Where Did It All Go Wrong For Pochettino At Spurs?

Mauricio Pochettino with head in hands on the pitch

“We will try to give everything to make you proud of this football club.” - Mauricio Pochettino at his first Spurs press conference.

Yeah right mate. Might as well be waving a tube ticket around. Here we go again.

Or so I thought.

It’s safe to say I didn’t want Mauricio Pochettino when Spurs first announced him as new head coach. I thought we’d missed a trick in not getting Frank De Boer instead.

Which shows exactly how much I know after so many years of watching and writing about football.

The next few years made me eat my words in shovel-fuls.

Whether by design or serendipitous accident, it all clicked. The young, hungry squad responded to the new ideas and the punishing training schedule. They got fitter, stronger and more able to compete at the top table.

Watching Poch’s young guns hunt down, pressure, harry and over-run teams was an absolute joy to behold. Even more so after the let-down of AVB’s non-revolution and the darkest days of the unmentionable in the gilet. Poch built a Spurs team in the old traditions. Attacking, exciting football with a fighting team spirit and smiles on faces.

What Changed?

That’s what we’ve missed most of all over the past year or so. The smiles on faces, on the pitch and in the stands. Well, smiles and points on the board. We’ve missed plenty of those as well and, ultimately, that’s what finished the Poch project off.

No wins away in the league from January 2019 is a pitiful record. That’s relegation standard, never mind title contention or even top four. And the performances have shown no sign of being able to change that.

The players don’t run any more, they saunter. They don’t hassle or pressure the opposition. Some of them seem unable to trap or kick a ball in the intended direction. Where has the free flowing football and joie de vivre gone?

Harry Kane in a Spurs shirt is a shadow of what he was even 12 to 18 months ago and we keep blaming the injuries. Then he puts on an England shirt and he’s the old Harry Kane again. When you can’t even look to your talisman to pick himself up, you know something is badly wrong somewhere.

And that’s before you get to the out of form, the bang average and the contract rebels. Five months ago this squad was bulldozing it’s way into the Champions League final and now they are getting picked apart by the likes of Brighton. How did it all fall apart so quickly and, more importantly, who was really to blame?

Tottenham Hotspur squad before Champions League Final 2019

The Players.

Unnamed sources say he’d lost the dressing room. The players are bored and tired from too many years of double training sessions. Poch didn’t talk to them at training but busted their balls for playing video games or being on social media.

We can all see the ever subtle hand of Donna Cullen behind the “a Spurs insider told me” leaks to the press. It’s her job after all. Don’t hate the player, hate the game and all that. But it does paint another side to the picture.

We’ve all been in jobs where it gets tougher to drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes in the morning. When we know the shitshtorm we’re about to walk into. When our manager is on our backs and the promised replacements for departed team members never materialise.

It wears you down.

So why would it be any different for professional footballers?

They are still pulling down tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds per week in wages. And many times this season I’ve wished for the weekly pay cheques to be placed on a table in the centre circle before a game to see which of them had the balls to walk out and show they thought they’d earned theirs. (CE, I’m looking at you.)

But a contract is a contract and you get paid regardless of performance. Which brings us to a major issue.

Add a growing disquiet amongst several senior squad members over their contract situations to the general malaise and you have a recipe for turmoil. The body language on the pitch and the collective drop in effort are apparent for all to see.

At some point something has to change. Either the bad seeds are rooted out (as Poch did with the Adebayor/Kaboul/Capoue crew in his early days) or the manager gets changed. And this time it was the manager who took the fall.

The Lack Of Signings.

I don’t care about the extenuating circumstances. Daniel Levy can make no excuses for the lack of signings during both transfer windows of the 2018/2019 season. To go that long without refreshing the squad verged on criminal neglect.

Especially at a time when Spurs were making real inroads to becoming genuine contenders for silverware.

Adding even two players ready to compete for first team places would have given some of the incumbents an incentive to keep pushing on and padded out a squad capable of competing on multiple fronts.

