Enoch Powell once said, “all political careers end in failure.” The same could easily be said of football managers. Mauricio Pochettino’s careers is by no means over, but his tenure at Spurs definitely is and, sadly, it looks to have ended on a lower note than we all might have expected.
Football teams come in cycles and they all have to come to an end eventually. It’s why Sir Alex Ferguson is regarded as the greatest of all time – few managers have matched his ability to recycle a team for as long as he did and consistently create a winning team at the highest level of football. The only man who comes close is someone who will get nowhere near the credit he deserves in Arsene Wenger. Despite being harshly reduced to a figure of fun in his final years, his ability to consistently keep Arsenal in the top four year after year, even if this came without a sense of progression towards the end of his time, is something few other managers will ever achieve.
Indeed, no manager is every likely to achieve it again such is the pace of the modern game. A few bad results and your job is under pressure. The idea of going in cycles is also why teams have to make sure they win when they are at their peak. Spurs had their chances of course, losing out on the 2015 League Cup final as well as in last year’s Champions League final.
Of course, Pochettino did somewhat pin everything on that final in Madrid, hinting at the idea he would leave should they have lifted the trophy. After a poor performance though, which saw them create few clear-cut chances, they lost out. The journey there of course is one that no Spurs fan, or indeed any neutral, is likely to forget. Lucas Moura’s dramatic second-half hat-trick in Amsterdam sent Pochettino’s team through to the final, leaving the manager in tears, claiming the players were his ‘heroes.’
The final loss hit Pochettino hard, retreating to his home in Barcelona immediately after. It was not just him coming to the end of his cycle either with Christian Eriksen expressing his desire to leave. Alongside him, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are both out of contract at the end of the season. Ultimately his claim that he might leave if he had won failed to materialise into the nostalgic victory, he wanted it to become; instead, it hampered his team down.
The obvious comparison comes with the man who beat him that night – Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp. Only a year before the final in Madrid, Klopp found himself in Kiev where two catastrophic goalkeeping errors as well as a wonder-goal from Gareth Bale meant his Liverpool side would lose their first Champions League final for eleven years 3-1.
Rather than let this effect his squad though, he seemed to do the opposite as Liverpool went onto have their best season under Jurgen Klopp, gaining 97 points in the Premier League and going one better than their previous Champions League campaign. By contrast, rather than moving on and restarting, it seems to have filtered through to Spurs who have looked a shadow of the team they once were under Pochettino.
Whilst it might seem harsh, that CL final simply papered over the cracks of what was relegation form. In Pochettino’s final 25 games, Spurs have only taken 24 points. Under the Argentine this season, they have lost twelve points from winning position. In particular, the game away to Anfield this season, admittedly where no team has won in the Premier League since April 2017, going 1-0 up seemed to be the worst thing that could have happened to Pochettino’s side. Whilst they held on for the remainder of the first half, it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would end up losing the game – which they did, 2-1. The change of mentality that Pochettino looked to change upon his arrival, and had done for the majority of his time there, looked like it had returned.
This is not to say that Pochettino did a poor job though. His ability as a coach should not be understated – the likes of Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Son-Heung Min becoming, at least at the peak of this squad, players with world-class ability.
I acknowledge that it is easy for me to sit behind a keyboard and claim about that a manager at the highest level could have done better. His relationship with the fans is one few managers are able to muster up; such is the growing disconnection between supporters and their clubs. The note he left behind for his players returning from international duties, in which he expressed his thanks for their efforts, was a reminder of his class.
It wasn’t meant to be at Spurs, but he seems a manager destined for trophies. The only obvious destination right now would seem Bayern Munich, still manager-less after the sacking of Niko Kovac. Speculation has always persisted over the Argentine and the Real Madrid job. Although things seemed to have calmed down under Zidane, with the club sitting joint-top of La Liga, it does seem like a club who operates on the edge and it would not be a surprise to see the Frenchman gone come next season. The pace of the modern game that let Mourinho back in and cast Pochettino out applies to everyone and he’ll no doubt be back.
Whilst some might defend the lack of trophies, it was clearly something at the forefront of chairman Daniel Levy’s mind as he turned to Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager becomes only the second coach, behind Carlo Ancelotti, to manage six of UEFA’s top 20 clubs. A serial winner and always desiring to prove people wrong, only time will tell if he is the right fit.
It’s very early days but, whilst writing this, Mourinho’s first game against West Ham was taking place. The first half marked a solid display from Spurs, allowing their opponents few chances and going in 2-0 up courtesy of goals from Son and Moura, who both looked dangerous on the left and right wings respectively. The game finished 3-2 although West Ham’s second was a mere consolation. He’ll have been frustrated to not keep a clean sheet but the home Champions League tie against Olympiacos should provide the perfect opportunity for this as well as what should be another convincing win. Albeit, a boost is always going to come in a manager’s first game.
Spurs have a fantastic squad and the players to reach the same heights that Pochettino guided them to. Only this time, they’ll be hoping they can go one step further.