EPL TALK: Ange Postecoglou is a mate for all seasons

Idealistic Australian manager is ending ‘Spursy-ness’ by making them likeable and engrossing to watch

Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou acknowledges the fans after their English Premier League match against Arsenal.
Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou acknowledges the fans after their English Premier League match against Arsenal. (PHOTO: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images) (Ryan Pierse via Getty Images)

ANGE Postecoglou calls everyone “mate”. It’s an Australian thing, but it’s also a Postecoglou thing. He sees everyone because he’s been everyone. A refugee. A foreigner. An outlier. An irrelevance. A pioneer in a sport that his country didn’t care about. A minnow in the world game. The Tottenham Hotspur manager has spent most of his life and career on the outside, looking in.

Not anymore. Now he’s a mate to all of us, except Arsenal fans, perhaps, but even they must begrudgingly accept one of the great football stories. A fascinating character of contradictions, Postecoglou deliberately keeps a professional distance from his players but embraces all around him. The boy from Greece is now a mate for all seasons, his every utterance emphasising a deep and genuine empathy for others.

A little over the top? Go watch his fascinating interview with Gary Lineker on YouTube, recorded before the North London derby. He references Lineker’s sterling work with refugees before getting round to his coaching efforts at Tottenham. His eagerness to improve the fortunes of those around him is sincere because his empathy is real.

And he’s making a lot of new mates right now as a consequence.

He called Lineker “mate”, naturally. Just as he did the journalists in interviews following his finest demonstration of Ange-Ball in the North London derby, earning a 2-2 draw and dominating possession, passes and shots on target. Everyone is his mate at the moment, especially James Maddison. The provider of two Son Heung-min goals and the best exemplar of Ange-Ball said Tottenham are shaking off their “Spursy” tag, thanks to Postecoglou.

What does the “Spursy” tag mean to you? For Maddison, it means “soft, weak … Spursy, all that rubbish” and that’s a fair and common description. But the Spursy-ness also came gift-wrapped with entitlement, an underlying (and frankly exasperating) sense of an average club being greater than the sum of their parts.

Leicester City have won more league titles and FA Cups than Tottenham in recent years, and yet the North Londoners have long gallivanted through the English Premier League like foppish dandies because they once had Hoddle, Waddle and Gazza (and Luka Modric and Gareth Bale for a bit, before they left to win stuff elsewhere, a route Harry Kane has taken this season).

Spurs haven’t ruled their domestic terrain since 1961, predating Singapore’s independence. As the sunny island went from third world to first world, Tottenham went from Double winners to doleful whiners in the same period, doing their best Marlon Brando and insisting they’d still be contenders if they’d had more luck and less Daniel Levy and so on.

But in recent seasons, the Spursy-ness morphed into black comedy, as the fanbase clung to this fading reputation of artistic excellence like the ageing cast of the latest Expendables movie. Only instead of Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham pumping shotguns and pretending to care, Tottenham had Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte pumping long balls and relying on Kane’s durability to offer the illusion of prestige.

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min celebrates scoring their second goal against Arsenal.
Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min celebrates scoring their second goal against Arsenal. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs) (Matthew Childs / reuters)

Changing the Spursy-ness with engrossing performances

Postecoglou is changing that Spursy-ness in the most invigorating way. He’s delivering unpredictable, but thoroughly engrossing sporting spectacles. What a novel concept. The North London derby was a hoot, from start to finish.

Yes, he pushed the relatively inexperienced Destiny Udogie further away from the conventional definition of a left-back, which allowed the slightly disbelieving Bukayo Saka to profit early on. Better finishing from Arsenal might have put Tottenham to bed by half-time, but the Gunners lacked Spurs’ forward line (something Postecoglou perhaps gambled on) and Ange-Ball essentially annexed the Emirates.

Postecoglou learned this from Ferenc Puskás. Yes, that one. The Hungarian one who spoke Greek and somehow ended up coaching South Melbourne Hellas after revolutionising the game’s tactics as a player with the Magyars. Puskas’ captain at South Melbourne was Postecoglou, who revered Puskas’ simple concept. Winning a game 5-4 was much more fun than winning a game 1-0.

At this juncture, dull pundits must intervene like an earnest oncologist, to break the news that such a prognosis is hopeful at best, naïve at worst and likely to end with a negative outcome. But Postecoglou doesn’t care. He genuinely doesn’t care, ironically because he does care so much about the Beautiful Game. For him, the clue has always been in the title.

Coaching careers are finite. Managers get sacked. Those are the only certainties. So accept the ticking time bomb, lose the fear, impose tactical and personnel changes immediately and accept the consequences. On this, Postecoglou has always been consistent. From South Melbourne to Celtic, he’s never compromised.

Against Arsenal, Tottenham lined up with five players signed in the summer. Only Son and Cristian Romero remained from the first XI that went down 3-1 in this fixture a year ago. In that same game, Spurs had 35 per cent of the ball and completed 240 passes. Yesterday, they reached 53 per cent possession and completed 373 passes.

Remarkably, eight of the starting XI had never played in a North London derby at the Emirates. Ange-Ball waits for no one. It never has. Only the calibre of player has changed. Son, Maddison and the formidable Yves Bissouma take on Postecoglou’s coaching concepts with greater speed and finesse than players at Brisbane Roar and Yokohama F. Marinos.

It is early days and trophy predictions are meaningless, as Postecoglou insisted during his interview with Lineker. He wants to shake off the “Spursy-ness”, sure, but he really wants games to be as consistently engaging as the North London derby.

A likeable manager demanding likeable football? These are heady days indeed at Tottenham.

But it’s no more than Postecoglou deserves. As the new kid in Australia, he found mates through football. As the new guy in the EPL, he’s doing the same at Tottenham. He’s where he belongs. The journeyman has finally come home.

As the new kid in Australia, (Postecoglou) found mates through football. As the new guy in the EPL, he’s doing the same at Tottenham. He’s where he belongs. The journeyman has finally come home.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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