That didn’t happen. Even Lucas Moura, who signed in the previous January transfer window, was used sparingly and has never been consistent enough to cement a regular starting place. What has happened since can be traced back directly to this chain of non-events.

Change is good for all of us.

Pochettino is famously loyal to his coaching staff and has never given any indication of looking to rotate or swap any of his inner circle out for new blood. With a lack of new players, a once fresh squad now ageing together and a lack of new ideas on the coaching front, the eventual staleness that brought the Poch era to an end was inevitable.

Worst of all is that we could all see it coming.

Modern fans are obsessed with transfers. It’s a symptom of the 24 hour news cycle on the internet, social media and Sky Sports News. But it doesn’t take a grizzled football industry veteran to see that Spurs were storing problems up for further down the line.

Whether Daniel Levy used penny pinching on the playing front to fund the new stadium build is another matter. But for such an experienced and venerated businessman, it was short-sighted in the extreme and has backfired massively.

Kicking the can down the road.

The squad now needs extensive rebuilding. The record signing of Tanguy N’Dombele, along with Ryan Sessegnon and Giovani Lo Celso, in the summer only scratches the surface. The cheque book will need the dust blown off it in January and next summer to satisfy Jose Mourinho’s desires.

Levy has painted himself into a corner and as the inevitable spending begins you can picture Poch and co. sitting over a cup of mate wondering why it didn’t happen for them. And what might have been if it had.

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

The Stadium.

It’s impossible to know just how much the move away from old White Hart Lane was responsible for the underlying issues that finished Poch off.

Going from fortress WHL to spending a season and a half at Wembley was always going to be difficult on the players and supporters. The constant uncertainty last season of when the move “back home” would happen didn’t help.

But it’s the stadium build and reported increases in costs that would seem to have had the main impact. There is no doubt that the lack of signings for a whole year was caused 100% by the club’s financial focus being on completion of the new stadium.

For the future of the football club, I can see why. This is a £1 billion world class sports arena. It really is one of the best venues for sports anywhere in the entire world. And credit for succeeding in pulling that off must go to Daniel Levy and his team. But it came at a massive cost on the pitch and in the dressing room.

How typical of the footballing gods to bestow the greatest footballing side of my generation on the pitch at exactly the same time the club have to focus on finishing off a hugely expensive new stadium.

Remembering “Cashburden Grove”.

How we laughed when the neighbours down the road were forced to “sell to buy” for years after moving to their new digs at Ashburton Grove. It’s not so funny now, is it?

The real pain for Pochettino will be when he sees the financial benefits of increased matchday revenue and the rest start to filter through to supporting the footballing side of the THFC business (I say VERY hopefully). He took the pain for someone else’s gain. Such is life as a football manager - especially at Spurs.

Pochettino at book signing

Poch Himself.

Poch isn’t without blame himself though. He re-invigorated the club, he helped push us to the level we’d aspired to for many years and he is without a doubt the classiest Spurs manager of my 30 odd years supporting them.

But…

Flirting with the big boys.

There is no denying that he did little to quell speculation about leaving for a variety of other jobs during his time at Spurs. Real Madrid. Juventus. Bayern Munich. Manchester United. They all supposedly came a knocking or at least their representatives tentatively did and we all knew about it.

The lack of outright denials and at times cryptic press conference meanderings from Poch around the subject didn’t always sit well with supporters. But we closed our eyes and let it slide. Football is only a game after all and a man has only one crack at his career.

We didn’t tut loudly when we took him from Southampton so why should it be such a major sin for one of the top table to do the same to us? I never said football fans weren’t biased or one-eyed.

Balague and The Book.

And as much as I enjoyed reading about the inside machinations of Poch’s Spurs in his book Brave New World, it never sat right that it was done while he was still in the job. It was a little too close to home especially parts that named individual players and incidents.

It’s hard to see how the book did anything for squad morale, much less club confidence in their dirty washing being aired in public further down the line.

With players being hammered over their social media activity, it was a tad hypocritical for the boss to bring out a warts n’ all book from behind the curtain. Made for good reading though and, at the time, once again, I (and many others) glossed over it.

