Mauricio Pochettino has heralded Antonio Conte’s tactical nous and smooth transition to English football with Chelsea clear at the top of the Premier League.
Pochettino’s Tottenham host Chelsea at White Hart Lane on Wednesday, aiming to stop their rivals recording a record-equalling 14th straight win and stretching their lead at the top of the table to eight points.
Since losing 3-0 at Arsenal in September, Conte has switched to a 3-4-3 formation, with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso as wing-backs, and Chelsea have not looked back, scoring 32 and conceding four — and they secured a 2-1 win over Tottenham at Stamford Bridge in November.
“You don’t win 13 games in a row if you don’t have solid foundations in terms of your game and your character,” Pochettino, who remembers facing Conte in a friendly in 1998, when the Italian was at Juventus and he was at Espanyol, told Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Conte is doing an excellent job. He’s settled into the most difficult league in the world really well. The Premier League is a marathon without breaks — it takes energy out of you in industrial quantities.
“Conte did well in identifying the best system for his team very quickly. He started with one idea but was intelligent to change direction.
“Moses and Alonso are fundamental because, with their running, they allow Pedro and [Eden] Hazard to take breaks now and again. They are key players for Chelsea’s game and hatching that plan also shows how good Conte is.
“A year ago, Antonio came to visit us at Spurs. At the time, he was Italy manager. He followed our training and then we went for lunch, where we talked about tactics and management of the dressing room. We spent three really pleasant hours together.
“I always open the doors to my house to my colleagues. Exchanging ideas is enriching, spying is something completely different.”
Looking back on the defeat in November, Pochettino added: “In the first half, Tottenham played better. Chelsea emerged over the distance and were very clinical. We would have deserved a draw, but Conte’s team are ruthless. They’ve got experienced players who are used to challenging for titles.
“I think positively and believe that we can stop Chelsea [on Wednesday]. Conte is a man of the game — he will understand that.”
A Chelsea win would leave Tottenham 13 points behind the leaders, who ended Spurs’ hopes of a maiden Premier League title last season after coming from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Stamford Bridge in May — a result that confirmed Leicester City as champions.
Before that game, Hazard and Cesc Fabregas said they wanted Leicester to pip Tottenham to the championship but Pochettino believes the tables have turned and says the whole Premier League will be backing his side this week.
“This is football. It’s normal that it’s like this. Everybody joins forces to beat the leaders, only it happened against us last season,” he said. “We were second, but everybody was on Leicester’s side.
“I can understand the reasons for it, though. The story of Ranieri’s Leicester was truly extraordinary.
“The key game for us was a different one — the defeat in the derby with West Ham on March 2. Then we drew with WBA, and then there was the 2-2 with Chelsea.
“My team is young and experience is fundamental in certain moments. Bigger players would maybe have been able to give that bit more in crucial phases, but you can’t be at your very best for 10 months of the year.
“We are right in the middle of a process of growth and it’s just a matter of time. We need to keep calm. We will also win something big one day.”