Mauricio Pochettino took a risk this year when he swapped the fertile soils of the south coast for north London. Daniel Levy, Tottenham’s combustable chairman, has wielded a managerial axe in a not too dissimilar way to Roman Abramovich, with one sniff of failure enough to be cast aside.
To this day the sacking of Harry Redknapp still seems perpetually unfair. He built what was one of the most exciting attacking teams in Tottenham’s recent history, and should have taken them further. He picked them up after the reign of ex-Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos, who guided them to two points in their first eight games, and took them to eighth in the Premier League and to a League Cup Final. Yet, a fourth place finish the next season, a Manager of the Year award, a Champions League quarter-final, and another fourth place finish were all deemed inadequate.
Initially, despite Andre Villas-Boas’ disappointing tenure at Chelsea, the swap for the Portuguese made some rational sense. Villas-Boas’ reputation is absolutely wrecked now (unfairly so), but removing Redknapp for a man who effectively had the perfect season at Porto (he won everything possible with an unbeaten domestic record) made sense. Conversely, removing him for Tim Sherwood, on the back of integrating a hastily assembled squad was an act of utter stupidity, with AVB having guided the team to their highest ever points tally in Premier League history. The candid, emotional, Sherwood nearly vindicated that decision when he achieved the highest win ratio of any Tottenham manager, but that, too, was still not enough.
History teaches us a very clear lesson at Tottenham: rationality, justice, and patience are non-existent in their board. Pochettino therefore needs to be exceptional in order to last.
Being given a five-year contract to begin with appears a sign of faith and continuity – Villas-Boas only got three. But compensation won’t be a deterrent to Levy if he wishes to assert his authority – sacking Juande Ramos cost around £10m.
Pochettino will have probably been given three main targets: to secure Champions League football, to play attractive football and to develop and mature the talents emerging from Tottenham’s fruitful academy.
While it is still early doors in the season, it is unlikely that Tottenham will finish in the top four. Balancing the demands of Europa League football with an over-achieving domestic campaign is extremely difficult. Averaging two-games-a-week for a prolonged period means injuries to key players can be fatal. When they play Fiorentina in the Round of 32, they’ll also play Arsenal and Liverpool just before, take on high flying rivals West Ham in between, and face a trip to Loftus Road just after. Pochettino has assembled a decent squad in terms of depth, but you would be surprised to see them come through that period with five wins.
While Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason and Harry Kane have been integrated successfully into the team, young players will likely tire more in those demanding periods. That will be accentuated further by the highly dynamic, pressing game that he demands of his players; they’ll be vulnerable to mid-season burnout.
An interesting factor is their strong away form. Villas-Boas infamously blasted the toxic atmosphere present at White Hart Lane and was soon sacked and that underperforming, overly pressurised vibe seems ever-present again this season – best shown when Emmanuel Adebayor outlined his preference to play away. Home defeats are always deemed more of a letdown, and will test Levy’s fickle patience further but that good away form leaves them in good stead to mount a serious European campaign where the away goal rule is so influential.
If Pochettino is to appease the heavy demands of his ruthless chairman, his best chance of playing attractive football and incorporating youth is to win the Europa League. Failing to do so will place him in the same category as the rest of Tottenham’s ex managers, which will inevitably end in his sacking.