Football Features

Victims of their own success? Why Tottenham’s surprise Champions League progress means Pochettino’s project is at risk

By Steve Jennings

Published: 13:24, 14 May 2019 | Updated: 16:48, 14 September 2021

Ajax’s Champions League elimination at the hands of Tottenham shouldn’t have felt like an underdog victory.

After all, Spurs have been one of the Premier League’s most consistent teams in recent years, finishing in the top three in each of the last three seasons, albeit slipping down to fourth this term.

Ajax, while successful in the Eredivisie, play in a vastly inferior league, are talented but young and inexperienced, and had absolutely no right to reach the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition.

Yet when Lucas Moura completed his hat-trick at the Johan Cruijff Arena to send Tottenham through to their first ever Champions League final, it somehow felt like a victory for the little guy.

In part, this sensation can be put down to the nature of Spurs’ comeback. Two goals down at half-time and three behind on aggregate, Mauricio Pochettino’s men – Lucas in particular – put on a display of determination only matched by Liverpool’s battering of Barcelona the night prior.

The crazed quarter-final against Manchester City added to the sense of surprise; how had Tottenham even reached the semi-finals after Raheem Sterling seemingly won the tie for Pep Guardiola’s side?

But here we are: Spurs will face Liverpool in the Champions League final on June 1st. Tottenham fans have been floating on air for the last few days, and only one thing has threatened to dissipate that sense of jubilation.

Pochettino has suggested the club’s current chapter, the present phase of his project, is coming to a close and he could leave. There have been accusations of sarcasm, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact he may have a point.

Indeed, there is a feeling Tottenham could end up being victims of their own success. But why?

“Close the five-year chapter and go home”

In a press conference ahead of the semi-final second leg against Ajax, Pochettino was asked how it would feel to close what he has described as a five-year chapter at Spurs by winning the Champions League.

He replied: “It should be fantastic. Close the five-year chapter and go home. It’s not a joke. Why?

“To win the Champions League in this circumstance, in this season – maybe I need to think a little bit to do something different in the future. Because to repeat this miracle, you know… But for sure, I go home. Whatever happens tomorrow [against Ajax], I go home.”

The final line renders the rest as sarcasm that was perhaps lost in translation. But regardless of the intent, Pochettino is speaking realistically: if he wins the Champions League this season, what else is there for him to achieve at Tottenham?

The Argentinian has previously spoken of his intention to challenge for major trophies with the club, and by that he means the Premier League and the Champions League.

Supporters have been frustrated by his lack of enthusiasm for the domestic cups, particularly as Spurs haven’t won any silverware since the League Cup success of 2008. That said, Tottenham have reached four domestic semi-finals (two FA Cup and two League Cup) and one final (League Cup) under Pochettino.

There is an argument to be made that the comeback at Ajax is a greater achievement – or at least a more satisfying feeling – than a hypothetical domestic cup win. But it’s a debate that will fall on deaf ears among rival fans and other onlookers who continue to question Pochettino’s legacy at Tottenham while trophies remain elusive.

Winning the Champions League, then, will present both a solution and a new problem to that dilemma. Pochettino’s legacy will be established, but there is no destination beyond the promised land.

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Win or lose, there’s a problem

Of course, we must acknowledge the very real possibility that Spurs will lose the Champions League final.

Liverpool are favourites to win the competition for various reasons. They have been much better than Tottenham this season. They have more fit, in-form players. And they will be driven by their extraordinary misfortune in missing out on the Premier League title to Manchester City, as well as their defeat to Real Madrid last year.

With all of that in mind, Spurs will not be overly condemned if they fall in the final. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, whether or not the Londoners win the Champions League could prove immaterial to the breaking up of the project.

In the same way winning the competition could convince Pochettino he has done everything he can at the club, losing could bring on the exact same sentiment. Tottenham’s current chapter has effectively hit a glass ceiling.

Chairman Daniel Levy is determined to put Spurs among Europe’s elite as evidenced by the incredible new stadium. But making the next step will take time and patience, which could require the purse-strings to remain tight for the next few years.

Tottenham haven’t made a signing since, fittingly, the arrival of Moura in January 2019. That will surely change this summer, but not drastically; Levy is likely to sanction two or three affordable acquisitions and potentially replace a couple of outgoing stars.

And while those additions could improve the squad, they won’t put Spurs on par with Manchester City. Ultimately, a few fresh faces will help to add a smattering of points to this season’s relatively disappointing haul in the Premier League, the aim being to keep the club at the necessary level to qualify for the Champions League again.

Is that enough to convince a manager as ambitious as Pochettino to stick around? And to that point, will the players linked with exits be willing to remain at the club through its ongoing transition?

Summer departures could spell danger

It’s an unusual situation for a club on the verge of becoming the champions of Europe to be at risk of losing two of their best players before the start of next season, yet that’s what Tottenham’s overachievement could culminate in.

Frustratingly for the supporters, the potential exits of Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen are the result of botched contract negotiations rather than on-pitch failings. Finishing in the top four and reaching the Champions League final might usually be enough to convince a player to stay, but not with Spurs’ wage structure.

Much has been written about the fact Tottenham pay inferior wages to their top-six rivals. It’s likely the reason Alderweireld and Eriksen could be on their way out; why wouldn’t they seek three times their current salaries and a more realistic chance of consistent silverware elsewhere?

The magical night in Ajax will surely have convinced the duo that the Champions League is very much the place to be. Previously linked with Manchester United, Alderweireld and Eriksen may now be asking their agents to look elsewhere.

If money wasn’t a factor, they may even stay at Spurs. And indeed, that eventuality cannot be ruled out. But their contract situations – both have a year left on their current deals and Alderweireld has a £25m release clause – will make things difficult for Tottenham, who must begin considering possible replacements.

The Londoners have a tough decision to make: spend big to replace Eriksen and Alderweireld with players of their current level, or spend slightly less on players who have the potential to reach that level. Elite centre-backs are few and far between, but as for a playmaker Spurs must be at least be looking at James Maddison.

The Leicester City star was the only player to create 100 chances in the Premier League this season. However, whether he has the ability to replicate Eriksen’s instrumental displays for Spurs this term – the Dane has generally been inconsistent but his late winners have been crucial – is up for debate, which is indicative of the tough summer Tottenham face.

All of which is not to say Spurs are in a bad place – far from it. Pochettino has proven time and time again he has the capacity to get the best out of high-potential footballers, particularly English youngsters. And so long as Pochettino remains in charge, that will continue to happen.

What’s more, the likes Harry Kane and Dele Alli are tied down to long-term contracts. There is a feeling, though, that Pochettino is the most important figure at the club. With the ultimate glory just one game away, Tottenham are at a crossroads. The club must choose a direction, but the fans will hope Pochettino is at the wheel.