Football Features

Has Mauricio Pochettino reached the end of the line at Tottenham?

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:13, 2 October 2019

Tottenham Hotspur are hurting after being blown to bits by Bayern Munich, losing 7-2 to record their worst ever home defeat.

The defeat is the third Spurs have suffered in the last four games. In fact, their narrow victory over Southampton at the weekend is their only win in the last five games. And the five before that weren’t too impressive either, really.

Spurs’ best result this season was somehow stealing a 2-2 draw against Manchester City in a game where they were so comprehensively outplayed that no one even really said anything bad about City after the game. Meanwhile they contrived to throw away a comfortable two-goal leads against Arsenal and Olympiacos, lost at home to Newcastle and then got dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Colchester.

Something is rotten in the state of Tottenham, and one cannot help but look at manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Obviously the idea that the manager is to blame is an all-too-common criticism levied at underperforming football clubs, but in this instance there is probably an element of truth to it. After all these players didn’t magically become terrible, that kind of sharp decline is such a rare occurrence that when it does happen (e.g. Luis Suárez at Barcelona) the player becomes a clear and obvious outlier in the squad.

The Spurs players are superb, yet they cannot seem to function as a team in the very real way they have done previously. This same group of players, one year ago, was competing against Barcelona, and two years ago they gave Real Madrid a run for their money. No, Pochettino must catch some flak for this, perhaps even all of the flak?

That’s not to say Pochettino has become a bad manager, that also doesn’t happen (at least not overnight). It’s just that, well, he’s been at the club for five years now. Five years and 121 days to be exact, making him the fifth longest-serving manager in English football right now. And although there are two Premier League managers who have been working longer than him, neither of them (Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche) are operating at the elite end of the game like Pochettino.

Legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttman used to say that “the third year is fatal” with regards to a manager’s tenure, because by then players are no longer as keyed in and opponents have started to work things out. Guttman never worked a job beyond that third year, and throughout history his rule has often proved to be true. Obviously it’s not always three years exactly, but entropy is inevitable.

Obviously Sir Alex Ferguson is a big counter-example, but he is perhaps the only one. A freak of longevity, like Gandalf or algebra. Other managers operating at the elite end of the sport cannot do what Ferguson did, his ability to sustain his hunger, influence and competitive skill at one club for 27 years is utterly ludicrous.

Still, no one was expecting Pochettino to last as long as Sir Alex Ferguson, but how can he be so lost after just five? Well, look at the team. Has it really changed all that much? Looking at the starting XI from the opening day of Pochettino’s second season in charge and you’ll see all the familiar names: Harry Kane, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen. In fact of the 14 players used that day, eight are still at the club – and Hugo Lloris was on the bench as well. That is a staggering lack of squad evolution, especially as until literally this summer when Tanguy Ndombele arrived none of the new additions were given key roles.

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Managers at the elite level just don’t last that long. Things always fall apart. Look at Pep Guardiola; he’s currently riding high at Manchester City but back when he was Barcelona manager, he cruised to the league title in his first three seasons and was one volcano eruption away from winning the Champions League three years running too (he had to settle for two out of three) but in his fourth season, 2011/12, he only won the Copa del Rey.

Barcelona threw away easy points to cede La Liga and got knocked out of Europe by a Chelsea side that were several orders of magnitude worse than the Blaugrana. Pep only stayed at Bayern Munich for three years to avoid a similar breakdown happening in Bavaria, and whilst the unique challenges of Manchester City (specifically: making them an established, feared, elite side) mean that he probably has a longer window to succeed with them, he’s already in year four and things are starting to fray a bit.

The man most likely to take advantage of that fraying is Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, but he too will be well aware of the lifecycle of an elite coach. In 2010/11 he led Borussia Dortmund to Bundesliga glory, in 2011/12 he went one better and did the domestic double capping the season with a staggering 5-2 win over Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal final.

Then in 2012/13 they made it all the way to the Champions League final but fell, in fact they failed to win any of the major trophies that year as Bayern romped to a Treble. In 2013/14 that team which had remained mostly the same lost their edge and won nothing again, and in 2014/15 they were shockingly bad, finishing 7th, and Klopp departed.

So there are two very big examples of just how finite the lifecycle of a manager at the elite end of football can be. And across North London is the greatest parallel that Spurs fans will not want to countenance.

Arsene Wenger was at Arsenal for a long time, but things were constantly evolving. The side that won the title in 1998 was unrecognisable from the Invincibles of 2004 (save for Patrick Vieira). The first team was one Wenger built off a foundation left by George Graham with the additions being mostly lifestyle, off-pitch stuff. Conversely the 2004 win was very much Wenger’s own side in his own image; tactics, personnel, the whole lot.

So that’s 1996-1999 where he’s building a team from existing players, 2000-2002 where he’s phasing out the old guard and bringing through his own men (the 2002 title win was the Gunners capitalising on the entropy of Manchester United’s Treble-winning side that was in their fourth year together) and then, the Invincibles.

And sure enough, the Invincibles side lasted about three years – from 2003 all the way up to the 2006 Champions League final in Paris. What should have been Wenger’s crowning moment of triumph, stolen from him by Henrik Larsson, Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti.

That defeat was, essentially, the end for Wenger. He was never the same after that, even if he half-assembled one last great side (the 2007/08 Cesc Fabregas vintage) that half-challenged for the league. He stuck around for over a decade after Paris but never, ever looked the same. Entropy had set in and Arsenal became a parody of an elite football club.

Now look at Spurs under Pochettino. Obviously he had a very young squad and first had to teach them all how to play his way, so let’s write off the first season. So, 2015/16, Spurs are brilliant – the best team in the country really – but they contrive to lose the title to Leicester and end up in third. They challenge again the following year but fail to beat Chelsea. Then Guardiola’s juggernaut City come in for Pochettino’s “third” year and in a way, the fatal nature is clear as Spurs are nowhere near challenging for the title.

Then we come to 2018/19, Pochettino’s fifth year overall but his fourth with Spurs as his side in his image. The Argentinian knows he’s missed his window to win the title – Liverpool bulldozed their way to 97 points and finished second – and suddenly goes all in on trying to win the Champions League. Injuries hit, their domestic form disappears into the Marianas Trench, but they make the Champions League final! This would be Pochettino’s crowning glory, the perfect ending to his spell at Spurs and a validation of everything he’s w–oh no he’s lost. Just like Wenger in 2006 and Klopp in 2013. And as those men showed; if you reach the Champions League final at the end of a long spell at a club and then don’t win, it’s over.

Well, Pochettino didn’t win. And now Spurs have started the season with just three wins in 10 games, they’ve lost three of the last four and just got kerb-stomped at home 7-2 by Bayern Munich. Even though Spurs spent a lot of money in the summer, one can’t help but get the feeling that the core regulars of the side have simply stopped responding to the Argentine like they used to. This is his sixth season, after all.

Now the only question is do Spurs act decisively, moving Mauricio Pochettino on and bringing in someone with new ideas to energise the squad? Or do they simply allow Pochettino to stay and play out a long, interminable, second phase of his time at the club when he becomes a Wenger-esque parody of everything good he ever did for Tottenham Hotspur?