It is one of Mauricio Pochettino’s guiding principles and, as he prepared for a defining test at Manchester City on Saturday, the Tottenham Hotspur manager mentioned it on many occasions. Respect.
At times, it felt as though he was labouring the point as he talked of his respect for Pep Guardiola, the City manager, with whom he has clashed; for City, in general; and for Kyle Walker, the full-back who swapped Tottenham for the Etihad Stadium last summer.
Pochettino said he respected the style of every opponent and he even offered a reverential nod to the Arsenal Invincibles of 2003-04, who came up in the context of City’s invincible start to the Premier League season.
The conversation turned to one of the themes of the week – how to behave at the moment of victory – and, specifically, the accusation from the Manchester United manager, José Mourinho, that City had let themselves down after their triumph at Old Trafford last Sunday; that they had shown a lack of respect.
Mourinho was so rattled by the booming music from the away dressing room that he ended up becoming involved in a fracas and, still smouldering on Tuesday, he had a pop at City over their “education”.
Pochettino had a different view and it was shaped by pragmatism. To him, the gloating of a rival cannot be allowed to vex. It must simply be taken on the chin; used as a motivational tool. Before an occasion in which composure and mentality will be key, Pochettino sought to set the tone for his players.
“I never complain if another team celebrates because sometimes it’s good, after you lose, to hear everything that happens in the other changing room,” Pochettino said. “It’s good to feel the pain. With respect, of course, because it’s always about respect, but sometimes it’s good to listen.
“I want to tell you that when we won our games, like at Huddersfield or at Wembley against Stoke, the players put the music on and it’s so loud. It’s normal. If you lose the game, you are not going to put music on. If you look before the game, both changing rooms have loud music but only one team can win.”
Pochettino described City as the best team in Europe on current form and it seemed to chime with the vibe that has built around them after 16 wins and one draw in 17 league games this season that he was asked whether he thought they could last the campaign without defeat. He intends to show they cannot get through the weekend with their record intact.
The challenge for Pochettino and Tottenham is to dent City’s aura – and it is one to which he sees a particular parallel. “We felt the same last season in our final season at White Hart Lane,” Pochettino said; his team won 17 and drew two of their 19 league fixtures there. “One of our players said recently: ‘Wow. I remember how we always started 1-0 up at White Hart Lane last season because something special was happening.’ For our opponents, it was tough to play against us.”
Pochettino did not make light of Tottenham’s task at the Etihad but he radiated confidence. Was it not Tottenham who ended Chelsea’s run of 13 straight league victories last season with a 2-0 win over them? “I don’t think we face any psychological issues,” Pochettino said. “It’s more about us showing our quality.
“Of course, City are doing fantastically and everyone’s respect for them is massive and, yes, we feel the same; it’s so important to respect our opponent. But, in the end, we are going there to fight, to kill them and try to win. We are winners and we need to feel we can beat them.”
Walker will provide one of the principal subplots and when Pochettino discussed the project at Tottenham, in which an emphasis is placed on incremental gains and the long-term vision, it rather invited the question about whether players had the patience to stick around until it came to fruition. “Exactly, that is the problem,” Pochettino said.
But he argued that it was unfair to compare what he has built and is building at Tottenham to what is happening at City. His team have taken 31 points from 17 matches this season – they had 33 at the same point last time out – while they have progressed to the Champions League last 16. Things are going well. City have taken it to the next level.
“When we arrive at our new stadium and focus only on investing and trying to improve the team, people will be allowed to blame us if we don’t achieve,” Pochettino said. “But today, it’s completely unfair that people are going to compare us with City, United or Chelsea. We are on a completely different way.”