Tottenham’s Postecoglou on ‘Angeball,’ impacting Premier League

Tottenham’s Postecoglou on ‘Angeball,’ impacting Premier League

LONDON — One of Tottenham Hotpsur head coach Ange Postecoglou’s most epigrammatic comments about life in football came in November when declaring: “There’s only two states of being as a manager — you’re either under siege or it’s coming.”

As he sits down with ESPN for an exclusive interview minutes after being crowned Manager of the Year at last week’s London Football Awards, it raises the question whether he can ever allow himself to enjoy such moments given that permanent sense of foreboding.

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“Internally you fight to enjoy it because you know what’s around the corner but at the same time, it is not just about me, it is about the people I share the journey with, whether that’s coaches, players, my own family,” Postecoglou says.

“I don’t want to cheat them of the rare glimpses of joy you can get in this game sometimes as a manager. I do try and enjoy it, for them more than anything else but in my subconscious I’m always aware that there is invariably going to be another challenge and I’ve got to be ready for it.

“I guess most of us are sort of geared that way, anyone who’s been in the game for any sort of length of time, you kind of steel yourself for what’s ahead and that rarely softens in the best moments you have.”

There is a refreshing earthly pragmatism to Postecoglou’s rhetoric which is juxtaposed with the idealistic style he demands from his teams. The combination makes him an intriguing character and a welcome addition to the Premier League.

Postecoglou, 58, joined Spurs last summer at a time when they were in something of an existential crisis. The tenures of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte had sucked the joy from a club which considers a swashbuckling approach such a central tradition that “To Dare Is To Do” still stands today as Tottenham’s motto. It might as well have been “To Defend Is To Do” under Mourinho and Conte, such was the negativity in approach which contributed to disappointing results that ultimately convinced Harry Kane to leave for Bayern Munich in pursuit of silverware. Club captain Hugo Lloris also went public with his desire to move on.

Postecoglou therefore inherited a difficult situation and despite his success north of the border at Celtic, where he won 83 of his 113 matches across two seasons and lifted five of the six domestic trophies available in Scotland, he arrived in England as a relative unknown. Previously, Postecoglou had managed exclusively on the other side of the world from the UK, winning league titles with South Melbourne, Brisbane Roar and Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos and led Australia, the country he emigrated to from Greece as a young boy, to the AFC Asian Cup in 2015.

Fast forward to March 2024, and Spurs are firmly in the top four race, “Angeball” has entered the Premier League lexicon and the club’s supporters have reworked Robbie Williams’ 1990s mega-hit “Angels” to explain how “we’re loving Big Ange instead.” Does Postecoglou even like the term “Angeball”? “It is better than what they could have come up with,” he replies, smiling. “It is what it is.”

The statistics underline a radical transformation founded upon a high defensive line and a commitment to attacking intent no matter the opponent or game-state. They are sixth in the league for goals scored (55), fourth for chances created (321) and third for average possession (60.7%). Compare that with last season: seventh for chances created, ninth for possession and although they were fifth for goals scored, they outperformed their expected goals tally by more than 12 — a measure of Kane’s relentless consistency. Further illustrating the transformation under Postecoglou, from November 2022 to the end of last season, Spurs had a negative goal difference in the league.

Postecoglou has adapted so quickly in part because he has given a fresh coaching staff a chance. He is a rarity among top coaches in that others tend to bring an entourage with them — Conte brought nine staff with him when he went to Chelsea in 2017; Mauricio Pochettino arrived at Chelsea with four backroom colleagues, including his sports scientist son Sebastiano.

There was speculation that Postecoglou’s assistants at Celtic, Gavin Strachan and John Kennedy, would move to Spurs, but instead he appointed a new line-up comprising: Chris Davies (senior assistant coach), Mile Jedinak (assistant coach), Ryan Mason (assistant coach), Matt Wells (assistant coach) and Rob Burch (goalkeeper coach).

