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Fractured squad hampers Mauricio Pochettino’s rebuild of Tottenham

Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, second from right, and his teammates react during an English League Cup soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Colchester United, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, at JobServe Community Stadium in Colchester, England. (Joe Giddens / PA via AP)
Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, second from right, and his teammates react during an English League Cup soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Colchester United, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, at JobServe Community Stadium in Colchester, England. (Joe Giddens / PA via AP)
By Steve Douglas Associated Press

Tottenham broke into English soccer’s established elite through squad unity, the energy of youth and a common purpose created by manager Mauricio Pochettino.

More than five years into Pochettino’s tenure, that all looks to be slipping away.

And he knows it.

A humiliating elimination by fourth-tier Colchester in the English League Cup via a penalty shootout on Tuesday prompted an honest reflection by Pochettino regarding the current dynamic inside his squad.

“Maybe our performances are good but you need this extra – which is mental – connection,” the Argentine said. “It is energy to be all together, not to have different agendas in the squad. We need time again to build that togetherness that you need when you are competing at this level.”

Pochettino spoke about needing time to get players “on the same page,” about needing two transfer windows to “fix this type of situation and sort it.”

In essence, Pochettino is saying there are divisions in his squad, which is going to need to be refreshed, even rebuilt.

Already the longest-serving manager in the Premier League working solely in the top flight, is Pochettino the man to carry out this job and inject some freshness?

Spurs are in the midst of a long rut which, somewhat paradoxically, includes a spectacular run to the Champions League final where they lost to Liverpool in June.

Taking into account all matches since the middle of February, they have won eight of 26. This season, it is just two wins in its eight matches in all competitions, and the record includes a home loss to Newcastle, the squandering of a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 against Olympiakos in the Champions League, and now an exit at the first hurdle of a cup competition at the expense of a team 71 places lower in English soccer’s pyramid.

The last away win in the league came on Jan. 20, against a Fulham team headed for relegation.

Here’s a look at key problems facing Pochettino:

Squad tensions

It seems some players don’t want to be at Tottenham anymore, and other senior members of the squad are unsettled.

Christian Eriksen is an obvious example, having said in the offseason he was keen to “try something new” amid interest from Real Madrid.The Denmark playmaker who pulls everything together in midfield has only started four of Tottenham’s eight games this season.

Like Eriksen, center backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are in the final year of their contracts. Vertonghen, widely recognized as Tottenham’s best defender, was left out of the team’s first three league games.

Then there are England internationals Dele Alli and Eric Dier who are no longer flavor of the month. The slump of Alli, who used to strike up such a good relationship with Harry Kane up front, has been marked, while Dier’s first minutes of the season came against on Tuesday against Colchester.

The closure of the European transfer window on Sept. 2 was supposed to unify an unsettled squad, ending uncertainty around some players, but that doesn’t appear the case.

Midfield issues

Back in the early days of Pochettino’s reign, Tottenham – an underdog battling to mix it with country’s biggest clubs – stood out because of the cohesion of its young, hungry squad but also the intensity of its team.

Pep Guardiola, for example, said he was blown away by the energy of Tottenham’s suffocating press when he slipped to his first loss as Manchester City manager, 2-0 in October 2016 at the old White Hart Lane.

The current Tottenham team doesn’t seem to have those qualities, with the center of midfield a particular problem for Pochettino. Mousa Dembele used to set the tone for Spurs with his technique, driving runs and intensity of press, and he had a great partnership with Vincent Wanyama.

Offseason signing Tanguy Ndombele might prove to be a like-for-like long-term replacement for Dembele, but Pochettino’s preferred central midfield appears to be Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks, who can’t seem to control matches. Tottenham has already thrown away leads against Arsenal, Olympiakos and Leicester this season.

Unsettled team

Does Pochettino even know his best starting lineup anymore?

Who is the first-choice right back after the departure of Kieran Trippier? When will he give Eriksen a sustained run in the team? Where does Alli now fit in? Why is Kane playing so deep these days?

Pochettino has never had such depth in his attacking midfield options, especially, but he doesn’t appear to have settled on a formation.

“To keep the successful period in football, you need to be different every single season and act differently and find a different solution,” Pochettino said. “Maybe we need to do something different.”

Tottenham, which is seventh in the Premier League after two wins from its first six games, has a benign run of fixtures to get some momentum going in its season, with the next three against Southampton, Brighton and Watford.

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