The memory is a funny thing and, after a while, becomes selective. Mauricio Pochettino left Tottenham Hotspur in late 2019, and nobody stood in his way. It was a sad end but a necessary end.
He turned them into title contenders and, a few months before departing, led them to the Champions League final. His was their best modern era and he changed perceptions more than anyone else. Spurs were no longer easily dismissed under his guidance; even though he didn’t win anything, he left his mark.
There had always been a question mark over how long the good times could last, though. Spurs were building a talented, young team with a strong sense of self. They were intense and high pressing and a great watch for the neutral but they had to be clever in a market with a clear disparity to that of their rivals. Pochettino’s biggest success was arguably his downfall. He changed the collective mindset, targeting the bigger honours and, rightly or wrongly, not giving so much credence to the FA Cup or League Cup.
When he left empty handed, the lack of a trophy was immediately used against him but his reign was a case study in how silverware isn’t always he best way to measure the quality of an era. Pochettino is still looming over Tottenham, having raised expectation and set the bar for his successors. Challenge but with style.
By the end it felt like a separation was coming for a while. A 3-0 defeat at Brighton showed that all wasn’t well.The culmination of lots of frustration. Pochettino always wanted more, knowing he was facing up to competition with bigger budgets and an ability to pay better wages than Tottenham could afford.
Without levelling up, Spurs were always likely to hit a ceiling, with or without Pochettino, while he and the key members of his squad were constantly being linked with moves elsewhere. Although most of them stayed, they weren’t added to. When everything became a bit stale and in need of a rebuild and Pochettino wasn’t afforded the chance to take control of that, it felt like a new voice was the natural progression.
There certainly wasn’t a huge amount of opposition to his exit outside of the fanbase. It was seen as just cause, albeit there was an argument that he should have overseen the transition. Instead, Daniel Levy opted for a complete change of approach. Although Pochettino had taken Tottenham closer to the very top of English football than anyone since the 1960s and the days of the late, great Jimmy Greaves, his selling point was the sort of style and system that becomes the main focus.
When Jose Mourinho arrived, style took a back seat for the notion of ‘guaranteed trophies’. Very few people had won like Mourinho in the modern era, so relentlessly and consistently. His mentality was his approach, and everyone had to buy into that no matter what it looked like. Mourinho being sacked a week before Spurs played in a cup final showed Levy had already lost faith in his change of mindset.
Pochettino, in charge at Paris Saint-Germain by the summer, was linked with a return to Tottenham and the discourse surrounded his brilliant team which gave the elite a bloody nose, rather than the desperate decline amidst disagreements and constant speculation. Nuno Espírito Santo came in and, after a promising start, three successive heavy defeats, the latest of which coming against North London rivals Arsenal on Sunday, have ramped up the pressure. The dust hadn’t even settled on the result, and Pochettino’s name came up again.
Spurs need to get back to high pressing again, it was said. Harry Kane’s body language is all over the place and what has happened to Dele Allí? Sky Sports’ Gary Neville, who worked with Dele on England duty, said he needed to ‘sort himself out’.
It is easy to look at that and theorise that Pochettino, the man who introduced the pressing and made Kane and Dele one of the most feared double acts in Europe at their peak, can do it all again for Tottenham. But that ignores the difficulties he began to face and also simplifies the state of Tottenham as a club. They simply weren’t rich enough to compete regularly, or at least that is the impression Levy gave. There is a reason so many fans are vigorously against his reign as chairman.
Six games is not enough to discard Nuno, especially as one of those was a victory over champions Manchester City. He wasn’t an obvious choice but Levy made a mess of the manager recruitment process, and this is part of what he has to live with. If Pochettino were to return, he would find a worse Tottenham squad than the one he left, meaning the need for improvement would increase again.
Maybe a return one day could be on the cards but now it is too soon for old wounds to have healed. Spurs’ decline is partly natural because of the wealth of their competition but has been exacerbated by poor management from the top and differing directions. The way out of it is to find common ground and work on that basis; crucially, they should look to the future, not the past.
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