Tottenham are taking a monumental gamble on Mourinho
A sad farewell after Mauricio Pochettino, one of Spurs' most popular managers ever, is sacked and quickly replaced by the Special One
20 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
AS the shock wears off, and the realisation sets in that Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has basically put at risk a good hand of cards and is asking the dealer to hit him up, one more time, it’s time to pay tribute to Mauricio Pochettino.
We need to consider whether such a monumental gamble by the Tottenham board shows ruthless ambition, or a trigger happy return to panicky decisions and a lack of direction?
Pochettino was sacked on Tuesday night with his side languishing 14th in the Premier League, and looking back with blue and white tinted spectacles, he was magic, y’know.
It is just six months since he lead the team out in a Champions League final – and while Spurs have struggled domestically since January, his dismissal has been met with roars of disapproval from the terraces.
The appointment of Jose Mourinho only makes it feel more like Daniel Levy has made a pact with the devil – and such deals do not ever turn out well in the long run.
The brutal fact is Tottenham this season – or arguably, last January, when Mousa Dembele left – have reached the end of a cycle. Pochettino knew it, and had spoken publicly about it.
Levy knew it too – but whether Pochettino was going to be given the tools he needed for the rebuild or not became increasingly open to question as results this term fell away drastically.
It can be argued that the poor performances were not his fault: he had a group of contract refuseniks to deal with, and three new signings who were either injured or not fit enough to play his way.
But the fact Pochettino hasn’t been given the time to create his new side shows that Levy did not feel the core players believed he could. Change was therefore inevitable – and with Levy’s track record, which includes appointing 10 managers since 2001, Pochettino’s achievements counted for little.
His appointment came soon after Andre Villas Boas had been backed with the Gareth Bale transfer windfall to bring in players such as Christian Erisken, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado, Paulinho, Erik Lamela, Etienne Capoue and Vlad Chiriches.
But AVB lasted until the autumn, when disappointing results and bizarre selections put paid to his tenure. Instead, Levy gave coach Tim Sherwood the chance to prove himself – and the rookie manager managed to push the players to reach sixth, even though it was obvious his cards were marked as the season ticked down.
At first, it looked like the club would go for the popular choice, the then Ajax manager Frank de Boer: the fact he had been in charge of the leading club in Holland with its reputation for flair – and he knew players such as Jan Vertonghen and Eriksen – seemed to be working in his favour.
Pochettino’s 18-month stint at Southampton – which saw him record wins over so-called bigger clubs and see players such as Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez win England call ups – was enough, however, to persuade Levy he had found his man.
Poch settled, while de Boer went to Crystal Palace and flopped spectacularly. Levy had made the right call.
Pochettino’s high pressing, non-stop running system suited the young, hungry squad he had at his disposal, and for two calendar years Spurs were the best team in the country.
Sadly, the unbeaten run at home and great performances away spanned over two seasons and not one – or Poch would be a title holder and this article would not be being written.
In one of his first post-match press conferences, Pochettino explained his philosophy: he said he had been watching the Rugby World Cup, and had been impressed by the way teams fought for each other, how the players had the backs of every teammate.
He said he wanted to create his own band of brothers in the Tottenham dressing room – and was fortunate enough to have young talents emerging, academy players such as Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb who were willing to run through walls for the badge.
Suddenly Tottenham’s traditional reputation of being a soft touch was no more, shown best by the players performance at what became known as The Battle of Stamford Bridge. It was a league game where anything but a win would see Leicester crowned champions, and where Poch’s players showed just how much they cared.
That he also marshalled a mean defence, almost flying in the face of Spurs traditions, had fans pinching themselves. At last we had a team with a back four who knew what to do.
We enjoyed the emergence of Kane – his goals in a New Years Day win against Chelsea, which saw Spurs score five times and end a long running west London hoodoo, was another pointer of what to expect from a Pochettino side.
Kane’s two goals in the same season against Arsenal at home were another pointer as to the way the wind was blowing. Spurs had gone a goal down, but the home supporters at the Lane never lost belief.
Poch had given us that belief back, and Kane’s leaping header, followed by his immense solo effort from wide on the left to win it, underlined the growing hope that we had finally found a man to build a dynasty.
