Although it has only been a matter of days since Tim Sherwood shuffled out of the managerial hotseat at Tottenham Hotspur, trailing behind him his much-vaunted Premier League win percentage and beloved gilet, it seems like the discussion over who will replace him at Spurs has been going on for far longer.
Since Andre Villas-Boas was dismissed in December and Spurs took the short-term step of installing Sherwood until the end of the season, managers from all over Europe have been linked with White Hart Lane.
From this, two men have emerged. Frank de Boer and Mauricio Pochettino seem set to battle it out for Daniel Levy’s fickle favour and the Southampton boss is apparently ahead of his Dutch rival for the job.
The Argentine has won many admirers through the work he has done at St Mary’s over the past 18 months, lifting them from 14th last season to eighth this time around, all the while promoting the kind of attacking football that is so desperately hankered for at Spurs.
There are three players who undertake the bulk of Southampton’s attacking work in Pochettino’s system. The most advanced is a central striker, powerful enough to occupy the defence by themselves but also skilled on the ball, a role Dani Osvaldo and Rickie Lambert both played at times this season.
Next there is a wide forward, given freedom to rove across the line and play as a genuine second striker at times, a position that Jay Rodriguez filled with such aplomb he looked set to make England’s squad for Brazil before injury ruled him out.
The third, and perhaps most important player, is the creative forward given a free role in Southampton’s attack. Adam Lallana has been linked with a £25m move to Liverpool on the back of his season in this role for the Saints, his likely departure perhaps one reason Pochettino is ready to leave St Mary’s.
In addition to this trio, an advanced central midfielder is also an important cog in Pochettino’s attacking play, Steven Davis the man most regularly entrusted to provide backup to the front three at Southampton.
If the Southampton manager did leave for Spurs, and wished to replicate this system, he would find no shortage of options given the considerable outlay the Lilywhites undertook last summer, but who would be the best bets to make Pochettino’s attack?
After a superb second half of the season that saw him claim Spurs’ Player of the Year award, Christian Eriksen is the clear choice to take up Lallana’s free role. The Dane operated from a notional left-wing position under Sherwood but frequently drifted inside, as was most recently the case during Spurs’ final day win over Aston Villa.
Under Pochettino, Lallana started on the right but would pop up almost anywhere in the attack, and giving Eriksen this freedom, while also cutting his defensive responsibilities, should see the Dane become an even more impressive player next year.
In terms of key stats, Eriksen scored seven goals to Lallana’s nine last season, setting up eight to the Southampton man’s five. Despite having played thirteen fewer games, Eriksen created the same amount of chances as Lallana with 68. Although he is not as effective a dribbler as Lallana, in terms of per 90 key stats, Eriksen looks like he could prove an upgrade on the England international.
On paper, Rodriguez looks a harder nut for Spurs to crack, assuming they don’t build on rumoured interest in the injured forward by making a bid this summer. However, one reason Pochettino might be fancied by the Spurs board is the chance he will be able to extract the best from compatriot and club record signing Erik Lamela.
Injured for much of the season, and looking short of confidence when he did make it onto the pitch, Lamela will need a big second year to repay the faith shown in him by Spurs’ £30m outlay.
On paper, the Rodriguez role looks tailor-made for him. At Roma, Lamela notched 15 times from a wide right position, matching Rodriguez Premier League output from the left this term. Like the Saints man, Lamela is happy to cut in off his flank and play behind a central striker at times and an accomplished dribbler, averaging 2.45 successful take-ons per game even in his miserable debut season at Spurs.
If he were to replicate his Roma form, he provides the added bonus of being more creative than Rodriguez, laying on 56 chances for his teammates in Serie A 2012-13 compared to the England player’s 20 this season.
Major doubts remain about Lamela’s future at Spurs, but he looks to have a natural place in Pochettino’s attack, and the Southampton’s manager’s arrival at Spurs could prove key to his renaissance.
Southampton had similar problems with strikers to Spurs this season, with expensive signing Osvaldo mirroring Roberto Soldado’s struggles to make an impact on the Premier League. Emmanuel Adebayor played the Lambert role at Spurs, coming into the side after Villas-Boas departed to notch 11 times in 21 league games.
Simply put, if Adebayor gets on with Pochettino, he looks a fine fit for the striker role in the Argentine’s system. In addition to his goals, Adebayor created 34 chances this season, the third-highest total in Spurs’ squad.
If Adebayor struggles with Pochettino’s notoriously high-octane training sessions and intense pressing game, there are doubts over whether Soldado can take his place effectively. Apart from his lack of goals, the Spaniard hasn’t shown the work rate or power to play as a lone central striker.
That said, Soldado’s clever one-touch play around the box could work well if Lamela and Eriksen build an understanding with him and Pochettino’s years in La Liga as a player and a manager might give him the nous required to extract some goals from the forward.
Pochettino will have a wealth of options to pick from if he decides to stick with two deep central midfielders at Spurs, and there are also three men likely to fight it out for Davis’ role if the Argentine replaces Sherwood.
Gylfi Sigurdsson, Paulinho and Lewis Holtby have all shown flashes of quality this season, the latter mostly while on loan at Fulham, and should they stay at Spurs, each could take up the attacking midfield role under Pochettino.
Sigurdsson and Paulinho are greater goal threats than Holtby, but the German’s stats more closely align with Davis’, which are based around keeping possession and creating chances, rather than scoring.
Other than a couple of late season flourishes, Paulinho more or less downed tools after Villas-Boas left this season, but has the capacity to be a key player for Spurs. The Brazilian has the energy to drive Pochettino’s pressing game high up the pitch and is a genuine goal threat from open play at set pieces.
With the freedom granted by having a manager who isn’t allergic to defensive midfielders in the dugout, Paulinho could thrive as the link between midfield and the attack at Spurs.
Despite a poor season at Spurs, the Lilywhites clearly have the players to fill Pochettino’s attacking system. If they remain at Spurs and hit their best form, Adebayor, Lamela, Eriksen and Paulinho could prove as deadly a quartet as any in the league, but there’s a lot of ifs for Pochettino to overcome, not least whether he wants to move to Spurs himself in the first place.