Tottenham Hotspurs have been building up to this season for a while. Although Leicester City will get their well-deserved plaudits for what almost certainly looks like an improbable title win, let’s not forget the strides made by Mauricio Pochettino and his Marvels over the past year and more. The youngest squad in the Premier League are on their way to a runners-up finish. They also, interestingly, channel the spirit of another youthful side from a quarter of a century ago – Fergie’s Fledglings. The comparisons are striking.
It is 26 April 1992. Manchester United – young, feisty and eager – are at Anfield. They are second in the league. They have come off the back of an unexpected defeat to West Ham in London. They need to defeat Liverpool to stay in the title race, but they lose 2-0. The Kop serenades Alex Ferguson’s side with a merciless rendition of “And now you’re gonna believe us, you’ll never win the league”. The title is gone, and they have been humiliated by the old enemy. It has been a thoroughly chastening experience for Manchester United.
Ferguson swore vengeance. He had hit upon a rich vein of young talent at the club; that season, the junior side won the FA Youth Cup. It contained several future United regulars who were gradually integrated into the side over the next few years.
In the early 1990’s, a Manchester United player was named the PFA Young Player of the Year for three straight years. Lee Sharpe (1991) and Ryan Giggs (1992 and 1993) shared those awards between them. In 2016, it is Delle Alli who scoops the big prize, following on from Harry Kane in 2015. Of the Manchester United duo, one (Giggs) came through the youth system while the other was signed at an early age (Sharpe; Torquay United). The Tottenham duo boast similar provenance: Kane is Tottenham through and through, while Alli arrived from MK Dons in 2015.
The injection of much young talent in the side also had symbolic importance for Manchester United. The hot blooded style of play seemed to reflect its youthful character. Fresh, dynamic and attacking, the team delivered the title the following year, having been hardened by the experience of Anfield 1992.
Mauricio’s Marvels have truly been a joy to watch this season. The league’s second highest scorers with the league’s best defence, Tottenham have captured the essence of modern pressing football with their spirited teamwork. An attractive style of play has been augmented by the feel-good factor. Tottenham come across as a decent bunch of lads coached by a likeable manager who enjoy their football.
The small squad perhaps contributes to this cohesion. But this tightly-knit bunch isn’t just kids. The necessary experience is provided by members of the defence, while creative players like Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min also boast a lot of experience despite being under the age of 25.
It is arguable that Fergie’s Fledglings would never have gone on to the kind of success they did had the experienced heads of the side not been around. The side’s true coming-of-age moment was arguably the 1996 league and cup double, but the most outstanding performers during the run in were two old heads in the form of Schmeichel and Cantona.
In that regard, Manchester United were much better placed to integrate youngsters into the fold. The squad was populated with stalwarts like Steve Bruce, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes, and it eased the transition of the Neville brothers, David Beckham and Paul Scholes into the first team.
Spurs may actually be disadvantaged in that regard. Although the small squad makes for great unity, it doesn’t have the same level of experience to help youngsters settle. Pochettino is certainly bold enough to try and create that experience himself (the promotion of Harry Kane to a starting role was the result of a fair chance and great faith), but unless there is a busy summer, it’s not likely much depth will be added to the squad.
One mustn’t forget to factor in the two managers. Ferguson at the time was about to begin a revolution at the club and in the wider world of English football with his young squadron, but had nothing concrete to offer. Determination and ambition were his driving forces as, no doubt, they are also Pochettino’s.
Pochettino’s ideas represent the kind of sophisticated, continental style of football fashionable in Europe that will help his side make the decisive step up from very good to great. Consistency and experience will also be key: this is only Pochettino’s second season (whereas Ferguson had been United boss for some five years) at Spurs, and it remains to be seen whether maintaining a title challenge consistently is something his squad is up for.
Ferguson had arrived at United as the conqueror of Real Madrid and breaker of the Old Firm with Aberdeen. Pochettino’s CV, by contrast, is far more modest and his managerial career is younger than Ferguson’s was at that stage. The Scot also faced the task of rooting out a drinking culture at Old Trafford and making several changes to the squad. Pochettino has benefited from the groundwork laid by his predecessors and canny financial management under Daniel Levy.
This is not to say that Pochettino inherited the keys to an ocean liner. Like Ferguson post-1990, Pochettino has demonstrated shrewd transfer acumen – from key purchases like Alli to signings expected to slot right into the team like Kevin Wimmer.
Pochettino’s starting conditions have, no doubt, been more favourable, but his efforts in moulding a young and talented squad are commendable. With the youngsters at his disposal, much seems possible, but whether Mauricio’s Marvels can emulate Fergie’s Fledglings by going from a second place finish one year to doing one better the following is heavily dependant on Tottenham’s summer preparations for the new season.