Blow for Tottenham as Kane ruled out of Manchester United clash
Pochettino’s side may be without striker for Champions League tie against Real Madrid
Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane picked up a hamstring injury against Liverpool. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images
Mauricio Pochettino dropped the bombshell with his first words on Friday morning. Harry Kane, the Tottenham Hotspur manager reported, will not be fit for the showpiece fixture at Manchester United on Saturday.
Nobody had seen it coming, not even after Pochettino’s slightly enigmatic “we’ll see” comment regarding his talisman’s prospects after Wednesday’s Carabao Cup defeat against West Ham United at Wembley.
Kane sat out that game, having felt a hamstring tighten in the closing stages of last Sunday’s home win over Liverpool but he would surely pull through. After all, it was United and, well, this is Kane.
The 24-year-old has threatened to transcend Tottenham over recent weeks because of his red-hot form; he has 17 goals in his past 13 games for the club and his country. But a hamstring injury is a hamstring injury and it cannot be rushed or risked.
The way that Pochettino spelled it out the problem is minor and there was the hope that Kane could be fit for Wednesday’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid at Wembley. Then again, Pochettino rarely gives any information regarding a player’s fitness beyond the game at hand. Either way, the striker has to be a doubt for Real.
‘We can win without Harry’
One thing which can be said about Pochettino is that, to borrow a phrase from his United counterpart, José Mourinho, he does not “cry and cry and cry” about injuries. Pochettino recalled how Son Heung-min had excelled up front during Kane’s injury-enforced absence in the early weeks of last season, particularly for the home win over Manchester City, and he also has the option of the summer signing Fernando Llorente.
“Of course we can win without Harry,” Pochettino said. “I always believe we can win against one or another team and with one or another player.”
Pochettino’s message was that he will adapt and it has become one of his buzzwords. Kane’s absence is an untimely blow but the manager preferred to see it as a challenge; a test of his flexibility and that of his squad – at a venue where they have struggled. Pochettino has lost three out of three at Old Trafford during his time at Spurs, scoring no goals and, more broadly, he has won only one of 15 Premier League away games against members of the so-called big six - the 2-1 at Manchester City in February 2016.
It has been possible to see a change of emphasis in Pochettino’s team this season – namely in their two biggest matches so far, the Champions League ties with Borussia Dortmund and Real.
Against Dortmund, even though it was at Wembley, Tottenham played in a containing and reactive style, their game featuring clinical thrusts on the counterattack, and against Real at the Bernabéu Pochettino’s 3-5-2 formation quickly became 5-3-2. They would record a 3-1 win over Dortmund and a hugely creditable 1-1 draw with Real.
Pochettino has always demanded that his players impose themselves on any occasion. In his first game as a manager, for Espanyol at home to Barcelona in January 2009, he instructed his team to press their more illustrious opponents high up the pitch and go one-versus-one at the back. His players thought he was crazy. Espanyol drew 0-0.
“The plan is always to control possession and dominate the ball,” Pochettino said as he considered his approach for Old Trafford. But his team have come to look more capable of in-game adaptation against the better teams, of ceding possession and soaking up pressure if needed. It is down, in part, to Pochettino’s evolution as a manager and his broader repertoire of systems and, furthermore, to his players becoming more streetwise and mature.
“It’s not a change in our style, it’s about our opponents,” Pochettino said. “For example, we played with the same system against Swansea [in a 0-0 home draw in September] and Real Madrid. You want to have possession of the ball but the big teams don’t always allow that to happen, so you end up dropping deeper.”
Pochettino banged his fists together for emphasis. “It’s about power in games,” he continued. “Sometimes you force your opponent to go deeper. But it is about how the game is going. It’s about having a plan and changing, if it is not working. That is the most difficult thing during a game. It’s very important to have that possibility to change, to have different options that can happen very naturally and spontaneously.”
Mourinho’s park-the-bus tactics for United’s 0-0 draw at Liverpool two weeks ago came into the discussion. Could Pochettino ever see himself setting up like that for a big game?
“I don’t believe any manager ever plays for a 0-0,” he replied. “In my career as a player, no manager ever said to me: ‘We will try to finish the game at 0-0.’ It is down to the circumstances. Sometimes, you are happy with the draw and you take some risks or less risks.”
The match on Saturday seems finely balanced, even without Kane and before the numerous subplots are factored in. In his recently published book, Pochettino brought up United’s desire to sign Eric Dier and he said he was angered when Mourinho chatted and laughed with the Tottenham player after the fixture at Old Trafford last December. The focus on the England man will be bright.
Pochettino’s relationship with Mourinho, though, is tight and before Tottenham faced United at White Hart Lane in May the Portuguese spent the time before kick-off in Pochettino’s office. They did what friends do – hang out and bitch about rivals. Pochettino senses the chance to make a grand statement.
José Mourinho, meanwhile, is confident that Manchester United’s attitude in last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Huddersfield Town will prove “an isolated case”, with the manager claiming contentment at Ander Herrera’s post-game concession that David Wagner’s side had the more professional approach.
The loss was United’s first of the season and caused them to slip five points behind City. Mourinho was particularly unhappy, stating his player’s attitude was poorer than for even a friendly under him. After seeing Herrera’s interview immediately after the match Mourinho said all of his players should publicly explain themselves.
“To play badly and lose matches, I think that can happen again,” Mourinho said. “It happens during a season, you cannot play well all the time, you cannot win all the time. You cannot even be lucky all the time. So to lose again, I think it is going to happen, but in terms of the attitude that we didn’t like and knowing the players and what good people they are, I believe it was an isolated case.”
Asked if he had taken exception to Herrera’s words, the Portuguese said: “I was surprised, but happy because it is not easy for the players to recognise and admit. So I was happy because, again it shows dignity and it shows character and it shows intelligence to realise the reason why we lost the match. So, contrary to imaginary sources that tell you everything we do here, I can promise you since that since the match I have not spoken one word, or spent a single second talking about that match. There is no need.”
Mourinho was also dismissive of claims made in Pochettino’s new book, Brave New World, in which Dier apparently told Tottenham’s manager the 55-year-old was an admirer of the midfielder.
“I don’t know if it is Maurice’s words or it is his ghost writers, I really don’t know,” Mourinho said. “What I do know, is that every season, during the summer, before every season he calls me and I call Mauricio and we ask about each other’s players to see if they are or not available. I don’t know why I should speak to Dier on a football match day in the tunnel, maybe it is to try and sell books. Maybe his ghost writer wants to make some money.
“I just have a very good relationship with him. He’s one of the guys I’ve known for many years and we’ve always had a very good relationship.”
Pochettino wrote: “Mourinho and I had finished our interviews at Old Trafford [after Spurs 1-0 loss at United last December] and the players were doing their warm-down. When Jose was done with the press, he stood by the entrance to the tunnel and regarded the returning players.
“He greeted Moussa Sissoko and hugged Dier. They passed by me en route to the dressing rooms, laughing, speaking in Portuguese. Maybe it is a common Mourinho tactic, but he put Eric in a compromising position. You cannot do that after a defeat.
“‘Are you friends with Mourinho?’ I asked him. ‘No, but I’ve known him a long time, from my time in Portugal – one of his godsons coached me. He always says hello.’ As for the Mourinho incident, ‘What could I have done?’ Eric asked me. He told me about United’s interest since last summer  and I explained the situation to him clearly.
“Ever since that conversation, Eric admits that he could have waited for Mourinho to be out of sight before heading to the dressing room.”
“I’m worried about Fellaini and not about Luke Shaw, because Fellaini finishes his contract and Luke Shaw doesn’t,” he said.