"In Poch We Trust"
Champions League: Spurs deliver 45 minutes of pure magic to put quarter-finals in sight
Henry Winter, Chief Football Writer
February 14 2019, 12:00am, The Times
The man-of-the-match award was presented to Jan Vertonghen for his immense performance here, creating the first, scoring the second and helping subdue Jadon Sancho. But the honours could also have been handed to his manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who turned the flow of not just this game, but this tie. This was a night of “Super Jan” and a super manager.
Tottenham Hotspur now travel hopefully to Signal Iduna Park on March 5, knowing that if they score once, Dortmund require five. Such is the confident mood Pochettino has instilled in his side, and the clever tactics, that few would doubt their ability to score in Germany.
Pochettino is proving a remarkable alchemist. Time after time, Spurs fans look at his teamsheet before kick-off, occasionally perplexed, wondering how they will line up, what the manager’s thinking is, and so often leave laughing at any doubts. He shaped Spurs in a 3-4-1-2 formation here. He had Spurs playing a high line in the first half, potentially risky with Sancho’s pace and liking for balls over the top. He fielded one of the smaller attacks in Spurs’ history, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min. And it all worked, certainly in the second half, not with a change of system but with a change of mood. Pochettino sorted that. “In Poch we trust,” is a familiar mantra among Spurs supporters.
And among his players. It is a sign of Pochettino’s man-management skills that he can get a 31-year-old defender to play so effectively as a left wing back. Even given Vertonghen’s history in the left-back role with Belgium, it was a challenge but one he passed with sumptuous ease, providing the perfect cross for Son’s opener, and scoring his first Champions League goal with an unstoppable finish from Serge Aurier’s cross, wing backs in total harmony. Before the game, Pochettino had talked to his players about wing backs attacking the far post and it worked after the break. Vertonghen and Aurier seemed higher up the pitch in the second half, with chalk on their boots, stretching Dortmund while Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko dominated the centre.
Pochettino’s impact on this side was seen in their response in the second half. A few minutes in his company, listening to their leader, and they were transformed. There were tweaks, Toby Alderweireld and Vertonghen getting closer to Sancho, stopping him before he built up steam. There was a change of attitude, Pochettino encouraging them to be more decisive and incisive.
He is very good at quelling concerns, and changing moods. There were fears in pre-season over whether Spurs should have bought more, and Pochettino simply voiced his satisfaction with what he had. There were concerns more recently over how Spurs would cope without the injured Harry Kane, who had scored seven goals in seven games, and the dynamic Dele Alli.
Spurs did go out of the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, but the Champions League and Premier League were always Pochettino’s priorities. He stayed calm. He has kept Spurs in the hunt for both. They are five points off the top in the Premier League and hurtling towards the last eight in Europe’s elite competition. Few managers husband their resources as adroitly as Pochettino.
He has strengthened Spurs’ resolve so that they do not become downcast at a disappointing first half. They withstood Dortmund’s early challenge. Sancho, being watched by Gareth Southgate, demonstrated for 45 minutes why he is becoming established in the England squad. The Londoner blessed with so much pace, balance and remarkably mature decision-making for an 18-year-old was on the right, having to deal with Vertonghen’s ventures from wing back, but always quick to attack, whipping in a couple of threatening crosses before the break. Sancho’s combination with Achraf Hakimi, a real bundle of overlapping intent on loan from Real Madrid, was one of the features of the opening half.
Christian Pulisic, who will play for Chelsea next season, was over on the left, stretching Spurs, causing Aurier problems, before fading, and it was impossible to judge him on this performance. The half closed with Dortmund going close, and only Hugo Lloris kept the scores level. First he pushed away Thomas Delaney’s shot and somehow scrambled to his right to push Dan-Axel Zagadou’s header away from Sancho’s expert cross.
Pochettino kept them steady, kept them focused and sent them out in the second half full of belief, and whipping in balls from the wide area to catch Dortmund out. Tottenham were suddenly far more adventurous. One moment Son was chatting to Dortmund’s captain, Mario Götze, as the teams prepared to restart, and 67 seconds later he was scoring. Dortmund knew all about Son’s menace from his Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen days, let alone footage of his recent displays for Spurs and his goalscoring performance against them in the group stage in 2017. He had scored eight goals against them in 11 matches in all competitions, and was about to add his ninth.
Spurs’ hungrier pressing game saw them target Hakimi, gaining possession and Christian Eriksen taking over. Moura found Vertonghen on the touchline. The Belgian’s cross was weighted to clear Zagadou and fell for Son, who had stolen in. Son connected with a lovely right-footed finish, steering past Roman Burki, causing mass celebration among the Spurs faithful. Sadly, there was a brief exchange of missiles between fans behind Lloris’s goal. Stewards could be seen taking a flag pole out which looked like it had been thrown from the away section.
Spurs were unrecognisable from the first half. They looked heavyweight European campaigners, convinced they were heading far in the competition. Eriksen drove in a couple of corners from the right that ended with some rather wild finishing from Moura. Eriksen was told to pause at one point, and the fans became slightly restless, wondering why he was not getting on with the game but the Spanish referee, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, was waiting for VAR to check on a supposed earlier hand-ball by Delaney. It was all very confusing for the 71,214 fans.
They were not as bemused as Dortmund’s defence. Spurs’ pressure brought a deserved second seven minutes from time, and it was an all wing-back double act. Aurier crossed from the right, and there was Vertonghen slamming the ball past Burki. “Super Jan” ran away, doing the “Super Man” celebration, as if opening his shirt. The camaraderie that Pochettino has overseen in the Spurs dressing room was seen in the way Son took such delight in being able to do his special celebration with Vertonghen.
Pochettino smiled. He’s magic, you know. He waved his wand again. He sent Fernando Llorente on for Moura and the substitute scored with his first touch, heading in Eriksen’s corner 146 seconds after arriving. Son departed to a standing ovation, a nice touch by Pochettino to allow the fans to shower love on their South Korean. But the final song was one of praise to Pochettino.