Football Features

Despite the UCL defeat, Mauricio Pochettino has done much to combat the ‘Spursy’ narrative

By Steve Jennings

Published: 19:09, 3 June 2019

The most common criticism aimed at Mauricio Pochettino concerns his lack of silverware with Tottenham Hotspur.

Spurs lost in the 2019 Champions League final, being beaten 2-0 by Premier League rivals Liverpool in Madrid. But despite the defeat, it’s impossible to ignore what Pochettino has accomplished since arriving from Southampton five years ago.

The Argentinian has stripped Tottenham of the ‘Spursy’ tag born from the club’s capacity to fail spectacularly in recent history. Yes, silverware has proved elusive (and could yet evade Spurs for longer), but Pochettino’s achievements shouldn’t be undervalued given the circumstances.

Reaching a Champions League final having made no signings for almost 18 months is a remarkable feat, brought together by a number of key events and decisions made along the journey.

We’ve picked out 10 things Pochettino has done to dismantle the whole ‘Spursy’ thing.

1. Put together a squad of players who want to be there

In one of his many rants about the state of Manchester United towards the end of the campaign, Gary Neville made a comparison between the current Red Devils squad and the group of players Pochettino inherited at Tottenham.

“I said about this United team that they were very similar to the Spurs one Mauricio Pochettino inherited,” Neville said. “They finished with 64 points, United are on 66. That’s their level.”

The former England defender wasn’t only speaking about the quality of United’s players. He was also referring to their attitude. The majority of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad appeared to lack the required desire to finish in the top four, something Pochettino also had to contend with when he walked into White Hart Lane.

But Pochettino immediately weeded out those he felt didn’t want to be there, a philosophy he has stuck by. Even high-profile names like Kyle Walker, who was allowed to leave for Manchester City, and the now-redeemed Toby Alderweireld (more on him later) have been left out of the side after their true intentions became apparent.

The outcome of Pochettino’s thinking in this regard is to gather a squad of players that puts the team’s success above everything else. Tottenham’s progression to the Champions League final is the culmination of that process.

2. Won at Manchester City in 2015/16

Spurs endured a mixed first season under Pochettino in 2014/15. For the supporters, the campaign will be remembered for Harry Kane’s emergence as a genuine star and glimpses of the style of football Pochettino would go on to implement.

The following year is when everything would come together – and sooner than expected. Tottenham mounted an unlikely title challenge, memorably losing out to Leicester City after imploding at the end. But despite the disappointment, 2015/16 was the campaign in which a bond truly started to grow between the manager, the players and the fans.

The moment most indicative of that growth was a 2-1 win at Manchester City. The result and performance was the first real sign of Spurs’ ability to challenge at the top. What’s more, the scenes at full-time in which Pochettino hugged every single one of his players on the pitch while the fans sung his name was a sign of things to come – how many times have we seen similar footage since?

3. Responded to the 2015/16 collapse in style

Tottenham were the main challengers to Leicester in 2015/16 but somehow ended up finishing third, below fierce rivals Arsenal, after collapsing in the final four games – talk about ‘Spursy’.

An unexpected home draw with West Brom was followed by the ‘Battle of the Bridge’, a 2-2 draw at Chelsea that confirmed the title for Leicester. Spurs then lost 2-1 at home to Southampton before falling to a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Newcastle United on the final day, slipping to third right at the end.

Having lost out on the title once again in 2016/17 to a rampant Chelsea side, Pochettino didn’t allow his players to fall apart again. Tottenham finished the season by winning their final game at White Hart Lane, a 2-1 victory over Manchester United, before scoring 13 goals in their last two away matches, winning 6-1 at Leicester and 7-1 at Hull. Spurs were maturing in front of our eyes.

4. Won at Stamford Bridge for the first time in 28 years

The 2017/18 season was a transitional year for Tottenham. Forced to play at Wembley while the club’s new stadium was being constructed, Pochettino’s side struggled to replicate their form of the last two campaigns but still managed to qualify for the Champions League.

One of the key results behind their third-place finish was a 3-1 victory at Chelsea, Spurs’ first win at Stamford Bridge for 28 years. Not only did it banish a long-standing hoodoo, the result also saw Tottenham open up a gap over Chelsea that they just about retained until the end of the season.

The win came in difficult circumstances, too. The visitors went a goal down to an Alvaro Morata header, but turned things around thanks to a Christian Eriksen screamer and a well-taken Dele Alli double. Harry Kane was only fit enough for the bench, making the result even more impressive.

5. The comeback at Juventus

Spurs stormed through the Champions League group stages last season, beating Real Madrid and Dortmund impressively and earning a round-of-16 meeting with Juventus. It would be typical of Tottenham, then, to see their hopes dashed within minutes of kick-off in Turin – and that’s exactly what happened.

