In the pantheon of recent soccer ideologies including tiki taka, rock and roll football, and gegenpressing, we can add Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino's theory of universal energy to the list. It is not a style of play, but more a philosophy that all actions in life are connected and relate in some other way. The positive energy is credited for strengthening his side's mental toughness. Intangibles as immeasurable as they are, we have concrete numbers: Tottenham finished with their highest league position and beat their previous highest point total by 16 points. Playmaker Christian Eriksen finished first in the Premier League with 111 chances created, and second in assists with 15.
Tottenham has relied on Eriksen's creativity since he came over from Ajax in the summer of 2013. His signing represented the post-Gareth Bale era of attempting to replace the aggregate of the Real Madrid winger's dominance in the transfer market. The $15 million dollar fee for Eriksen was already a bargain, but especially in contrast to the record breaking $33 million fees paid to Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado in the same window. Lamela struggled to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League and sat out injured since October; Soldado left for Villarreal for half his original transfer fee two seasons later. Andre Villas-Boas, the manager tasked with molding the high priced signings, lasted until December of that same season. Managerial instability has damaged many potential superstar. But with his Dutch education in hand, one of Eriksen's highest qualities is his ability to play in any system.
Pochettino called Eriksen the brain of the team, a player who understands what his teammates are intuitively doing (which also makes his influence grow as the quality of his teammates increase). Eriksen played as the lone playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 formation for the short time under Villas-Boas, an obvious decision. Pochettino, demanding of positional versatility, thought outside the box in moving Eriksen to the left side of his 3-4-2-1 formation. He refers to him and Dele Ali as dual playmakers, with Eriksen the freedom to cut inside onto his right foot to create and shoot. He observes the positive cycle of the formation helping his two playmakers, and Eriksen reinforcing the strength of the formation.
The Argentine manager regards both Ali and Eriksen as playmakers. The dueling roles reveals the tactics that top sides must use in unlocking defenses, especially sides who sit deep in two banks of four. Villas-Boas system of having Eriksen play behind a striker is too predictable compared to the Argentine manager's insistence on versatility. As Pochettino explains, Eriksen has the intuitive freedom to drop deeper or find pockets further up the field depending on whether the opponent presses or sits back, thus making each player more difficult to mark. Ali got the goals and the plaudits when Tottenham broke Chelsea's 13 match win streak in a 2-0 win. Ali's goals came from identical plays with Eriksen finding the vulnerable right half space between Marco Alonso and Nemanja Matic to deliver a back post cross. Each player displayed their version of freedom: Eriksen receiving the ball anywhere there was space in the final third, and Ali's late runs into the box.
Carlo Ancelotti observed that in managing world class talent, his job wasn't to improve technique or skill of the player in question. Rather, his job was to grow the mental and intangible aspects how managing a match in lieu of physical development. From this aspect, Pochettino was instrumental in Eriksen's development. Pochettino hailed his playmaker's temperament and lack of desire for the spotlight. Gravitating towards soccer at the expense of off field glory is a common thread throughout his career.
After an impressive run to the Europa League finals this season, Ajax are having a moment. We never forgot their youth academy pedigree, but perhaps took it for granted as clubs developed new methods to cope with the modern game while the Dutch club maintained their core possession based belief. Yet it remains an important stop in a player's early development, especially in terms of understanding space. Luis Suarez referred to his time in Netherlands as a "football school" where he learned how to think. Eriksen chose Ajax over Barcelona and Chelsea to receive the same education. Frank de Boer, who purposefully slow tracked his progress through the youth team, recalls a player with eyes on the back.
Eriksen is as close to an old school No. 10 as there is in the modern game. Villas-Boas compared him to Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. Yet the differentiating characteristic that allows him – and other playmakers of his mold - to thrive in 2017 is the versatility and mobility off the ball. Take Eriksen's peers tasked with his responsibility: Adam Lallana is the pressing playmaker whose game is built on recoveries and quick reactions taking advantage of defenses in transition. Hazard is a playmaking winger who moves outside in to create opportunities with his dribbling. Although Chelsea and Tottenham line up in similar formations with two playmakers surrounding a striker Antonio Conte emphasizes directness over Pochettino's interchanges of position. There is more than one way to create chances.
The changing perception surrounding Tottenham shows how more than tactics, Pochettino's greatest work is in changing the club's culture. In 2015, Mike Goodman wrote how the post-Bale era Tottenham side have hope in the form then 22-year-old Dane's potential. He concluded that if Eriksen and Harry Kane make the leap to world class levels, the pair would be the foundation for the club to build upon. Eriksen and Kane made the leap, and Tottenham did build around the pair with other young, "if they make the leap" players. There are lessons on the importance of creating an environment for young players to flourish tactically, technically, and in this case, spiritually. It took four seasons to find the right mix to surround Eriksen, but that is a small time scale for achieving the club's most successful season in its over 130 year history.