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Pochettino puts team before individuals in Tottenham's tenacious attack

Pochettino puts team before individuals in Tottenham's tenacious attack


Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has defended naming only six substitutes for the game against Burnley on Saturday.

John Stones (illness), David Silva, Fabian Delph, Benjamin Mendy, Phil Foden, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus are all out with injuries, which left City with just Claudio Bravo, Aymeric Laporte, Yaya Toure, Tosin Adarabioyo, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Brahim Diaz on the bench and one slot free.

"We don't have any more players, that is the reason why," Guardiola said before the game. "We have one goalkeeper and five players. We could take one from [the] second team but they played a game yesterday.

"We played two-and-a-half days ago. We felt two games in a row would be difficult [they] haven't had one serious training sessions with us."

The decision drew criticism as City have spent over £450 million on new players since Guardiola's arrival in England, including from former Man United defender Gary Neville, now a pundit.

"I was really hoping he wasn't going to give the answer that he did," Neville told Sky Sports. "I think it's a joke, an absolute joke.

"If you are a youth team manager at Manchester City, ring him up. Forget the second team -- even if they played yesterday still bring one on the bench -- the youth team are there. Bring a kid, travel with the team, help the kitman, put him on the bench, have the experience of being in a Premier League game and give somebody a boost.

"If you are an academy manager or reserve team manager at Manchester City you must think I am wasting my time. Forget the fact of how much money they've spent, six players on the bench is like a protest. I'm not sure why he is peddling this theme.

"He's an absolutely incredible manager, the work he has done with this team is unbelievable and the team performances absolutely outstanding. But things like that let you down, he doesn't need to do that.

"He doesn't have to bring the kid off the bench, he could just bring him for the experience, the feeling. I just feel like the opportunity has been missed again to promote the wonderful youth team that Man City have got.

"I don't know why he is peddling that story. It's poor to not bring a young player. It's really poor. I can guarantee you that the academy and youth team coaches at Man City will be really disheartened by that. I guarantee you.

"He might as well just bring three if you go with the theory about not playing. Just fill your bench."

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"It is an art in itself to compose a starting team," the legendary pioneer of Total Football, Rinus Michels, once said. "Finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers -- and between defence, construction and attack."

Michels mastered the art and the process of building a great team, rather than simply gathering great individuals. It remains the most fundamental test of managerial quality.

It's obvious the best 11 individuals in the world wouldn't necessarily form a great team -- they'd almost certainly be top-heavy and lack ball-winning quality -- but football has become so tactically complex it's arguable the best four attackers in the world wouldn't necessarily form a great attack either. You need a variety of qualities to peneatrate a modern defence: speed in behind, players who can come short to receive the ball into feet, runs from deeper positions, directness out wide, and someone who can thread a pass between defenders.

While it's difficult to look beyond Manchester City as the Premier League's best attacking force, it's arguably Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur who have created the most impressively balanced attacking quartet. They have not spent hundreds of millions of pounds on assembling outrageously talented superstars. They've carefully, methodically built a wonderfully cohesive front four. Ahead of Sunday's trip to Anfield, with Liverpool now without Philippe Coutinho, it is Tottenham who now boast the Premier League's fab four.

Those four players -- Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen -- are all very good individually. But their quality is emphasized by their cohesion, the fact they all offer different qualities. Together, they pull defenders apart and play around them: one drags an opponent forward, the other attacks the space he's created. Crucially, they all offer very different qualities.

The obvious superstar is Kane, who is odds-on favourite to win the top fight's golden boot award for the third consecutive campaign, a historic achievement putting him on a par with Jimmy Greaves, Alan Shearer and Thierry Henry. His goal return remains remarkable.

But what was most impressive about Kane's performance on Wednesday night against Manchester United was the fact he didn't have his shooting boots on, miscuing a couple of efforts badly, and yet still contributed to Spurs' attacking effort. He continually came deep, away from Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, receiving the ball to feet and playing clever passes to onrushing teammates. It was an outstanding display of hold-up play, the type of thing Teddy Sheringham used to do for Tottenham, usually from a more withdrawn position. Kane, who wears No.10 rather than No.9 because he considers himself more than a goalscorer, is a very good all-round centre-forward.

In other sides, that wouldn't work. If, for example, Arsenal's new centre-forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continually drops into those positions, the Gunners will probably play in front of the opposition because Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan aren't naturals at charging in behind in response.

Spurs, though, have two players who will make runs in the opposite direction. Alli is a curious player, a No.10 in terms of positioning, but best when charging into the box to make late runs, almost as a support striker. This works excellently in combination with Kane, and while those two don't necessarily combine directly in the manner of a classic strike partnership, they work exceptionally well together.

The other player in this respect is Son, who has demonstrated his best Tottenham form over the last couple of months, even if he was relatively quiet in midweek. Son starts from a wider position but also offers forward running to provide an extra goal threat, generally penetrating the gap between centre-back and full-back.

But the balance regarding Son is actually most crucial with another player, Eriksen. Tottenham don't play with two wide players making forward runs, which would probably make them too direct. Nor do they play with two creators drifting inside, which would result in them playing in front of the opposition. Instead, they have one of each -- they have the balance between possession and penetration, between assists and goals. This is fundamentally important from the wide positions in a 4-2-3-1, but something not many Premier League teams have got right in recent years.

The balance can even be extended to midfield, where Victor Wanyama plays the holding role (Eric Dier has played there while the Kenyan has been out injured) while Mousa Dembele is more attack-minded, dribbling past challenges to beat the press and playing reliable passes into the final third, rather than replicating Alli's runs and ending up in goalscoring postions.

Most impressively, Pochettino's back-ups all play different roles too. Fernando Llorente, while hardly a success so far this season, is a classic Plan B. Newcomer Lucas Moura is a different type of wide player, someone who will dribble down the flanks and hit the byline, not a specialty of Eriksen or Son. Erik Lamela, who has suffered from major injury problems over the past year, is Spurs' best wide man in terms of pressing.

In midfield, Harry Winks offers a different option to Dier, Wanyama and Dembele -- he's calmer in possession, more of a careful deep-lying passer than an overwhelmingly physical option. Even at full-back, Ben Davies is steadier and more defensive than Danny Rose, who offers more overlapping. On the right, Kieran Trippier's crossing is better than Serge Aurier's, but the Ivorian is capable of covering more ground. The centre-backs? Well, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are actually rather similar having enjoyed a very similar footballing education -- Germinal Beerschot, Ajax, the Belgian national side, Spurs -- but both are good all-rounders, excellent at playing in a high defensive line and form the best partnership in the league.

There are teams with better players in the Premier League this season, but probably no better team in the true sense of the word -- blending different type of players to create something greater than the sum of its individual parts. That remains the best test of a great manager, and regardless of whether Tottenham manage to win a trophy under Pochettino, this is a genuinely excellent side whose manager should be considered the equal of his more illustrious rivals battling for a top four place.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.