West Ham United
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Man Utd's van Gaal's, Tottenham's Pochettino's contrasting fortunes

In the race for the Premier League's Champions League places, Manchester United's clash with Tottenham Hotspur will be absolutely critical.

Sunday's game will also provide a fascinating contrast between two "first season" managers. United's Louis van Gaal is at the helm of one of the biggest clubs in football and has spent heavily to augment them, while Spurs' Mauricio Pochettino had a tighter budget with which to improve a stagnant second-grade side.

Yet just three points separate the pair with 10 games to go.

Expectations, of course, were rather lower for the Argentine manager before the season began. After a promising start to life at White Hart Lane, Andre Villas-Boas was dumped in early 2014, having failed to reconstruct his team swiftly enough following the departure of Gareth Bale.

Tim Sherwood's interim period brought enough points for a respectable sixth-place finish, but few believed that Spurs would do better than that this season.

The jury was out on some of the signings made using the Bale money, most specifically Roberto Soldado but also Erik Lamela and Paulinho, and it was hard to see how Pochettino would quickly imbue such a flaky squad with the spirit and selflessness that had characterised his Southampton team.

Early season form bore out those theories. After opening with back-to-back wins over West Ham and QPR, Tottenham won just two of their next 13 league games. Like Sherwood and Villas-Boas before him, Pochettino soon discovered that salary was an unreliable indicator of quality at White Hart Lane.

The response was for big earners like Paulinho, Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor to drift to the bench, replaced by the likes of Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. Meanwhile, talents like Nacer Chadli and Christian Eriksen bought into the manager's philosophy and began to offer more.

Pochettino puts a premium on teamwork, which is easier said than done. Not all footballers can be persuaded to press in packs, as Southampton did last year to great effect.

Not all footballers will, like Kane, allow themselves to be deployed where the need is greatest. For all of his goals, he has also diligently worked behind the striker or out on the flanks when others have led the line instead.

Slowly transitioning between the big names who won't and the hungry ones who will, Spurs rose up the table and, though they were recently knocked out of the FA Cup and Europa League and lost in the Capital One Cup final, they can be satisfied with their progress this season. How Van Gaal must wish he could say the same.

When Tottenham hosted Man United in December, the game finished in a 0-0 draw.

He too has found that some of his biggest names have fallen short, but for all the efforts of James Wilson, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett, none of them have blossomed like Kane. He has also experimented with styles, but as the season draws to a close, it's still unclear which one he favours. Long ball or short passing? Back three or back four?

It was difficult enough for United when there was such a gulf between performances and results, but, following two defeats in four games, there's a feeling that the gap is closing. And not in a good way.

Monday's FA Cup capitulation to Arsenal was all the more painful for the identity of the winning goal scorer. Pochettino improved Kane, the homegrown striker he inherited, while, by contrast, Van Gaal sold Manchester's own Danny Welbeck and put his faith in Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Wayne Rooney, with Wilson picking up the mantle of young understudy.

Of that quartet, only Rooney has impressed of late, and then only after time was called on his disappointing spell as a midfielder. Wilson, young and gifted, is blameless, but Falcao and Van Persie have fallen well short of expectations. United are paying somewhere around £750,000 a week for that front line. It has brought only 25 league goals. Meanwhile, Kane has 16 on his own.

This is a perplexing time for United. Van Gaal is not a bad manager, nor is there a suspicion, as there was with his predecessor, David Moyes, that he is out of his depth.

With Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich on his CV, he has worked at some of the biggest clubs in the world and has won a league title everywhere he has managed. He might be arrogant, he might be stubborn, he might be difficult, but he's not a charlatan.

Van Gaal has tried different formations, he has tried different players and he has tried different players in different formations, yet we approach the end of his eighth month of competitive football and it's still not clear whether knows his best team.

He has learned a few things. He knows that Rooney is a better striker than a midfielder. He knows after Monday that a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Daley Blind is too slow. He knows that he needs a higher calibre of defender. But you'd expect him to have known that on day one.

There are signs of hope. There's certainly nothing wrong with insisting on ball retention -- United lead the league in the possession column (but are only fourth in goals scored) -- nor is there any issue with pushing defenders up to squeeze space.

There should also be a degree of patience when it comes to new players adapting to new systems. It's just hard to keep all of that in mind when the only game plan that really does work is the long ball to Marouane Fellaini.

United cannot simply swing the axe and cut their losses. To do so would set a dangerous precedent and cement a culture of panic at the club, the last thing that anyone wants after such an extended period of stability under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Sack Van Gaal now and you invite the same pressure that dogged Chelsea between 2007 and 2013, the two eras of Jose Mourinho, and creates an environment in which frequent sackings mean that two bad results are a bona fide crisis.

United have to shut their eyes and put their faith in Van Gaal to find a way to make the most of his assets. At Tottenham, the faith in Pochettino has been well-earned. Who, last summer, would have thought that would be the case?

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.


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