Ryan Mason's unexpected selection in the north London derby underlined Pochettino's determination to reassert his authority. Illustration by Richard Swarbrick
This was Mauricio Pochettino coming out fighting after a nightmarish week that threatened to undermine his credibility as Tottenham boss. His highly-paid team had been utterly lacklustre against West Bromwich Albion in the previous Premier League fixture and he watched the rest of the squad play with the same listless indifference against Nottingham Forests reserves in The League Cup on Thursday night before three late goals saw them through.
The manager got into work on Thursday knowing that if he didn't lay down the law, the slippery slope that his predecessors Villas Boas and Sherwood disappeared down after failing to sufficiently rouse the players was beckoning. Tottenham's deserved, hard fought draw at Arsenal on Saturday provided abundant evidence of his admirable response.
First there was the selection. Each of the three, eyebrow-raising changes from the regular Premier League line up were courageous gambles. Selecting the much derided Naughton ahead of Dier was recognition not only of his specialist right back credentials but also his improved performances in the cups, despite his gaff-prone past. Choosing Vertonghen ahead of Fazio for the vacancy created by the dropping of the recently shambolic Chiriches was a vote of confidence in the Belgian's undisputed class and big game experience. Vertonghen had petulantly declared that he didn't want a new contract in the run up to this game but, rather than freezing him out, Pochettino calculated that if 'Super Jan' wants a move to a glamour club he is going to have to start playing exceptionally well to attract offers.
The biggest surprise - a real gob-smacker - was the selection of the impressive Ryan Mason in central midfield. It emerged later that Demebele had a knock so he might have been preferred but choosing a youth team product to make his Premier League debut in such a game, ahead of Paulinho in particular, sent a clear message to the players that no pecking order exists at the club that has anything to do with profile, pay or seniority. If your contribution falls short, you will be dropped, whoever you think you are.
Once the game started Pochettino's pugnacious mood was reflected in his team's attitude. Urged on by their boss's bellowing touchline presence, Chadli pushed up alongside Adebayor to worry and hustle the fragile Arsenal centre backs and the rest of the midfield dropped behind the ball to plug the gaps with frenzied diligence. The plan, to hit the Goons on the break, worked well enough to ensure that Spurs had the better openings in the first half and when they went ahead early in the second you couldn't really call it undeserved even if the home side had enjoyed the bulk of the possession. In the end the draw was a reasonable outcome given that the Tottenham defence had to be at the very top of their game for the last half hour. Captain Kaboul looked as good as ever -- maybe he's really back to his best -- and Lloris was awe-inspiring at times.
It wasn't a pretty performance from Spurs but that wasn't the point. Pochettino desperately needed to show who is boss and to take something away from the game. He achieved both these crucial objectives and with his authority now re-asserted, he will be steely in his determination to ensure the renewed impetus and resolve are maintained. If any of his highly paid charges don't fancy it, they'll now know what they can do.