This article is part of Football FanCast’s Opinion series, which provides analysis, insight and opinion on any issue within the beautiful game, from Paul Pogba’s haircuts to League Two relegation battles…
It is the great irony of Premier League management that every tenure, no matter its longevity or success, nearly always ends in disgrace. Survival saviours become relegation villains just as title-winners become icons of stagnation. Even those parting on their own terms, after overseeing years of success, can create a traitor-tinted revisionism depending on where they end up next and how the club copes without them.
But in few instances will the irony be so bitter as in the case of Mauricio Pochettino. Having found themselves marooned in mid-table, bemoaning a car-crash start to the new season that has seen them win just five games – two of those were against Red Star Belgrade – Tottenham have now sacked the man who took them to last season’s Champions League final.
What has been most staggering is how un-Pochettino-like Tottenham became. This is a manager synonymous with youthful energy, attacking intensity and relentless resilience, who expelled Spurs’ historic soft underbelly and made bottle-jobbery a matter of the past. Spurs’ first team had almost become a cult of ferociously loyal young players prepared to run through brick walls for their manager, almost mocking the perceived wisdom of which clubs deserved to challenge for English football’s greatest honours.
Fast forward to November 2019 and Pochettino left behind a squad combining ageing players of questionable commitment running down their contracts, and once-youthful talents who should be in their prime seemingly out on their feet. Erik Lamela, Eric Dier and Dele Alli are riddled with injuries, Harry Kane has already lost the high-pressing intensity of his formative years. It has become a mess of monumental proportions and Spurs opted for the only obvious solution of severing the serpent’s head. Maybe something beautiful can grow from the composition of its decaying corpse.
And thus, we reach a point of wondering how Pochettino will be remembered; the dynamic, fearless trend-setter who continuously disrupted the Premier League’s top order with a fraction of their financial resources, or the increasingly bitter, increasingly ineffectual manager now out of work. Throw in Pochettino’s only shortcoming during his time as Spurs boss, the failure to convert the club’s rapid advancement under his watch into silverware, and the danger of his five years in the job being ultimately defined by the last few months – or failing that, a mere handful of games at the apex of cup competitions – is clear.
Yet, legacy is what always separates the greats from the greatest; not only what they achieved, but also what they left behind; and Pochettino’s remains exceptional in an era where Premier League titles are decided by who spent the most money the wisest as much as anything else. Regardless of how Pochettino’s Tottenham tenure ended – during an international break, without an away win since January and a Premier League victory since September – he deserves to be remembered for what he’s given not only to Spurs, but to the whole of English football.
Let’s rewind the clock back to summer 2014. Spurs had finished in 6th place, were destroyed by Borussia Dortmund in the Last 16 of the Europa League, had appointed Tim Sherwood as Interim manager and were relying on Emmanuel Adebayor’s mercurial supply of goals for results. The Gareth Bale money had been wasted and Pochettino inherited a squad whose personnel ranged from Kyle Naughton to Paulinho. Younes Kaboul was vice captain. It was an unmitigated mess.
The resulting question is a simple one; how many managers in world football could have turned that squad into a genuine Premier League title threat within the next 18 months, and subsequently Champions League finalists within the space of five years. Maybe Jurgen Klopp, who has overseen a similar transformation at Liverpool. Maybe Pep Guardiola, who will be remembered as the greatest manager of his era. But the club is an incredibly exclusive one and Pochettino has obtained membership with one hand tied behind his back – he didn’t sign a single player for almost 18 months, during which Liverpool and Manchester City spent almost £150m combined.
But perhaps more important than how Pochettino has transformed Tottenham is his lasting impact on the English game. Six members of England’s 2018 World Cup squad had played and flourished under his guidance, while he’d even overseen the incredible development of Gareth Southgate’s designated captain Harry Kane. Four of those started in the semi-final against Croatia, and the remaining two came on from the bench.
And that stems from how Pochettino has so successfully changed perceptions of young players in this country. There has always been an obsession with English football’s next generation, but the discussion usually ends with the definitive conclusion of it not being good enough. Pochettino’s Spurs side though, fuelled by Kane’s unquenchable thirst for goals, Dele Alli’s drives from midfield, Eric Dier’s anchoring and Danny Rose and Kyle Walker’s dynamism from full-back, proved that consistent chances were all the next generation needed.
Look around the Premier League now: Chelsea, a club notorious for overlooking its youth to make room for ready-made signings have built a new team around Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori. Manchester United, who have the financial resources to sign pretty much any player in the world, are now banking on the likes of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford to grow into superstardom. Arsenal have the youngest average squad age in the Premier League.
Would any of those mini-revolutions favouring the development of young talent be taking place right now if Tottenham hadn’t so persistently shown up all three clubs to repeatedly finish above them throughout Pochettino’s reign? Would the England squad be so sharply geared towards young talent breaking through, with an equally youthful manager at the helm? One can only speculate, but it has clearly been an influence.
Fundamentally, that is how Pochettino should be remembered for his time at Tottenham; as someone who changed perceptions of an also-ran football club, who influenced the philosophies and recruitment strategies of his most important Premier League rivals and the national team, and who did a job few others – if any – could. Ultimately, he has left Tottenham, and maybe English football, in a much better state than what he found it in.
Premier League management is an unforgiving service if only by nature of the manner almost every spell ends and the cold objectivity of history’s trophy tallies. Pochettino though, deserves so much more than bitter irony. Five incredible years and their impact define him; not four terrible months.