There was the Dele Alli goal at Crystal Palace – just an example of how he seamlessly earned a place in the first team, a coltish £5m upstart against signings who commanded bigger fees.
Add to these memories our last season at the Lane, where we were unbeaten, to Champions League demolitions of Real Madrid, of scoring a late equaliser at Barcelona to seal qualification to the knockout stages, of the drama of getting past Manchester City in the quarter finals, and the unforgettable second half against Ajax in next round. Such games gave Spurs a swagger missing since the 1980s.
He nurtured Heung-Min Son into being one of the most lethal forwards in the Premier League and a global superstar (don’t be surprised if Son is the first big name to leave, such is his closeness to Poch).
Poch also gave Harry Winks the belief that a boy from Enfield could run the midfield for his home town club, and allowed Spurs to say we are in a title race – though Leicester’s freakish season meant the best chance in decades would end in failure.
Poch wasn’t helped at the time by opponents – desperate to help Leicester complete their fairytale – who raised their games against his side; West Ham’s deeply ingrained hatred towards their capital counterparts meant when Spurs needed a win to take the title into their own hands, they found a Hammer’s team playing as if it were the World Cup Final.
Poch’s honesty and stoicism at the press conference after that 1-0 defeat was a sign of his humbleness and management skills.
He would never try and twist a game to suit his agenda, merely analyse and respond intelligently. There were never any untruths to protect his players, just exhortions to learn and improve if things did not go his way.
Pochettino somehow even managed to take the disaster of a £30m singing in Moussa Sissoko, analyse his strengths (they were well-hidden at first) and give us a new cult hero.
And yes, he would get things wrong: Kane’s talismanic qualities meant when the forward was out of form or unfit, he still got a start. The Champions League final is a case in point: Lucas Moura, who had done more than any one to get the team there, was suddenly benched, while Kane laboured.
Should Pochettino have been braver, and given Kane 20 minutes at the end? Such questions will always hang over him. And he could also be accused of being too loyal to players who had beef with the heirachy above the coaches.
Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Eriksen and Danny Rose are all showing the bean counters that if you don’t pay the going rate in the shape of a weekly wage to your staff, they will run down their contracts and make up for their perceived lost earnings by getting bumper singing on fees at their new clubs.
Poch had an ageing side that he knew needed to be refreshed – but rather than send his players, and the board, a strong message by essentially dropping the refuseniks, he brought them in and out of the squad.
Such lack of clarity brought tepid performances, disquiet from fans, and blocked the routes for a new team to emerge.
Yet there were glimmers of hope: Spurs have lost 12 points from winning positions this year – they would be second if they’d managed to hold on – and they earned draws away at Manchester City and Arsenal.
But for every chink of light that things might improve, there were outings against organised but limited sides such as Newcastle and Brighton that ended in morale-sapping defeats. Defeats that suggest the coaching staff might have run out of ideas tactically.
Now Pochettino’s players have it all to prove once more if they are to become Mourinho disciples. Mourinho likes to be the biggest ego in the dressing room, and it will be interesting to see who thrives under his tutelage – and who finds it doesn’t suit them.
The refuseniks will know that some of them will clear the air and flourish, while others will be quickly measured up and discarded if they do not fit.
Characters such as Eric Dier – who can speak fluent Portuguese – have long been admired by Mourinho: he tried to sign the utility man for Manchester United.
One suspects that Kane and Son will also listen and learn, though whether Jose’s magnetism will be enough to persuade Eriksen to find his football boots is extremely doubtful.
No doubt Mourinho will also be given a hefty transfer wedge, something Pochettino did not always enjoy. Pochettino was also often handed bogus signings he was never keen on, like Georges Nkoudou. Somehow, you can’t imagine Mourinho showing a united front if presented with such players.
On Saturday, Mourinho will enter the dug out for the first time and see his team face a side who harbour more hatred for Tottenham than any other club: yes, it’s West Ham again.
If he can drag a performance out of his new charges and set a bright tone from the off, Spurs fans could begin to forgive the decision the board have made. A defeat, however, will only highlight the job Mourinho has on his hands.
Only time will tell if the man with 25 cups and titles on his CV can finally bring some glory to Tottenham Hotspur, and succeed where one of the clubs most popular managers ever ultimately failed.