The real shame of Tottenham’s defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers was not the lost points, inconvenient as they were, but the ugly bookend it created on what has otherwise been an excellent festive period. Despite their limited squad, Spurs authored an exhilarating run of form up to and beyond Christmas, and now its memory has been tarnished by familiar accusations of mental fragility.
Fatigue is the obvious diagnosis. Pochettino’s midfield is clearly wilting under the winter schedule and Wolves was a game too far. The effects of the fixture list were seen in the literal lack of intensity, but also in the many bad decisions made. When players get tired, their errors rise and their ideas fade away; too many games deaden the legs and the mind. In effect, this was the moment when the summer transfer inertia came back to bite the club: while Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool were all rotating through their many alternatives, Spurs were relying on the same small group of players.
The season so far has been framed by the players’ unlikely evasion of that physical debt. That Tottenham sit third in the league isn’t surprising on account of a lack quality, but because they were expected to run headlong into the wall at some point in November. At times, Pochettino has been marvellously creative in alleviating the burdens, but there are only so many times the same fabric can be repurposed before it begins to fray.
Perhaps there’s another reinvention planned for the visit to Cardiff City and, as we speak, another unlikely component is being readied to get the wheels turning. Regardless, this recent loss and the circumstances surrounding it come at an inconvenient time, precisely at the moment when Tottenham don’t need Pochettino to be dwelling on the reasons he may have for leaving. Daniel Levy should be nervous.
Unfortunately for Levy, this is the period which will likely instruct what happens next. Come the summer, Manchester United will appear on the horizon, fists full of gold, and whether Pochettino resists their offer will depend on what he thinks he can achieve at White Hart Lane. Levy is in a precarious position: were his manager to leave now, he would be held solely responsible. Whether justified or not, many supporters would reason that the failure to secure transfer targets, the stadium’s gravitational suck on the club’s resources, and the repeated delays suffered during construction have provided Pochettino with a justifiably exit point. He could leave in the summer and, albeit through their anger and bitter tears, most fans would understand why.
The prevailing hope remains that he looks beyond United’s shimmering veneer and towards Tottenham’s more abstract appeal. There, Pochettino has the opportunity to perform an historic restoration, painting himself onto the space next to the true immortals. Enticing as that may be, if for whatever reason he loses faith in the theory of what could be achieved, then he’s likely – and entitled – to approach this decision from a different perspective. He’s underpaid and under-backed and Levy cannot afford to let him encounter too many situations in which he’s left wondering what might have been achieved had it not been for the obstructions.
None of which is to say that he’s always a bystander to these downturns. He retains a maddening tendency to delay substitutions and is sometimes slow to respond to shifts in a game’s pattern. As Football.London’s Alasdair Gold noticed on Saturday, prior to Wolves’ equaliser Oliver Skipp was set to be introduced just before Willy Boly scored. It’s hindsight talking, of course, but a quicker response to the obvious loss of midfield control might have produced a different outcome.
But that is a small detail within a larger picture. Pochettino is a relatively young manager, still filling out his potential and therefore afforded the latitude to make mistakes. The error which can’t be made, however, is to allow him to believe that life at Tottenham will always involve these contortions, that he must perform minor miracles each season to sustain the club’s growth. If that persists, leaving will seem less of a wrench and more of a logical next step. The issue of whether it would be the right move for Pochettino is a different matter, but the attraction is clear enough and the need to keep the Argentinian’s focus firmly on North London is pressing. Traditionally, that means the sanctioning of heavy spending.
But the club can’t pay through the nose to appease him. Since the stadium project has encountered delays, Spurs have only given vague answers to what the impact on the transfer budget has actually been. By consensus, any incoming activity would have to be funded by sales and, given just how devalued the players Spurs would willingly sell are, major activity is beyond them. Fernando Llorente is reportedly close to joining Galatasaray and Mousa Dembele may yet depart for China, but there is little redeemable value in Michel Vorm, Georges-Kevin Nkoudou or Vincent Janssen.
In this instance, perhaps the gesture would be worth more than the goods delivered. Pochettino’s coaching style makes him distrustful of stars and oversized egos, meaning that the club’s optimal transfer targets are young and pliable. His greatest successes have always been with those undervalued by the market and overlooked by his managerial peers. In fact, the joy he takes from his work seems nearly always to be derived from the formation of an embryonic career and he is invariably closest to those players who have been encouraged beyond the assumed limits of their potential.
So therein lies a retention strategy of sorts. Pochettino doesn’t need to be bribed with an opulent jewel, but does need to be engaged by a project player. And, in the future, a continuous stream of them. While selling that clutch of squad irrelevances won’t cover the cost of buying Adrien Rabiot or Jack Grealish, it could conceivably support moves for the kind of players who typically enliven him. Norwich’s Max Aarons, for instance, or Moenchengladbach’s Mickael Cuisance. Those are names plucked at random, but the profiles are deliberately specific: if Tottenham don’t have the money to keep Manchester United away, then they must fight this battle on different terms. Foyths y Pavones, not Zidanes y Pogbas.
Several years ago, there was a German cartoon drawn in response to Mario Gotze’s move from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich. It showed Jurgen Klopp with a modelling knife, perfecting a figurine Gotze and, in the background, sinister Bavarian types trying to snatch it away. It was a smart bit of satire and, given that Robert Lewandowski was also seized a year later, it characterised the relationship well. What really stood out, though, was the depiction of Klopp, the look of enchantment on his face and the (implied) suggestion that there are different sorts of top-flight manager. Those whose aim it is to spend and win, and those who seek to nurture. It’s admittedly a little too neat, because there are plenty now who do both (including Klopp himself), but there remains the semblance of a passable Venn diagram.
