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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Chelsea visit crucial in season-defining week for Maurico Pochettino's Tottenham

Spurs have not beaten the big sides in 2018/19, and they are up against Inter Milan and Arsenal after hosting Maurizio Sarri's in-form men

Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino, centre, is being known as the manager who unlocks new-fangled formations and debunks imported ideas. Reuters
Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino, centre, is being known as the manager who unlocks new-fangled formations and debunks imported ideas. Reuters

In cliche, the brutal welcome to the Premier League to exotic newcomers tends to be administered by certain stereotypes of managers: Sam Allardyce, say, or Tony Pulis, rather than a progressive coach who did not utter a word in public in English in his first 18 months in the division.

And yet Mauricio Pochettino has become the man who delivers the unwelcome reality checks, the manager who unlocks new-fangled formations and debunks imported ideas.

Rewind two seasons and Pep Guardiola’s first defeat as Manchester City manager came courtesy of Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur. The first team to inflict a top-flight defeat on Antonio Conte’s Chelsea after their switch to 3-4-2-1 was, once again, the Argentine’s Spurs.

Now Maurizio Sarri goes to Wembley boasting the longest unbeaten start of any manager in Premier League history, a 12-game sequence that allowed him to take that mantle from Nottingham Forest’s Frank Clark.

Perhaps Tottenham now require history to repeat itself, and not merely for the sake of statistical distinctions. Spurs have not beaten the best of late.

They have already lost at home to the top two, Manchester City and Liverpool. If they have a chance to end a trio of managerial unbeaten runs, this could complete an unwanted hat-trick of Wembley defeats.

They owe their lofty station to their away form and their consistency against the lesser lights. Yet while this may have been their best Premier League start, they still risk being distanced in a defining week. After Chelsea, they face Inter Milan and Arsenal.

It is an examination of where their ambitions lie.

Uefa Champions League elimination could be guaranteed on Wednesday. Sunday could see them rebranded as an Europa League side in a straight fight with their neighbours for the last top-four place.

Alternatively, twin derby victories would position them in the title race. Chelsea, it seems safe to say, are in it.

“Of course, Chelsea is one point ahead of us, but I think always when we play this sort of the game means a lot for everyone,” Pochettino said.

“We need to be calm and relaxed now and be sure we arrive in the best way and perform in the best way to try and win.”

Yet a problem of Spurs’ season has been that they have rarely turned up in the best shape. Post-World Cup injuries have taken their toll.

Pochettino’s is a depleted squad with Davinson Sanchez potentially out until 2019 and Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose and Mousa Dembele all missing on Saturday, though Jan Vertonghen is back in full training after almost two months out with a hamstring problem.

“It is very good news,” Pochettino said. “We have to wait to see whether he can be involved.”

If not, the rookie Juan Foyth may have to play.

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Read more:

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Manager Jose Mourinho's best excuses of the 2018/19 season so far

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Tottenham Hotspur hope to hold down Christian Eriksen at the Premier League club. EPA
Tottenham Hotspur hope to hold down Christian Eriksen at the Premier League club. EPA

Performing in the best manner could entail looking for flaws in Conte’s 4-3-3 formation, perhaps in limiting Jorginho’s influence, or in counter-attacking when Chelsea’s full-backs or N’Golo Kante are too far upfield.

If the Italian’s system is set in stone, Pochettino has tactical flexibility on his side. He has used seven formations already this season although the question is if, deprived of summer signings, he has made to be more inventive in his quest for an edge and if, minus the injured contingent, he has to alter his shape to suit the available personnel.

At least he has Christian Eriksen back towards his best.

A chronic stomach problem sidelined the midfielder earlier in the season. He only played 45 minutes in Denmark’s draw with the Republic of Ireland, but that was by design.

Pochettino hopes to see more of the playmaker, and not just this weekend. He will be offered a new long-term contract.

“The club is trying to take the best decision,” the manager said. “Christian will take the best decision.

"I am not worried but I prefer he is going to sign a new contract and stay a long time with Tottenham.”