mason.
The latter was one of the surprise packages of the summer given he had previously been out of the frame of the first-team picture.
Confident and adventurous in his ball work, Mason was sensible and hard-working off it. The frequent loanee appeared to have a decent understanding with Capoue too.
Carroll was typically tidy in his passing but probably has more work to do to convince the manager he can be assertive enough in a midfield two upon which a big demand will be placed on.
Phew! Good luck, Mauricio, choosing between all these.
Lennon or Townsend?
The use of Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend for a half each at left wing against Schalke was a big influence in the way the team played.
A more detailed reflection can be found in this writer's post-Schalke article. But essentially it came down to Spurs being more narrow and intricate with Lennon cutting in off the flank and more expansive with Townsend serving as a natural left-winger and making more use of that flank.
Based on their own prominent attacking-midfield roles in pre-season, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela seem a good bet to be used centrally and on the right (with room to maneuvre and switch too, as has also been the case).
Pochettino's intentions for what is looking like being a third attacking midfielder alongside them are a little less clear.
Lennon has shown a good understanding with Eriksen and Lamela. His quickness allows him to drag defenders out of position and free space for his team-mates to run into. Subsequently he can also be connected with again in the more central spaces he then takes up.
This was all well and good against teams like Toronto. Premier League opposition might be wiser to attempt to instigate carefully constructed fluidity. Given its potential, it will still be worth Spurs trying, however.
The more direct inclinations of Townsend are still prone to lapses in judgement in decisive moments. But he has looked increasingly sharper over pre-season, and at his best (the winner against Toronto, an assist against Celtic) he has shown he is a weapon capable of causing some considerable damage.
If both Lennon and Townsend can take their encouraging form into the season, Pochettino will be grateful for the ability to utilise different spins on his attacking philosophy. First he has to decide who gets the nod to begin with.
One of Three Up Front?
Harry Kane's improvements over last season, and continued bright performances this summer, saw him rewarded with a long-term contract on Thursday.
The 21-year-old is well and truly part of the first-team picture at Tottenham now. The next step for him will be becoming first-choice up front.
It would definitely be a show of faith from Pochettino to pick him for what is looking like a lone striker role against West Ham. Though not an unwarranted one.
For the most part this summer it has been just the one forward proper in the Argentinian's starting XI, with the likes of Eriksen and Lamela charged with providing sufficient support (a work in progress in itself).
Kane has performed that role well enough. Against Schalke, he played alongside Roberto Soldado in the second-half. The abundance of midfielders in the squad would suggest they will be the ones accommodated at the possible expense of fitting in two of the club's current three strikers.
Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor are the experienced ones in that trio. The latter provides a bigger physical presence and on his day is a talent to occupy opposition defences with his skill and instinct for chances too.
The Spaniard has not lost the latter. The finishing ability that deserted him last season will need to be found again, though, if he is to stand a chance of cementing himself as Pochettino's main man in attack.
Perhaps more than any other position, the success of the Tottenham attack depends on who the manager goes with. Who he trusts in and perseveres with.
An acknowledgement of such could be rewarded with a confident performer quickly finding his feet.