TOTTENHAM Hotspur were supposed to be different, a club that didn’t follow the zeitgeist of football as a rich-man’s plaything. Spurs were committed to developing players, providing the hub of the Southgate project, and they resisted the temptation of throwing money around. They had also kept faith with a coveted manager that was popular, played football in keeping with the club’s rich heritage of purist entertainment and to cap it all, their new stadium promised a glittering future.
There was one nagging problem, though. Despite securing a permanent place in the top six in English football and enjoying Champions League participation, Spurs just could not win a trophy. They had the talent, they had the England captain, they had a new home and they had a relatively conservative approach to financial management, but there were was no need to buy silver polish. In order to make that push from contenders to possible champions, they needed more than good coaching. They also needed money to invest in a relatively thin playing squad.
Admittedly, they reached the Champions League final in 2019, but they didn’t really turn up and the game in Madrid really marked the end, rather than the start, of something special. Tottenham had, arguably, peaked under Mauricio Pochettino. Some of the club’s players may also have reached the pinnacle of their achievements as Spurs employees. Change was, perhaps, inevitable, either through Pochettino being lured away to a bigger, more resourced club, or in some of Spurs’ players being sold to allow the club to cash-in on some of their prize assets.
In the end, Spurs’ management decided the time was right to force the issue. A mediocre start to the season, three wins in 12 games, none away, was coupled with stories of unrest – “he’s lost the dressing room” – and growing rumours that Pochettino wanted to move to Spain. In 2019, Spurs have won 10 of 29 league games and their run-in to the end of 2018-19 was very poor, which some might have interpreted as the behaviour of a distracted team.
Pochettino was loved by the Spurs faithful and his win rate of 54.27% was the highest for a Spurs manager with a tenure of more than 100 games. Although managers like Arthur Rowe, Bill Nicholson and Keith Burkinshaw all did better in terms of trophies, Pochettino’s stats make more impressive reading.
But there has clearly been something wrong this season, from tepid league performances to the calamity of the 7-2 home defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Pochettino’s post-match persona appeared to have altered since last season. It would not have been unreasonable for him to expect some money to strengthen his team after reaching the Champions League final last season, but Spurs have a big project to pay for. They did spend £ 90 million, signing Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham – £ 25m), Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon – £ 55m) and Jack Clarke (Leeds – £10m), but they also lost England full back Kieran Tripper. The jury is out on whether these signings have actually bolstered the Spurs squad.
Was Spurs’ mood right going into 2019-20? Pochettino admitted the dynamic changed after the final in Madrid but he insisted that the reason his team was not winning was because players were not performing and “not some stupid thing happening inside”.
Spurs claim they were reluctant to sack Pochettino, but the results, the body language and dressing room rumblings suggested an era was drawing to a close. It may be hard for Spurs fans to come to terms with, but football fans are fickle, if the next man is successful, they will quickly move on.
But it is the identity of the “next man” that has also stirred-up the fans. José Mourinho is probably the most unlikely Spurs manager since George Graham, who was an Arsenal man through-and-through. His style of football is far removed from “push and run”, Bill Nicholson’s creed and the happy-go-lucky days of Keith Burkinshaw. Mourinho would have found it hard to accommodate Glenn Hoddle or maybe even Gazza.
Mourinho’s record commands respect, but the accompanying baggage is something no club can live with for too long. Hence, he’s one of football’s most expensive temporary contractors. Everyone keeps saying he wins trophies, but his recent record suggests he finds it harder to find his mojo these days. A quick glance at his win rate in his last two jobs suggests a coach that is certainly more challenged than he was in the period between 2003 and 2010. His second spell at Chelsea generated a win rate of 58.8% and his time at Manchester United was 58.3%. Compare that to his first stint at Stamford Bridge (67%) and his time with Real Madrid (71.9%).
Mourinho’s way was innovative back in 2004, but since then, dynamic coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have come onto the scene with a more expansive approach. Mourinho’s football looks more miserable today, less about entertainment and all about winning at all costs. It’s less appealing than it was and not as successful anymore. In short, Mourinho may have set the agenda for the modern coach, but he has been overtaken.
It might not be the Spurs way, a culture that was really established back in the late 1950s with Bill Nick and his double winners of 1961. Journalists and critics eulogised about the Spurs team of that era long after they had all gone grey or bald, but 1961 was their most recent title win. Spurs were always a “cup team” but they were also colourful cavaliers. Pochettino did well to tip his hat at that legacy. Mourinho won’t even try to live up to ideals, but he will produce a team that adheres to his approach and the burning desire to win trophies. Spurs have their best chance for some time of adding to their roll-call of honours, which was last amended in 2008.
But it won’t last long. The script is well-known – a brief honeymoon, implementation of the Mourinho way, some new (and expensive) signings, a successful second season and then a fractious third campaign that could end prematurely. When you look around, you will find it is not actually much different elsewhere as football managers really don’t last much longer. They are all temporary contractors, but it makes good copy to talk about José Mourinho and his three-year itch.