Postecoglou is not particularly hands on as a head coach, limiting his interaction with players on a daily basis in the belief that distance enables decision-making to remain free of emotion. This coaching line-up have therefore tweaked “Angeball” in their own way.

“What happens is they bring their own personality to it,” Postecoglou explains. “Like everything in life, they bring their own spin on what I’m trying to create. I do the sort of broad strokes but they are into the detail of it, ‘how do we get to that space?’

“I really love watching guys grasp the ideas I throw at them and see how they go about bringing it to life. That inspires me to continue to look for differences and challenge myself in terms of how we can be even better. By seeing them, how they work, the way they see what we are trying to create.

“I think if I’d stayed with the same people over the last 26, 27 years, I would worry I would fall into the trap of repeating what I’ve done before. Whilst there has been a constant in all the teams I’ve managed, there has always been a uniqueness in each of them and I think that is because of the different people I’ve worked with.”

There have been times, however, when faith in Postecoglou’s approach has been tested. After winning eight of their first 10 Premier League games — with the 26 points earned in that run the biggest-ever total for a manager’s first 10 matches in the competition — Spurs were beaten 4-1 at home by bitter rivals Chelsea in November. Despite playing with nine men from the 55th minute onward after having two players sent off, they continued to defend almost on the halfway line in pursuit of a winning goal with the score at 1-1. Chelsea eventually broke through with Nicolas Jackson scoring a hat trick in the final 15 minutes. Remarkably, Spurs fans sang Postecoglou’s name at the final whistle.

He was also repeatedly questioned about modifying his approach when facing Manchester City at Etihad Stadium in December. He didn’t, Spurs went toe-to-toe and came away with a 3-3 draw.

There is an inherent cynicism toward “Angeball,” a belief that it may get found out at the highest level over the course of a 38-game Premier League campaign, but Postecoglou believes compromise is the enemy of collaboration.

“It is like anything in life,” he continues. “If you really believe in something, the test always comes when there isn’t that obvious outcome that people are seeking. What do you do in those moments?

“I’ve had enough of them in my career to know that if you do buckle at those times, you lose if not all the group, you lose a chunk of the group you are trying to take with you. If you can get through that period and people see ‘OK, he has a real core belief in this, it is not something that he’s just throwing out there’, I think it does allow more buy-in.

“Eventually though, the outcomes have to arrive. People are not just going to follow blindly. I kind of enjoy those times because it tests me and I go to sleep and wake up with the same resolve every day. That helps me. The only reason I go down this path for so long is I want to be successful, and I want the club I’m with to be successful. I don’t want anything to take us off course from what we’re trying to create.”

Postecoglou believes he is only getting started as he aims to end Spurs’ 16-year wait for a trophy. The shrewd signings of James Maddison and Micky van de Ven alongside the rebirth of players including Pape Matar Sarr, Yves Bissouma and Destiny Udogie — whose careers at the club had all stalled — will require further reinforcement this summer to continue Tottenham’s progress with their manager unashamedly intent on trying to rival Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal at the summit.

That chase mirrors Postecoglou’s personal quest to feel he belongs at the sharp end of the game. He is the first Australian ever to manage in the Premier League and has previously spoken about overcoming a snobbery towards his achievements in his home country and Japan as he tried to establish himself in Europe.

Postecoglou once stated a hope that his time at Spurs “breaks some stereotypes and lets people open their minds.” So has he now broken that glass ceiling for Australian managers?

“Hard for me to say because with those kinds of things, the test comes with what follows,” says Postecoglou. “Look, the way I view it, I still haven’t made the impact I want to make particularly in the Premier League but even on this side of the world yet. I’m still pushing to prove myself just within myself about what I believe I can make an impact in.

“If I stretch it out further, Harry Kewell has gone in to Yokohama — he’s the third Australian manager since I’ve been there. That shows me it has filtered into that part of the world, definitely.

“The next test will come over here. I enjoyed my time at Celtic, and I think I did make a real impact up there, but making a real impact here in the Premier League will help accelerate that process.”

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