Pochettino, clearly, is the creative sort. The greatest pleasure he seems to take from his coaching is in the type of success built through incremental coaching tweaks and small bricks of experience. I remember being in the old White Hart Lane pressbox, just behind the technical area, when Harry Winks scored his first goal for the club on debut against West Ham. I had a perfect view of their celebration together and, to this day, it’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him. It’s also one of my favourite moments. It was rare and genuine. Sadly, football doesn’t offer that as much as it thinks it does.
In the press-conference afterwards, Pochettino glowed with a paternal pride and, had Simon Felstein let him, he probably would have been happy to answer questions about Winks for the rest of the evening. It’s a trait of his with plenty of supporting annotations: he adores Harry Kane, he has defended Dele Alli’s on-pitch antics countless times and, most recently, he has circled his wagons around Juan Foyth after mistakes at Molineux and the Emirates. Winks he trusts implicitly, he has played him twice against Real Madrid, and Oliver Skipp has also been given a Premier League debut over the past month.
So it matters to him. Money and medals will too, but there’s something about the flowering of a career which seems to chime with his romantic notions of legacy. He’s someone for whom, perhaps, the journey is more appealing than the destination. Tottenham must imdulge that side of his personality and, because of the obvious outside factors at work, they must stress their willigness to do so now.
Mainly because Manchester United don’t offer the same proposition. Much to their supporters’ chagrin, they are now less a football club and more a content provider. While their status within the game and the revenue streams associated with it provide a tremendous advantage, the less desirable consequences are felt in the culture – in those film trailers in which Ander Herrera swings a lightsaber, or in the reported infatuation with social media currency. Wealth has given United the financial muscle to snatch almost anything they want from anybody, but only at the cost of their authenticity and the distortion of their purpose. There is no Harry Winks at Old Trafford, only the occasional, accidental Marcus Rashford and a strange fixation with the British transfer record.
Tottenham must present themselves as the alternative. Not as a club rigidly defined by their history and a new wave of commercial imperatives, but one willing to be shaped by the force of a single personality. Managers don’t change Manchester United, they’re just employed by them. Once they leave Carrington, their desks and offices are cleared and their eras are erased. Spurs’ great selling point, with Pochettino already in situ, is to be of a softer clay. They must place themselves entirely in his hands. Their pitch is the opportunity not just to be their coach for a few seasons, but to be the custodian of a particular approach that he himself would be allowed to define.
Be Guy Roux, not Jose Mourinho. Be the kind of coach who, twenty or thirty years from now, is more than a generic character from football’s ever-changing cast. In a sporting world which is becoming crushingly insincere, there is tremendous value in eschewing the popular trends and representing something substantial.
The symbolic offering of a developing player in January, someone who piques Pochettino’s interest, is a mandatory gesture. Incidental though it might seem, it would cater to his own vision of what progress should be. The key to Pochettino’s loyalty has always be in supplying him with unrealised potential; for as long as he’s able to see future excellence, his expectations needn’t have boundaries. Conversely, the recent failure to supply anything at all, combined with the first-team’s slowing growth cycle, likely encourages the perception that his job is coming to a natural end. Levy’s task, now and for the foreseable future, is to ensure that the “how far can Pochettino take them” question remains without an answer.
Spurs have reached this current peak by recognising that they cannot trade punches with the traditional powerhouses. They cannot outspend any of the teams directly above or below them, they cannot offer nearly the same wages. By conforming to the same spending patterns and chasing the same profile of player, they can only ever be second best. It stands to reason then, that they should commit properly to a different direction: be the club who can periodically restock from the higher shelves, but who – ultimately – are wedded to getting the absolute most from a younger, more affordable line of supply. Like now, but properly and without the N’jie jitters. When Pochettino turns to his bench, he shouldn’t see Nkoudou, Janssen or Llorente, but the next Alli, the next Kane, and the next Winks.
Why did Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco capture the imagination in 2016-17 and why, years after their prime, do people still watch Ajax games on Sunday mornings in the UK? Because theory is intoxicating and developing teams will always enrapture anyone who truly loves the game. It’s as true for coaches as it is for supporters. So use that and be it: Tottenham must place themselves in a state of perpetual evolution and become a club that Pochettino dare not walk away from.
Perhaps money overrides everything and, by this time next year, Pochettino, his assistants, and John McDermott will be gone. Maybe the entire Borough of Haringey will have been dug up and air-lifted north. But why should football management be so different from civilian employment? A bigger salary would always be nice, who doesn’t want to be paid more, but your attitude towards your job is determined by your engagement with the tasks it comprises. What gets you up at 6am and keeps you in the office until 10pm is not the numbers on a PAYE slip, but the nature of the work itself. Tottenham must keep being that reason to get up early and go home late.
In the true sense rather than the Allardycian, Pochettino is a football man to his core. He is cones and practice pitches, inter-personal relationships and club-wide behavioural codes. He does not do immediate jolts and he does not indulge players on account of what their marketing reach might be. He and Tottenham, at this stage in their respective histories, are almost perfectly aligned. Were he to leave, the buildings, the badge and the colour of the shirt wouldn’t change, but something in the air certainly would. When that’s the case, when a manager dictates the culture and all the corridors smell of his cologne, the club should shut the windows and inhale. They must become exactly the sort of club he wants to manage.