Tim Sherwood was shooting from his gilet-covered hip. “Some of these managers are actually touting themselves for my job. I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “It’s something that doesn’t sit well with me. If anyone ever asks me about another job I just tell them that they’ve got another manager.”
The object of his ire, the man who coveted his post at White Hart Lane, was the then Holland manager, Louis van Gaal. Much as Sherwood was upset by the breach of etiquette, his problem was that the attraction seemed to be mutual. Tottenham wanted Van Gaal; he wanted them.
But Van Gaal and Spurs were never united. Instead, Manchester United added to their recent history of poaching Tottenham players by recruiting their main managerial target. Van Gaal happily took the more glamorous assignment. Tottenham had to make do with the consolation prize: Mauricio Pochettino.
Sherwood was speaking in April 2014. This is April 2016. Two years have brought a considerable change. Indeed, eight months have produced a role reversal. Van Gaal’s United travel to north London on Sunday in the position many expected Tottenham to occupy, outside the Champions League places but looking in enviously. Pochettino’s Spurs are in the spot some tipped United to fill, of title contenders.
Tottenham Hotspur are in title contention
Image credit: AFP
Tottenham’s revival has proved part of the knock-on effect from David Moyes’ struggles at Old Trafford. Spurs had to substitute Pochettino for Van Gaal on their wishlist two years ago. Now, even if the United board’s stubbornness manifests itself in a decision to stick by the 64-year-old, there is little doubt the majority of supporters would willingly trade Van Gaal for Pochettino, just as their Spurs counterparts must consider United’s move for the Dutchman a merciful escape.
It seems a sliding-doors moment, a turning point that extricated them from the damaging cycle of forever pursuing managers who represented the opposite of the incumbent and never quite took Tottenham where they wanted to go. It is inconceivable that Van Gaal, inheriting the squad Spurs had in 2014 and with their resources, would have piloted them to second place now.
While Daniel Levy can be congratulated for plumping for Pochettino, the reality is that he was not a like-for-like deputy for the unavailable Van Gaal. These are managers with certain common denominators and stark differences.
Each espouses youth. The Dutchman has named the youngest starting XI in the Premier League this season, when a group with an average age of 23.1 faced Watford. Over the course of a campaign, Spurs’ average age, under 25, is much the lowest. Each has appeared to leave an attack undermanned and has stumbled on a striking solution: much as Harry Kane is Tottenham’s talisman now, Pochettino did not grant him a league start until November 2014. Marcus Rashford was behind Will Keane in Van Gaal’s thinking two months ago. They have assembled sides with the division’s two best defensive records. They have shown a willingness to discard expensive arrivals and bigger names.
Louis van Gaal has been under pressure for much of the season
Image credit: Reuters
And yet their reigns and seasons are so different that the similarities seem superficial. Not merely because, while Tottenham have no grounds to regret the departures of Emmanuel Adebayor, Roberto Soldado and Paulinho, United fans – if not Van Gaal – can lament losing Angel Di Maria and Javier Hernandez. Their teams are active and static respectively; Spurs’ first thought is to go forwards, while United’s tendency is to look sideways. Pochettino has perhaps the most mobile midfield in the league. Van Gaal bought Bastian Schweinsteiger to join Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata in the midfield mix.
Signings illustrate a gaping chasm in thinking. While Van Gaal has not used all the millions at his disposal, he has still paid out £285 million in fees, with a net spend of around £170 million, Pochettino’s tradings have left Tottenham in the black to the tune of £6.3 million. Even Claudio Ranieri cannot make a similar boast. The Argentinian is the value-for-money manager. He seems to exhibit no interest in the Galacticos who concentrate attention at Old Trafford. Instead, he has unearthed players at MK Dons and Burnley.
Normally, however, he tends to find the answers within. He has revived the careers of some of his predecessors’ costly causes of frustration, whether Erik Lamela or Mousa Dembele. He has rebranded Danny Rose to make him one of the league’s finest left-backs and watched the former reserve Kane become its top scorer. Many, spearheaded by the striker and Dele Alli, are enjoying the best seasons of their career. It may be a simplification to declare that, over the last two years, Pochettino has made players better and Van Gaal worse, but there is a kernel of truth in it. Those who can point to progress under his tutelage – David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Rashford – are outnumbered by those who have not and who, in some cases, have regressed rapidly. Indeed, one such, Morgan Schneiderlin, performed rather better for Pochettino than Van Gaal.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino celebrates with Erik Lamela after the game as Eric Dier looks on
Image credit: Reuters
The Dutchman can say he has tightened United up defensively, but at a cost to their attacking endeavours, because United are on course to finish the season with much their lowest goals tally in the Premier League era and Tottenham with the best defensive record in their top-flight history.
Pochettino has married solidity and surging attacks, picked players with potential and secured the short-term validation in the form of results. His team are yet to score against Van Gaal’s sides, but they have been transformed while United endure another transitional year, with the probability already that next season will prove one more.
Few touted Pochettino for the United job in 2014 – not least the man himself who, in a Sherwood-pleasing fashion, seems averse to making public bids for anyone else’s job – but he would have been a more imaginative appointment two years ago. Admittedly, the last time United tried to hire Southampton’s manager, Lawrie McMenemy spurned their advances but Pochettino, like many of his players, used Saints as a stepping stone.
Now he and Van Gaal are overachiever and underachiever. Tottenham and United will contest the points on Sunday, but two years ago it feels they conducted a tug of war for the wrong man.
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