Tottenham are a team with enormous potential, individually, collectively, off the pitch and on it. But unless the Lilywhites actually win something in the next few years, they’ll be remembered as exactly that; a team that continually threatened to change the balance of power in English football, but never did.
The same applies to Mauricio Pochettino. Nobody can fault the philosophy he’s brought to White Hart Lane, the way in which he’s extinguished criticisms of ‘soft Spurs’, the manner in which he’s created an identity of industrious yet exciting football, how he’s given chances to young players in an era in which the Premier League is besotted with results and results alone. The England national team have a lot to thank him for, too.
But once again, unless the Argentine actually delivers silverware in north London, his tenure will be seen as essentially superficial. Sure, he’s given Spurs the feistiness they were always accused of lacking and managed to crack that glass ceiling between the club and Champions League qualification, but the consequences are still the same; a team without trophies, who take part in European competitions they don’t win and eventually come up short in the Premier League title race. It’s pretty much what Harry Redknapp left behind in 2012.
Personally too, it doesn’t reflect well on the former Espanyol boss. One cup final, out of a possible ten, in the space of four years since arriving in England isn’t a great return considering the talent that was at Pochettino’s disposal at Southampton and the quality now working under him at White Hart Lane, especially when compared to the enormous progress both sides showed in the Premier League.
And when broken down further, his record in the cup competitions is notably underwhelming. He’s yet to get past the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, the Europa League’s Round of 16 and, if you exclude the 2015 final, he’s never been past the fourth round of the League Cup. That 2-0 defeat to Chelsea was the anomaly rather than the norm. Likewise, Tottenham’s efforts in the Champions League earlier this season, losing two of their three games at Wembley, bordered upon embarrassing.
In fairness, squad depth has been an issue throughout his two-and-a-half campaigns in north London. Spurs do lag behind their divisional rivals in that regard – six of the players involved in the 4-3 win over Wycombe last month were aged 22 or younger – and sacrifices have to be made, especially if Pochettino wants to give Tottenham’s developing youngsters the chance to impress.
But it’s a question of where priorities lie and Pochettino could well be missing a trick. Whilst his team have proved themselves unquestionably talented and capable, they’re yet to prove they’re winners too. Jose Mourinho targeted the League Cup during his first spell at Chelsea to help install a winning mindset as quickly as possible; Pochettino is now two-and-a-half terms into his Spurs tenure, but still waiting for his side to show that killer instinct needed to earn silverware.
When compounded with rumours of him succeeding Luiz Enrique as Barcelona manager at the end of the season, that makes this weekend’s FA Cup clash with Fulham particularly important. A win in the fifth round will herald new territory in the competition for Pochettino, but Fulham can’t be taken for granted and another weakened side, like the one that almost lost to Wycombe last month, won’t necessarily get the job done.
After all, although Slavisa Jokanovic’s side is still clearly a work in progress, they have scored the third-most goals of any Championship side this season, rank first throughout the division for possession and efforts at goal and have beaten two Premier League clubs already this term in Middlesbrough and Hull. Add home advantage to the equation and Craven Cottage could well be the backdrop of the FA Cup’s biggest upset this weekend.
A history of weakened selections in cup tournaments suggests Pochettino wouldn’t fret too much over such an outcome, but that’s precisely the point; winning teams are remembered far quicker than those who simply play the best football and for the hard work they’ve put in over the last few seasons, this Spurs side deserves a material award.
At the same time, winning a trophy hints at a strong tactical mind – struggling to progress in such competitions, priorities aside, suggests the opposite. Barcelona chiefs will unquestionably take note if Pochettino’s boys plummet out of the FA Cup on Sunday.