Or so it seemed. The hosts were 2-0 up after nine minutes courtesy of a Gonzalo Higuain brace (the striker also missed an early penalty). It looked like Spurs were about to be taught a European lesson by a member of the elite, but the Londoners held off Juventus and struck back with two second-half goals from Kane and Eriksen.

There had been no clearer indication that this was a different Tottenham to past years. Of course, they ultimately were taught a lesson as Juventus came from a goal down to win the second leg and the tie. It was a painful defeat considering the performance across 180 minutes, but Spurs learned a lot about themselves over the course of the round.

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6. Brought Toby Alderweireld back into the fold

As mentioned in our first point, Pochettino has no time for players who don’t want to be at the club. When Toby Alderweireld returned from a hamstring injury midway through last season, questions started to be asked about why the Belgian wasn’t immediately back in the team.

It soon became clear that Alderweireld was stalling on a new contract, and Pochettino had no time for it.  The centre-back barely played in the second half of the campaign and was heavily linked with a move to Manchester United last summer.

But when a transfer failed to materialise, Pochettino gave Alderweireld a fresh start. He was back in the starting line-up for Tottenham’s first home game of the season and has just about been an ever-present since. Pochettino revealed he had given every player the opportunity to start from zero, despite the fact Alderweireld only had a year left on his contract at the time.

Spurs took up the option to extend the deal by a year, but in doing so activated a £25m release clause that can be triggered this summer. It’s unclear whether Alderweireld will leave or stay for the final year of his contract, but the fact he is back in Pochettino’s plans proves the Tottenham boss is willing to swallow his pride somewhat for the good of the team.

7. Showed patience with “flops”

At the beginning of this season, Moussa Sissoko was considered a total flop. His £30m move from Newcastle in 2016 simply hadn’t worked out, and it was a huge surprise that he survived yet another transfer window last summer.

But Pochettino has always shown an almost unhealthy level of patience with the midfielder, which has finally paid off. Sissoko has been Spurs’ most consistent performer this season and was unfortunate to be penalised in the Champions League final for handball.

Similarly, Pochettino continued to using Fernando Llorente through a difficult period. The Spaniard endured a woeful 18 months with Tottenham before coming to life in the Champions League knockout stages this term, scoring vital goals against Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City.

Regardless of a perceived lack of quality, Sissoko and Llorente have clearly stayed in Pochettino’s good books. Both have repaid the faith put in them by their manager and then some.

8. Miracles in Manchester and Amsterdam

This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to Spurs. In fact, they’re usually on the other end of it. That’s why when Raheem Sterling scored what looked to be the winner in the dying moments of the quarter-final second leg at the Etihad, it didn’t feel like a surprise to the Tottenham supporters – it just felt inevitable.

That crushing blow was soon reversed when the referee ruled the goal out for offside after a VAR check. Spurs were suddenly in the semi-finals of the Champions League. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

With that in mind, going 3-0 down against an incredibly talented Ajax team felt about right. Tottenham had gone one step too far; their lack of squad depth had caught up with them. The thing is: nobody told Lucas Moura.

While the Brazilian’s stunning individual display sealed Spurs’ place in the final, it wouldn’t have been possible without the belief Pochettino has instilled in the group. The results at the Etihad and the Johan Cruyff Arena were miracles, but Tottenham willed those miracles into existence.

9. Emphasised the collective over the individual 

During Pochettino’s press conference after the comeback at Ajax, Pochettino was asked if Harry Kane will be fit for the final. He gave a one-word answer before getting up and leaving: “Ciao”.

Pochettino was baffled that a reporter would ask about an individual who played no part on the night instead of something about the team as a collective. The 47-year-old always puts the group first, as proven by his intolerance for those who do the opposite.

Doing so ensures no one player feels more or less valuable than another, which is the key to Spurs’ team spirit and the reason they are able to succeed with limited resources.

10. Stuck to the script while taking risks

Tottenham have failed to bring in new players in each of the last two transfer windows. When those windows closed, Pochettino refused to voice his displeasure, instead insisting he is happy to work with the players he has at his disposal; some contrast to Jose Mourinho’s reaction to missing out on signings at Manchester United last summer.

In that sense, Pochettino is sticking to the script. Spurs’ PR message over the last few years has been an attempt to convince spectators they are entering Europe’s elite. Pochettino has followed this line, talking up Tottenham’s stadium and training ground as factors that make them “one of the biggest clubs in the world”.

That said, he has also publicly challenged chairman Daniel Levy’s ambition. At the end of last season and again after the Ajax tie, Pochettino called for Spurs to begin a new chapter, hinting new players are needed if the club is to reach the next level.

His mixture of staying on message and taking risks has earned admiration from the fans. Now it’s up to the Tottenham board to ensure they can match Pochettino’s ambition. Then, and only then, can Spurs consistently challenge for major trophies. For now, binning the ‘Spursy’ tag is enough for most.