London- The irony was not lost on Mauricio Pochettino. “Remember when I first came to Tottenham and I was criticised for saying the White Hart Lane pitch was too small for us?” the manager said. “And now, people are saying that Wembley is too big?”
Pochettino’s comments came last season, when his team’s travails at Wembley – their temporary home for European matches – were under the microscope. It was a regular talking point, one of those things that become a thing, much to the annoyance of the manager who finds himself caught up in them.
The mind went back to John Toshack and how, when he was managing Wales, he would routinely lament the difficulty of finding the right balance, whether between defence and attack, established players and new faces or any number of other teasers. “If I pull the blanket over my head, my feet get cold,” Toshack would say. “And if I push it over my feet, my head gets cold.”
The joke was Toshack ought to find a bigger blanket and Pochettino must now do something similar, as he considers the Wembley factor and what can justifiably be billed as a season-defining issue. Tottenham will play all of their home matches at the national stadium while the building work on their new ground is completed.
Pochettino prefers to play on a bigger pitch, such as Wembley, as it better allows his team to unpick visiting sides who sit deep and mass men behind the ball. He made this point back in October 2014, in the early months of his Tottenham tenure, when his team were struggling at White Hart Lane – on what was one of the tightest pitches in the Premier League.
“Our style means we need a bigger space to play because we play a positional game,” Pochettino said. “It’s true that White Hart Lane is a little bit tight and it’s better for the opponent when they play deep. We need time to adapt to our new set-up and to understand better our position on the pitch.”
On the other hand Pochettino has built his success at Tottenham as much on what his players do when they do not have possession; the way that they press, often in packs, to win back the ball – the higher up the pitch, the better.
The old White Hart Lane, as it must now be called, measured 100m x 67m whereas the Wembley surface is 105m x 69m, making it larger than any in the Premier League. Wembley is 8% bigger than White Hart Lane or, to put it another way, Pochettino’s players have 545 square metres more to cover at the national stadium. Consequently they must work harder to close down opposing teams and it is no great stretch to say that it is more difficult for them to impose their pressing style at Wembley.
The contrast last season between Tottenham’s results at White Hart Lane and Wembley was like night and day. At the Lane their record in all competitions read: P23 W21 D2 L0. At Wembley it was P5 W1 D1 L3, with one of the defeats coming in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.
Pochettino said that his players had fed off it being the final season at White Hart Lane, with all of the attendant energy and emotion, but the reality was they had come to be perfectly in sync at the stadium. According to Pochettino, they had needed time to adapt. How they adapted.
Perhaps, the same thing can be said about them at Wembley. Take the small details, which are so crucial at the highest level. At White Hart Lane Toby Alderweireld, for example, would hit those long diagonal passes with unerring accuracy. It looked almost instinctive. The central defender was familiar with his frames of reference, such as the distance between the touchline and the stands. Space and perspective are key. Did he play that ball quite so effortlessly at Wembley? Alderweireld and his team-mates must recalibrate their bearings.
Pochettino is a slave to his preparations and he said last season that his squad would train at the club’s Enfield base before European ties on a pitch that had been modified to replicate the dimensions of Wembley. In fact, Pochettino does this before any away game. Wherever Tottenham are playing, be it Selhurst Park, Anfield or The Hawthorns, the training pitch will be marked out to match. As an aside, they would not be allowed to change the dimensions at Wembley to mirror those at White Hart Lane.
Tottenham do not have an agreement with the Football Association to train at Wembley and so Pochettino will continue to use his replica pitch approach in Enfield, even if this cannot simulate the overall national stadium experience. The club do have a friendly at Wembley against Juventus on Saturday 5 August, after they return from their tour of the United States at the end of the month.
Pochettino had said in May that he was keen to work at Wembley. “It’s important for us to start training and to get a feel for Wembley,” he said. “That will be fantastic for us. It’s impossible now to decide which day we will start there but it is in our plan to start to train at the training ground and then to try to move there [to Wembley] for a few days to train – not just for two days. We need to plan the training sessions with the organisation at Wembley.”
The FA would be open to having the discussion with Tottenham about them using Wembley to train but, for now, the big date for the club is Sunday 20 August when they play their first Premier League game at the national stadium, against Chelsea. They are scheduled to kick off the season at Newcastle United on 13 August. There is the belief within the club the Wembley factor has been overplayed. Nobody can dispute the importance of a positive start.