Mauricio Pochettino has succeeded in a lot of ways as Tottenham Hotspur head coach. For starters, it looks like the north London club will qualify for the UEFA Champions League, ending a five-year exile from the competition.
He has also found a way to get the best out of players such as Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli and Harry Kane, who were deemed flops before his appointment. Most notably, though, he has succeeded in making Spurs less "Spursy."
In fact, Spurs right now could hardly be any less Spursy. Derided for decades as little more than a cup team that lacked the mental strength and fire to sustain an assault on English football’s elite, Tottenham now find themselves a runner in a two-horse title race this season. And they show little sign of faltering either.
This weekend’s clash against Liverpool at Anfield could go some way to determining whether Spurs have the staying power to last the course, though. Their track record over the past few months illustrates the extent to which Pochettino has changed the very identity of the club, however.
There have been dips over the course of the campaign. There was a three-match run at the start of the new year in which Spurs failed to pick up a single win, drawing twice and losing once. However, the north London side responded by registering five straight wins, including a remarkable 2-1 away win at Manchester City.
Then there were the heavy defeats to Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Europa League that could have derailed Tottenham’s confidence and momentum. It did no such thing, however, as Spurs notched a 3-0 win over Bournemouth, turning in one of their most comprehensive performances of the season so far.
"I think we are different people now. I think we can all see that," the Argentinian insisted, per the Sun, and with good reason upon analysis of his team’s results.
"Our players, staff, president and supporters believe we are stronger and that we can compete in every competition. We are showing we have a winning mentality. To speak about the club’s past is not fair because we are showing we can get success this season."
But despite all this, the final stretch of the season will test Spurs in a way they can in no way be prepared for. Of course, Leicester City won’t be prepared for it either, with Robert Huth the only player from either side to have won the Premier League title previously. English football is taking a vault into the unknown from now until May.
Five points separate Spurs and the Foxes, so can Pochettino draw in the league leaders at this late stage of the season? Only seven games remain of the 2015/16 Premier League campaign, and thus time is running out for the Spurs boss and his men. The gap must narrow now or it might be too late.
Fundamentally, both sides are rather similar. They both boast strong spines right through the centre of their team, fronted by in-form English strikers—Kane and Jamie Vardy. Spurs have Dele Alli as the creative spark through the centre of the pitch and around the opposition penalty area, and Leicester have Riyad Mahrez.
In Claudio Ranieri, Leicester can call upon the experience of a manager well accustomed to the pressures of football at the top end of the Premier League, but the Italian has never won the English game’s biggest prize. In that sense, he finds himself in the same position as Pochettino. If there is an edge, it’s almost too insignificant to speak of.
Where Spurs could really find themselves at a disadvantage is on the fixture list. Matches against Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea still await the north London club, with Leicester facing a rather favourable run until the last three games of the season when they face Manchester United and Everton before a trip to Stamford Bridge on the final day. The Foxes might have already won the title by then.
Were it not for Leicester’s astonishing rise, Pochettino’s transformation of Spurs would be the defining tale of the season. A top-four finish was the objective asked of the Argentinian before the start of the campaign, but with such success has come a shifting of ambition. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for Spurs, and they must hold their nerve to make the most of it.
There will be wobbles from Leicester, but Tottenham have to ensure they take advantage when those blips come. Pochettino has already succeeded in turning Spurs into a top-four fixture; now he must make them hard-nosed title challengers.
Individually, the Argentinian exudes self-assurance, and his players must now do the same, regardless of the high-pressure environment they’re playing each match in.
Even if Spurs do miss out on the title this season, the past two years will go down as a pivotal spell in the history of the club.
So many managers have tried and failed in their efforts to fulfil the ambitions of the north London side, with Harry Redknapp coming closest in recent times. Rotation looks to have finally given Spurs a platform as a truly elite team.
Pochettino could already be considered the most significant manager in the club’s history for a generation. He has changed the culture at White Hart Lane in much the same way Arsene Wenger did in the late 1990s at Arsenal. The Argentinian could go down as a similar figure.
Of course, Spurs have benefited from a weakened field in the Premier League this season, with top-four competition at its worst for a decade at the very least. Nonetheless, their north London rivals at the Emirates Stadium provide precedent on how the chance to push for the title could have been spurned.
Arsenal might still be Arsenal, but Spurs are no longer Spurs, and they have until the end of the season to force home the point.