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The Sacking of Pochettino: Where Did It Go Wrong and Where Do Tottenham Go From Here?

Before even discussing the whole Tottenham situation, let’s talk about Ajax, and more specifically, Rinus Michels. I consider him one of the greatest and most influential coaches in the history of the game. He was a primary factor in Ajax’s dominance in the early seventies, as well as Holland’s fantastic run to the 1974 World Cup final. There is no doubting his importance to how the game is even played today, with the Dutchman’s emphasis on players interchanging positions, ball-playing defenders and an extreme press. His first job on his arrival in 1965 was to avoid the drop, which he did through installing a robust training regime, which pushed his players to new levels. Ajax went on to win 4 league titles and reaching 2 European Cup finals, winning their first in 1971. However, as we now know about pressing teams, it’s very demanding on the players. They eventually reach a point where the constant work needed to put in can be too much, and they become sick of it. This drop off is exactly what happened with his Ajax team once Michels departed to Barcelona, and Stefan Kovacs was appointed. The players were at a stage where they didn’t need to work as hard as they were. They were European Champions at this point. All they needed was someone who would let them express themselves and continue to dominate. Two European Cups in two seasons later, the players became tired of Kovacs, with training and match preparations not at the same level as they were under Michels.

The point of that rather long story is because, on a somewhat smaller scale, it’s a replication of what happened at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino. He completely turned the club around, taking them from an inconsistent mess of a side to title challengers and then European finalists. No more struggling to challenge for the Champions League spots and relying on individual talents to carry them. Instead, they were a great team, defensively solid while still being a lot of fun to watch in-possession. Pochettino showed himself to be an excellent coach, turning the likes of Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela into great players through using a demanding, aggressive and enjoyable style of football. Between 2015 and 2018, Tottenham were arguably the second-best team in the league. Alongside Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Pochettino side was one of the frontrunners in using pressing as a useful tool in defending and winning the ball high up the pitch.

Everything was going so well for Tottenham under Pochettino in those first three years, but the beginning of the end can actually be traced back to the summer of 2017, and the sale of Kyle Walker. The England right-back wasn’t precisely a world-class talent, so selling him for £50 million did make sense. Still, they failed to replace him adequately, with Aurier arriving to add competition to a defensively-weak Kieran Trippier. This might not have been a massive issue at the time, but looking back, it’s clear where a lot of problems would later arise.

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I think the problems became more apparent in the summer of 2018, a transfer window in which Tottenham failed to sign a single player. There was already a lot of questions regarding if that Tottenham side needed additions and if the squad was good enough as it is. It’s easy to look back now and criticise the club for not adding new players, especially with the gaping hole in midfield that was opening as Dembele was turning into a shadow of the player he was. One of the reasons why teams sign players is to freshen things up. That Tottenham squad had been together for four years. Rarely is there a team that can stay motivated for that long. Clubs need to continually add new faces in the dressing room. It keeps the senior players on their toes, knowing there will be a player ready to take their place in the starting eleven if their form begins to slip. The added competition has kept Manchester City, Juventus and PSG competitive on all fronts, with depth in all positions. Tottenham aren’t on the same level as one of these superclubs, but not signing a single player comes across as insanely arrogant, especially when the team was in desperate need for midfield additions. 

The 2018/19 season was by far Pochettino’s most impressive as a manager. He was stuck with an inferior squad to the one he had in the past, which included injuries to key players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli throughout crucial points of the season. Spurs were not good last season, but Pochettino somehow managed to get enough out of his team to get top four as well as reach a Champions League final. He did this through nearly sacrificing a lot of what made his Spurs side so good for 3 years, instead opting for a more adaptive and reactive approach to his team. Pochettino was more or less changing his tactics depending on the opponent, whether it was formation or personnel. Their surprise 3-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in August 2018 does showcase this rather perfectly. During this game, Pochettino changes his formation a lot, switching between alterations of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1. The message was becoming apparent. This team, especially after an exhausting World Cup year, were not at the level to be showing the same intensity as they did in the past.

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Spurs were not good last season, in fact in the second half of the season, they were awful. At the time it was easy to defend their terrible form in 2019 because of their run in the Champions League, which was a lot different to their domestic form. In Europe, Spurs managed to beat Dortmund home and away, somehow progress past Pep’s City and displayed so much fight and heart to edge past the neutral’s favourite, Ajax. Tottenham were not the second-best team in Europe last season, they weren’t even top five, but Pochettino managed to get everything out of the players he had. During buildup, he would regularly bypass the midfield of Sissoko and Winks, due to their lack of ability in ball progression. With Kane injured, it was the best way to utilise Fernando Llorente’s strengths, placing quick players around him like Son and Moura. Their performances in the Champions League were extraordinary compared to their league form, which was truly atrocious. Convincing defeats to Bournemouth, Southampton, Burnley and West Ham showed Tottenham at their worst; games where chance creation was lacking and Pochettino’s players just didn’t look nearly as solid and organised as they did back in 2017. They were facing 12.9 shots per game last season, a considerable increase from the 9.4 they were facing in 17/18. The Athletic even notes:

“Spurs’ pressed sequences increased in absolute and relative terms over the first four Pochettino seasons. From 11.6 per game in 2014-15, joint-eighth in the league, to 15.6 in 2017-18, the second-most in the league, at their pressing peak.

