At any given time, a football club is either doing very well or doing very badly. That strict division is, like most things, the consequence of the modern game’s binary nature and the hyperbole it breeds. We must either be up in arms or entrenched within a deep, unseeing infatuation.
So at Tottenham, everything is good – Mauricio Pochettino has cured countless ills, ruthlessly seared a squad which was thick on fat, and has turned a punchline team into a growing threat.
On Wednesday night, his players returned to Wembley for the penultimate time, knowing that victory over Newcastle will re-strengthen their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League. Despite the neuroses of a quivering fanbase, they crawled across the line. Spurs fans believe that the universe is continuously conspiring against them, searching for ever more creative ways to point and laugh, so the native expectation is for another galling humiliation – Newcastle have played that part before, so that bit was hauntingly familiar, and playing Leicester on the final day would have provoked similar sensitivity.
So: play the anthem, book those tickets for Rome, Barcelona and Milan, and forget whatever irritations have been itching beneath the surface. Today, tomorrow and the coming weeks are to be spent reflecting on a wonderful achievement and to suggest otherwise would be contrary. But, then, to ignore the texture of these last few weeks would be disingenious and, arguably, that would be the worse crime; the ends may always justify the means in football, but that isn’t an indication of perfect health.
The obvious ailment first: the pricing at the new ground is exploitative and the focus of its marketing has, more often than not, been insulting. The characters loafering around the Michelin-starred restaurants have been drawn in exquisite detail while the civilian supporters, who have and will continue to foot the bill for this expansion, are presented in homogenous, out-of-focus mass. It’s a very unfortunate methaphor. For now, the stadium glints just brightly enough to keep it from mind. When the novelty wears off, though, and the latent acrimony starts to bubble, the club might concede that – giddy with the progress – they have made a serious and entirely avoidable blunder which has caused long-term damage to their own roots.
There are other concerns, too. Not grave or cumulatively substantial enough to justify questioning Pochettino’s leadership, but certainly not incidental either.
The Argentine continues to be highly sensitive to criticism and yet also clumsy in his handling of public relations. Most notably, his loudly dismissive attitude towards the FA Cup – and his approach to domestic cup competitions in general – has created an issue he could have done without. Pochettino might be right in believing that those kind of tournaments don’t guarantee a quantum leap, but there is a difference in knowing that and volunteering such an opinion to the press. This is the age of the twisted headline, when every news outlet in the country is trying to confect controversy. When Tottenham lost to Manchester United at Wembley – and did so without their usual intensity – it was far too easy to trace that back to the subliminals.
In effect, it was a landmine which should have been seen a mile away, but which he nonetheless skipped clumsily into. Was it a defining factor in the game? No. But it was – again – something which didn’t need to happen. Being the head-coach of a contending side comes with responsibilities that previous Spurs managers haven’t always had to bear. The better a team becomes, the less well the plucky underdog card tends to play. Pochettino has been praised to the hilt – rightly – but an ability to ducky and weave when the questions aren’t as much to his liking remains elusive.
Unnecessary complication is becoming a trend with him – irritatingly so, because it clouds his obvious virtues as a manager and his tremendous effect on this club. Toby Alderweireld, of course, has been marginalised from the side in light of his recent contract impasse and, while superficially justifiable, it has proven a self-inflicated complication. Tottenham are often at their best when they field three centre-halves, particularly against the strongest opponents, but that security was traded away in pursuit of an existing precedent.
The greater irritation is caused by the needless unpleasantness. Alderweireld is worth the figure quoted from his negotiations – perhaps substantially more in the current market – and he is entitled to maximise what would likely be the last big contract of his career. Furthermore, he has been central to this team’s rise and, were he to become available, would interest every elite side in Europe. Some players deserve to be dragged over the coals, but he isn’t one of them.
But Pochettino is a romantic. He has this noble perception of the way football should work which, unfortunately, doesn’t always tally with the game’s realities. To him, the Alderweireld situation offered the chance – again – to exert his principles on his squad. Noble, perhaps, but in this case also to their detriment. Davinson Sanchez is a good player, but not the Belgian’s equal. Vertonghen has been outstanding, but has been stretched to his physical limit by the run-in.
Top-level management demands ruthlesness and can certainly be aided by fostering the sort of cultish following that Pochettino has engendered. There must, however, be some finesse and politics blended with that passion. There’s a time for evangelism and a time just to win; sometimes they can occur simultaneously, occassionally they can’t. It could have been accepted, for instance, that Alderweireld was moving on at season’s end, but that he was also professional enough to retain a level of commitment until such a point arrived. On the evidence of the few games he’s started since recovering from injury that seems realistic; there’s no suggestion that a compromise unachievable.
Football players like money. Very fine football players like money a lot. Sometimes that truism creates fractures, sometimes it can just be treated as a fact of modern sporting life and worked around.
Did this have to be so difficult?
Should Tottenham win their final game, they will finish third. Chelsea have been seen off and everything else is really incidental. Pochettino, therefore, is entitled to toast a successful season during which, again, he has allowed them to achieve well beyond their means. But once the glasses have clinked and the champagne has gone flat, there must be some reflection on whether his convictions really need to be quite so prominent.
Spurs have done tremendously well this season, but there are asterisk. It may be joyless to point that out, miserly even given the context, but it’s still not necessarily wrong. Being elite means existing in a perpetual state of improvement and there is still much room in which to grow.
The message is simple: be what you are, but do it better.