These words came barely 24 hours after Arsène Wenger announced his imminent departure from Spurs’ North London rivals. I wrote in February that Wenger’s management was now being solely measured on trophies – three FA Cups in four years and the possibility of a Europa League title have not been enough to stave off the pressure from what the departing Arsenal manager has termed “hurtful” supporters. The Frenchman was the last long-term manager of club football and it is unlikely we will see this again.
More than just trophies?
Pochettino’s tenure at Spurs is the next best thing, with a manager and owner seemingly working symbiotically towards long-term success. The Argentine’s success is the polar opposite of Wenger’s, with a visibly improving team but no silverware to show for it. How often have we Pochettino say that Tottenham’s success should be measured in more than just trophies?
The club’s first four seasons under his stewardship should certainly be seen as successful. He has taken top 4 outsiders and turned them into a squad, which consistently contends for (and plays) Champions League football. Barring a calamitous finish to the current league campaign, Spurs will be dining at Europe’s top table for a third successive season. A club that was so often a conveyor belt for mediocre players now boasts one of the most solid squads in the Premier League.
Yet, the bare trophy cabinet lingers and the failure to grasp the biggest of moments in the most significant matches has continued to haunt the team of lilywhite shirts.
For all the rhetoric of building towards something more than trophies, Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United should leave the Spurs fans, chairman and manager himself wondering if their club have reached a glass ceiling under Pochettino.
“Battle at the Bridge”
Putting Spurs’ woeful FA Cup semi-final record to one side (this was their eight successive semi-final defeat) their latest exit can be added to an increasingly long list of defeats in big matches under Pochettino. We can begin with their League Cup Final loss to Chelsea in 2015, though that Spurs side was very different to the one that took the pitch on Saturday. Nevertheless, the trend had begun. The following season there was the infamous “battle at the Bridge” where Leicester picked up the title without kicking a ball. Such was that season of destiny for the Foxes, this would have probably happened in the latter weeks of the season but Spurs and Pochettino ultimately drew when they had to win. The same can be said of the 1-0 defeat to West Ham at the London Stadium last May, which signalled Spurs’ title race run for another season. Again, Chelsea would have almost certainly collected the title regardless of Pochettino and his men, as their critics jibed, putting the pressure on.
It has been admirable how Pochettino has brushed off such defeats to his side. In an age where owners demand instant success, the man’s circumspect approach to management has been refreshing. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out that the hiring and firing nature with which football clubs select their managers is certainly not conducive to long-term success. The working relationship Pochettino seems to have with owner Daniel Levy is one that we rarely see and has already born the fruit of regular Champions League football to the club.
However, Saturday’s crushing loss at Wembley – and you just had to see the players’ reactions to confirm this – coupled with a Champions League last 16 exit to Juventus, has added yet more fuel to the fire that for all their improvement in recent years, Spurs still cannot shake their “spursiness”.
No plan B
Whilst this list of big match disappointments is not necessarily indicative of bad management, these spursy moments of recent years are becoming inextricably linked to Pochettino. Tottenham’s failures in big matches now seem synonymous with the image of their manager’s strained expression on the sideline.
That said, his part in these failings has been more than just synonymous and he has often seemed reluctant to make drastic changes in the middle of matches. Spurs’ plan A has been very good over the past three seasons but Pochettino is overly hesitant to abandon plan A if it is proving ineffective in certain games. Harry Kane should have been substituted at half time against United, as he was clearly not fit enough to have any potent impact on the course of the match. Yet, Pochettino persisted with the England striker, when a substitution for the lively Lucas Moura and a switch to playing Heung-Min Son as a false nine might have helped bring Spurs back into the Cup tie. Moura eventually came on, but it was to replace Ben Davies rather than Kane.
The Argentinian has also made the wrong team selections in some of his most important matches, most recently on Saturday with the omissions of Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld. The latter’s place on the substitutes’ bench was not unexpected – his protracted and fractious contract negotiations now look set to spell the end of his time at Spurs – but he remains one of the best centre-backs in the country and surely needed to have played instead of the unpredictable Davinson Sanchez? Regardless of this decision, there can be no valid reason for leaving out the first choice goalkeeper and club captain. We will never know if Lloris would have got down to Ander Herrera’s match-winning drive, but surely it should have been the Frenchman between the sticks at that moment, rather than Pochettino’s appointed “cup keeper” Michel Vorm.
In the same stage of the competition against Chelsea last season, his decision to shoe horn an in-form Son at right wingback also spectacularly backfired. The South Korean’s suspect defending was horribly exposed as he conceded a crucial penalty with a clumsy tackle on Victor Moses.
Slow to react
Success for managers and players alike can hinge on making the right decision in the big moments of matches. No clearer was this demonstrated than against Juventus at Wembley in early March, where Pochettino was tactically out-thought in the space of a few short minutes by his counterpart Massimiliano Allegri. The Italian’s two quick substitutions and formation switch baffled the Spurs manager – he was slow to react and we all know what happened next.
These examples are not meant to lay the blame for Tottenham’s failures exclusively at the Pochettino’s door. However, if the club is to ever make these final and most important steps towards success, these errors of judgment cannot be made.
Pochettino’s most immediate challenge will be to pick up his squad – noticeably devastated after Saturday’s defeat – and repeat their strong finish in the league of last season. There is Champions League football to secure, with a seven-point lead on Chelsea in fifth place looking far more slender than it did a week ago.
Tottenham’s manager and players may have sometimes stumbled before a potential leap to victory but the club can also rue their lack of good fortune in such moments. Eric Dier’s deflected shot might have flown into the United bottom corner just before half time on Saturday, galvanising Spurs and pushing them onto a strong second half and victory. Instead, it rebounded off the foot of David De Gea’s right upright and was cleared. Sometimes one good break is all that is needed to banish some lingering demons or throw the monkey off one’s back.
Despite Pochettino’s comments, it is inconceivable that he is not the Spurs manager at the start of next season. Though Saturday’s defeat will hurt just as much as those that have gone before, he will surely believe his work at the club cannot end here.
With the loosening of Levy’s purse strings, Pochtettino will continue to build his squad and should retain most of his current players, despite the expected departures of Alderweireld, Mousa Dembélé and Danny Rose. Their remaining (and soon to be former) teammates will continue to live with the same “spursy” accusations until that steely resolve and good fortune can be found to prove otherwise. Their manager’s decision making and luck must also change, otherwise his place in Tottenham history will be as the man who lifted the club to new heights but fell short when it mattered most.
Editorial credit: Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock.com