“Regrettably domestic results at the end of last season and beginning of this season have been extremely disappointing.” Thus read the statement as Tottenham sacked Mauricio Pochettino.
But disappointment is relative. Had Tottenham’s form been extremely disappointing in relation to the rest of Pochettino’s tenure? Perhaps. However, it appears that the Argentine became the victim of his own brilliance. Put simply, Spurs regressed to their mean. Their mean being that of a middling top-flight club. At the time of his sacking Tottenham sat three points off fifth - their mean if that is measured by spending on wages. (Now they sit nine points off fifth and out of the FA Cup and Champions League.)
Unfortunately for Tottenham, well managed finances, great training facilities, or a great stadium do not maketh a great club. Clubs of substance build on success. Take for example Liverpool. They were a good team two years ago. However, the club acknowledged weaknesses and addressed those. Over the course of a year or so they signed Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho. The result was a sixth European Cup win and one of the most dominant title wins in Premier League history.
Tottenham have not done that. The team that sat 14th in the league in November are manifestly worse than the team that finished second in 2016-17. That summer, Spurs lost a wantaway Kyle Walker and failed to replace him. The substandard Serge Aurier does not count.
In the 2017-18 season Tottenham finished third – two points ahead of Liverpool – and signed no one. They flogged Moussa Dembele halfway through last season and finished fourth – but that owed more to Arsenal and Manchester United’s incompetence rather than Tottenham's competence as noted in Spurs' brutal, terse statement.
By that point Tottenham had failed to sign a new player for two transfer windows. That sort of dereliction of duty has long term impacts like, for instance “domestic results at the end of last season and beginning of this season [becoming] extremely disappointing.”
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Pochettino had spoken of a painful rebuild. Now, to be clear a rebuild does not involve simply signing new players. The acquisitions of Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon simply acknowledged Tottenham were in decline but did not represent a remedy.
Those signings did not - and could not - immediately address the ills that were allowed to fester for those two transfer windows. Tottenham had become stale; the spine of their team more withered and key players appeared to be no longer 'bought in' to the project. In fact, the club's inability to shift unwanted players was as much of a hindrance to a rebuild as their inability to add to their squad. The chemistry of a successful team takes time to foster, and the 47-year-old was not afforded that time.
Mauricio Pochettino (C), Manager of Tottenham Hotspur and Diego Simeone (R), Manager of Atletico de Madrid look on during the 2016 International Champions Cup Australia match between Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico de Madrid
Image credit: Getty Images
By any reasonable measure, Pochettino should have had enough credit in the bank to address the decline – a decline that was largely not of his making. He was not faultless; his comments ahead of the Champions League final were naïve at best.
However, not to put too fine a point on it, that decline began in the summer of 2017, put in motion after the club – and for club, read board – failed to improve a team that had achieved their best finish in the modern era. None of Davinson Sanchez, Aurier or Fernando Llorente improved the first team. In fact, Tottenham entered the following season a weaker proposition, and the season after that weaker again.
Pochettino managed to stave off the stark descent the boardroom failings should have set forth. However, the tail end of last season and the beginning of this season saw the team reap what the board had sown - they played and looked like a team on its last legs. There has been a failing at the club but that failing has largely come at a boardroom level – the building of the new stadium offers some mitigation but the pressures associated with that sort of project are well-documented, so that argument holds only so much weight.
However, the timing of the decision, as the statement said, to relieve Pochettino and his staff of their duties at the end – rather than the start – of the November international break reinforced the impression of a board lacking football acumen, or direction. Perhaps further details will emerge (perhaps in the upcoming Amazon documentary) of a wider falling out that expedited the Argentine's departure. Perhaps not.
The fact Jose Mourinho was appointed further indicates that there is, bar improving the club’s infrastructure, little in the way of long-term planning in place at the yet-to-be-actually officially named Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
If there is a candidate less suited to working in the long-term with Daniel Levy then they are yet to reveal themselves. Despite the initial boost of results under Mourinho, Tottenham remain in disarray and look a worse time now that they did in November.
Sacking Pochettino addressed little of the core problems. What Tottenham need is a rebuild. A painful one. One that Pochettino predicted but was not given the chance to enact. And one that a manager like Mourinho is ill-suited to.