In hindsight though, it was a mistake. At least with Mourinho we won’t have to wait for a book, he’ll just blurt his thoughts out any time a camera or microphone is thrust in front of him. Maybe that’s progress.

Trying everything.

Poch struggled tactically too in recent years. Constantly tinkering with personnel, we’ve clocked up over ninety games in a row with a different starting line-up. That doesn’t sound like a manager confident that he knows what his best side is. Or how to utilise the players he does have at his disposal.

His use of subs had a distinctly amateur hour feel to it and if that sounds like nit picking then watch back some of the games we couldn’t close out over the past season or two. The refusal to shake up his trusted coaching staff didn’t help in that regard either.

Pochettino and Levy celebrate

Raising The Expectations Too High, Too Soon.

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to feel that Poch was simply a victim of his own success. Coming at a time that turned out to be less than ideal in terms of financial support from the boardroom, it only heightened the feeling of “what might have been”.

Watching Spurs in a Champions League Final should have been the proudest moment of our Spurs supporting lives. And in many ways it was. Sissoko’s handball after a minute and a limp performance can’t take away from that.

But it should have been clear to all concerned that the peak had already been crested at that point and there was nowhere for this phase of the Tottenham Project to go but down - and quickly.

Even the run to the Champions League final merely papered over the cracks of what had turned into a disappointing season. The away league form I touched on before had hit the skids months before the Ajax games.

And fans were more than a little concerned that we were freewheeling into port rather than coming in under full steam. The lack of new blood the summer before had come home to bite us.

As we knew it would.

Consistently beating par.

Going on a league table of wage bills, Spurs have been steadily in sixth position in the Premier League under Pochettino’s management. Four successive top four actual league finishes is as much of a sign of how far above their weight they actually punched in that time.

But there were no trophies. Not even a League Cup or FA Cup to celebrate. The semi-final hoodoo might have finally been broken by Lucas Moura’s injury time winner against Ajax but it was very much the exception to the rule during Poch’s reign.

He never really seemed to have any interest in the cups at all which, again, never sat right with the old school fanbase.

But it’s almost 2020 and top four is the Holy Grail these days. Not a tinpot trophy that lost it’s lustre somewhere between the last time Spurs won it in 1991 and the year Manchester United decided to not even take part. And even that was 20 years ago.

In that way Poch’s priorities perfectly mirrored those of Daniel Levy. Champions League or bust was the aim and the fact it was done on a shoestring made it all the more palatable in the Spurs boardroom.

It also gave a false sense of security that done once, it could be repeated over and over again, even though the main competitors were all beefing up their own squads while Levy got his hi-vis jacket and hard hat on.

Pochettino cries on the pitch

It was bound to end in tears - and it has.

It should have been brought to a close by all parties after the disappointment in Madrid in June. But no-one wanted to be the one to call time on it.

Poch had (naively if not quite foolishly) said he would leave if we won. We’ll never know if he meant it but it was a noticeable sign of where his head was at with regards to the job of re-building.

After licking his wounds in Barcelona after the final, he came back in body but never in spirit. Even a few good signings couldn’t re-ignite the spark and that filtered down quickly to the players.

It’s sad for all concerned but the world keeps on spinning. Poch and his band of merry followers will get another chance at another club and every Spurs fan will wish them all the very best.

Don’t look back in anger.

We’ll always have Amsterdam and a collection of other great memories. Battering Chelsea and Manchester City. Leap-frogging the Goons. The last game at old White Hart Lane.

Those memories won’t disappear quickly. We have them to cherish but there will always be an element of bitter regret.

“What if” we’d bought a couple of players in the summer of 2018? “What if” Sissoko hadn’t lifted his arm in the first minute of the Champions League final?

Pochettino on touchline in Champions League final

What if? What if?

What if indeed.

Good luck Poch. Wherever you go, you’ll always be one of us. Hasta luego, amigo. COYS.

Pochettino celebrates


Alan Hylands

Alan Hylands is a writer and solver of difficult data problems from Northern Ireland.
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