More than any other manager in the Premier League, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino is fond of talking about his philosophy and his team’s style. Pochettino is so committed to his methods that he spends next to no time worrying about the opposition, routinely responding to questions about opponents with respectful platitudes: “They are very tough,” and “We have great respect,” and always, “We are focused on ourselves”.
This approach has occasionally cost Tottenham, but generally Pochettino’s methods work, and it is difficult to imagine him significantly altering Tottenham’s style of play. But this year’s move to Wembley Stadium — while Spurs’ new stadium is being built — could signal some minor changes.
Maintaining Spurs’ home form at the national stadium is probably the biggest challenge of Pochettino’s career to date, and the manager must find a way to overcome his team’s struggles at Wembley’s big pitch, starting with Chelsea’s visit on Sunday.
Spurs won once in five attempts at Wembley last season, and the pitch — some 545 square metres bigger than they were used to at White Hart Lane — was often cited as a reason for their struggles. The extra space disoriented Spurs’ defenders, who know Pochettino’s high line like the backs of their hands, and Spurs were simply unable to suffocate opponents with their high press as they did on the way to 21 wins and two draws from 23 home matches last season.
Pochettino will not make drastic changes, but he is pragmatic, and in Spurs’ only warm-up match at Wembley, the 2-0 win over Juventus a fortnight ago, there were indicators that he may be ready to tweak Spurs’ style this season in order to have more success at their home away from home.
Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris — who is normally instructed to play out from the back using short, risky passes — played directly more often than usual against the Italians, looking to find Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Moussa Sissoko quickly. The forward three pushed wider than usual, creating a 4-3-3 rather than the dynamic 4-2-3-1 that can reshape to 3-4-3 — Pochettino’s hallmark.
There was also, significantly, a slight change in pressing style. Tottenham’s pressing under Pochettino is designed to harry opponents so they make a mistake or give the ball away cheaply, but Spurs appeared more conservative in approach, conserving energy and not looking to close down every Juve player.
Perhaps Spurs were simply not up to speed or not playing at full pelt because it is still preseason, but the tactics against Juventus suggested a slight switch to a style more in tune with Jurgen Klopp’s at Liverpool. The German’s teams play more on the counterattack than Spurs and look to cleverly block off passes, rather than harry every single opposition player. This shift may simply work better for Tottenham against quality opposition given the extra space at Wembley.
Speaking a few days after the Juve scrimmage, Mousa Dembele intriguingly alluded to a change when asked about Spurs’ plans for Wembley. “In training, we try to do different things — the way we play,” said Dembele. “I don’t say everything, of course. … We can adapt quickly and have a good season at Wembley. We’ll adapt to the size of the pitch, of course.”
Toby Alderweireld also hinted that Spurs would use the pitch to their advantage. “We tried to make it a good thing today,” he said of the extra space, immediately after the friendly against Juve.
Pochettino, however, flat-out denied that Spurs’ style will change this season, saying on Friday: “Against Juventus we played against one of the best teams in Europe and we played really well. We cannot adapt our style on a big pitch or a small pitch. I think it’s not important the size of the pitch.”
It is understandable that the manager would be reticent to publicly reveal any changes in approach, and Pochettino rarely discusses tactics anyway. The proof will be in Spurs’ performances at Wembley this season, beginning Sunday with the grudge match against defending champions Chelsea, but there is a chance that Pochettino will do things slightly differently this season.
Dan is ESPN FC’s Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.