LONDON (Reuters) - Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino gave an incredulous shrug on Friday when it was suggested that his side’s 1-1 draw away to European champions Real Madrid this week was his best result since taking over.
“A 1-1 draw?” the Argentine said in response to the question at Tottenham’s training complex on Friday, ahead of Sunday’s Premier League clash with Liverpool.
“It proved we can compete with the top clubs,” he said. “Which was the plan when we started three years ago.”
He took far more pride from the fact that the standout result was achieved with four key players injured or suspended and a line-up that surprised even some of those closest to him.
Central defensive rock Jan Vertonghen was moved to left back, a three-man central midfield featured two callow young Englishmen and new signing Fernando Llorente, hardly used so far, formed an ambitious two-pronged attack with Harry Kane.
Pochettino also instructed his side to sit deeper, rather than adopt the high pressing game which has become their trademark under his command.
It seemed a risky time to experiment.
Pochettino, however, said it proved his evolving Tottenham team now have the flexibility to adapt.
“I think maybe last season people said what is Tottenham’s Plan B,” the former Espanyol and Southampton coach said.
“It’s only risky if you haven’t worked in training to make the players more flexible and have the confidence to play in different shapes and systems. If they can’t accept that you are dead. It’s a risk to play players who can’t cope with the job you expect from them.
“The most important thing is that we have a plan. But now I think we have created different ways to play while still keeping the philosophy of the team... I’m so proud that our players accept and believe we can play differently from one game to another.”
Pochettino’s progress with Tottenham has already caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs — not least his handy knack of unearthing, and then trusting, young players to handle the biggest of stages.
In the Bernabeu bearpit on Tuesday with experienced duo Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama unavailable, Pochettino handed central midfield responsibility to 21-year-old Harry Winks with 23-year-old Eric Dier in an anchor role.
Davinson Sanchez, a 21-year-old Colombian signed from Ajax Amsterdam in the close season, played in central defence.
All three repaid their manager’s faith with mature performances.
“It’s about trying to find the right time and the place to give them the opportunity to play,” Pochettino said.
“Winks showed great personality and quality. He didn’t surprise me. Davinson is 21 but looks older. We’ve still not had time to work with him to understand new concepts. It’s tough to arrive and play with not many training sessions with the group but he has shown great quality.”
Pochettino’s side are third in the Premier League ahead of the visit of Liverpool to Wembley. They then face Manchester United away next week before the visit of Real Madrid in the Champions League. A north London derby also looms.
“I think every single game in the next three weeks will be like a cup final. It’s a good experience for us and it’s a period for us to learn a lot,” Pochettino said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge