Tottenham’s dramatic decision to axe Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino brought to an end a remarkable five-year period in the club’s history.
Four consecutive top-four finishes, a first-ever Champions League final – and a 2019 formsheet worse than any other Premier League side.
Here’s where it all went right, and wrong, at Spurs.
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The Poch Philosophy
Pochettino’s arrival in 2014 brought a very simple ideology to the club: recruit talented youngsters, develop them into world-class players, and allow them to move on to bigger things after they had served their time at Spurs.
The money raised from their sale would in turn be spent on rising stars of higher quality, and the cycle would repeat.
The players bought into the ideology, trusting the Argentine manager would convince the club to sell when the time was right. In return, they accepted lower wages than they would earn at a Premier League rival. Their rewards would come later, when the glamour clubs came calling.
It was a collective unit with a shared vision of shaking up the established order. And it worked.
In his first full season in charge, the club finished fifth and reached the League Cup final. He unearthed Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier – three youngsters that would entrench themselves in the Spurs squad in the joyful seasons to come.
SOS SPECIAL ONE:
‘NO MANAGER IS SAFE’:
The next season was even better, with Spurs challenging Leicester for the title before late stutters saw them slip to third. It was still their best result since 1990.
Second the next season, third the next. Fourth last time around.
Before Pochettino, Tottenham had finished in the top four just twice in their 22 Premier League campaigns. Under him, they reached the top four in four consecutive seasons, and challenged for the title twice.
It was a remarkable record, miraculous even.
Players loved him, fans did too – and chairman Daniel Levy could hardly complain either.
The success came despite a heavily restricted transfer and wage budget, and 18 months spent playing home games at Wembley while building their new stadium.
Then came the peak of the Pochettino era – a staggering, against-the-odds run to the Champions League final in June, featuring stunning victories over Manchester City and Ajax.
Pochettino had turned a club characterised by instability and a lack of identity into a consistent performer at the pointy end of the Premier League, and guided them to their first Champions League final. In just five years.
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
In July of 2018, Tottenham made no signings. Zip, zero, nada. While their Premier League rivals spent big, the Spurs project almost completely stalled.
Pochettino wanted to refresh the squad. Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were all on the chopping block, and there were offers for each. Superstar Christian Eriksen repeatedly refused to sign a new contract.
If Poch had his way, all would be gone. Sell players, invest in rising stars, turn them into superstars – that was the Poch philosophy. But something had gone wrong.
In May, Poch revealed his concerns about the state of the club and their squad dealings.
“We need to talk a lot between us and the club,” he said.
“They have a clear idea of what we need to do and I don’t know if the club will agree with me or not but we need to talk next week to create the new project or what I think we need to do together again to try and improve.
“We cannot think we are the cleverest people in the world winning trophies spending small money. We need to think our reality is different. I have crazy ideas. You need to be brave. In this situation you need to be brave and take risks. It is the moment the club need to take risks.”
The club didn’t. It was risky to sell Eriksen, the master of the midfield. It was risky to sell three veteran defenders. Too risky for Levy.
So none departed, and without an injection of cash, Pochettino couldn’t sign the new names he desperately desired to refresh the squad.
And not just to refresh the squad, but to improve it. Not just to challenge the top four, but to beat them.
Last season was still a success – Pochettino pulled rabbits out of hats with the flair of a Las Vegas magician, particularly in guiding them to the Champions League final – but the seeds of his downfall had been sown.
The domestic performances worsened. Tottenham won just three of their final 11 matches in the Premier League last season.
Pochettino’s demands in the following transfer window were the same, only more desperate. Sell the dead wood, bring in new names. Trust the process.
Yes, the club spent. Yes, players came in. Promising names like Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso.
But, almost bizarrely, none of the players he’d wanted to sell twelve months earlier departed. Not Rose, Vertonghen, or Alderweireld. Not Eriksen. Players who had made clear their desire to leave, and whose contracts will expire at the end of the current season.
Only Kieran Trippier was sold, and that for a bargain-basement £20 million.
It was far from the “painful” rebuild Pochettino said had to happen.
The season started in reasonable fashion – a win over Villa, a draw away to Manchester City. But the cracks, taped over by the Champions League final, began to break open.
A loss to Newcastle, a collapse in a Champions League away game at Olympiacos, a loss to third-tier Colchester in the League Cup.
Worst of all was a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich, at home no less.
The strained relationship between chairman Levy and Pochettino reached breaking point. ‘Clear the air’ talks in August ensured Poch would stop airing his grievances in public at least. Maybe it was too little, too late.
Players, who had once fought for the badge and for the manager, were playing with less commitment. Little wonder. The unsaid contract – do your bit, and the club will reward you with a transfer when the time is right – had been broken.
There were rumours that Poch became increasingly distant with his players. Maybe both sides saw the end coming.
Then, after just three Premier League wins all season, Levy pulled the pin. Six wins from their last 24 league matches, dating back to February 10. Relegation form, in other words.
The decision was one that chairman Levy said he was “extremely reluctant” to make, but that he did so “in the club’s best interests.”
It will cost the thrifty Spurs £12.5 million to axe the Argentinian. It’s almost ironic that they are willing to spend that now, instead of when Poch needed it most.
The manager’s belief was unwavering. “To be close to the big clubs, you must think the way that the big clubs think.”
He didn’t get the chance.