Then, last year, a dramatic drop down to 13.2, their lowest since Pochettino’s first season, and only the 10th highest in the league. That tells the story itself.”

The numbers, performances and results all paint this picture of a manager willing to do anything to take Spurs to win something. Their final defeat to Liverpool, a make or break game which could have defined Pochettino’s legacy at the club, instead highlighted the leap in quality between them and their opponents. That final season seemed to have taken every last ounce of energy out of Pochettino, which makes it more baffling to why he decided to stay. 

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Even with the much-needed additions of Tanguay Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, the sale of Kieran Trippier did leave a massive hole at right-back. Llorente also departed the club in the summer, meaning there was no one to cover for Kane, who has become half the player he was before his infamous ankle injury. I still thought Tottenham would quite easily get into the top four. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea still had clear holes in their team, and Spurs have been one of the most consistent sides in the past four years. It made sense to think they would finish there with the signings of two of the best young midfielders in Europe. 

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Tottenham were terrible last season, but have somehow been even worse in 19/20. So far, Tottenham have only managed 3 wins 12 games, a shambolic amount of wins considering the talent at their disposal. Those 12.7 shots faced last season has risen to 14.8. They’re 10th for shots taken per game and lacked any cohesion in the final third. Their defence has become noticeably bad, but in terms of chance creation and shot location, they’re just as useless. Tottenham are 17th for non-penalty xG with only 13.15, with only Palace, Newcastle and Norwich behind them. The players have looked out of ideas on numerous occasions. Their 1-0 defeat to Newcastle was one of the worst performance I’ve seen during Pochettino’s reign. They were narrow and failed to create anything of substance against one of the worst teams in the league. Their 3-0 defeat to Brighton was somehow even worse. Spurs were comfortably second best in every area, allowing Brighton to create plenty of quality chances, while Spurs failed to create anything of note. Vertonghen and Alderweireld were beaten far too easily for Connolly’s goals. Kane and Eriksen were poor, and they were simply beaten by a better team.

After failing to win since the end of September, Pochettino was given the boot. It’s divided the footballing world, especially with Mourinho arriving as his replacement. I do think Levy is to blame for some of the issues in the dressing and the lack of transfers during 2018, but it’s obvious the players were clearly tired of all the work, as seen by their pressing numbers dropping. But it’s not only the players, but Pochettino also seems to face exhaustion. He was considering leaving the club after the Champions League final if the result went in their favour. This is similar to what happened at Espanyol. During his final press conference in Spain, Pochettino said: “I have been in the world of football for many years and understand that a coach has a sell-by date.” Even with the outside factors, the relation between Pochettino’s Tottenham and Michels’ Ajax are clear. Players will only perform in these intense systems for 3-5 years before it starts to decline.

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So is Mourinho going to be the Kovacs of Tottenham? Well, I don’t think Mourinho will be as bad as many believe, but I don’t think it’s going to work as well as Levy and Mourinho want. The former Chelsea coach does have a considerable advantage compared to his start at United. The majority of Tottenham’s players are ready to go now. Kane, Moura and Son are at a perfect age while Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Rose offer much-needed experience that Mourinho craves. The constant fitness and training done under Pochettino means Mourinho can focus more on the tactical side of the game, something he has always favoured. He has a lot of players who I can see him liking already. I can see Sissoko playing in those big games because of that size, aggression and speed he can offer in midfield, and Son and Moura are both very flexible in where and how they can play. Mourinho has two things he has to do on the short term; fix the defence and fix Kane.

Even if United’s defence was awful in Jose’s final two seasons, he still earned a reputation for creating a solid base to start building from. Alderweireld and Vertonghen are better than the defenders he had in Manchester, so expect the same robust and resilient backline we saw at Chelsea and Inter. The right-back area is an obvious problem, but Mourinho has never attacked with two full-backs. He’ll likely use Rose as his primary attacking full-back, and choose Foyth, Sissoko or Aurier to fill in on the right-side.

Kane is the biggest problem. Many like to paint this image of Kane as this complete forward, bringing others into play as well as scoring bundles of goals. But this is simply not true. Kane was at his best between August 2017 and March 2018, before that ankle injury against Bournemouth. He was not only taking a high volume of shots but taking them in great areas. He scored 24 goals in 29 games, taking over 5 shots per game with an xG per 90 of 0.88, the highest of his career so far. The ankle injury isn’t even the most significant problem to why Kane has fallen out of that top three forwards bracket. He needs to stop dropping so deep, and actually focus on getting in the box. His shot numbers have dropped massively down to 2.7, and his xG per 90 is down to 0.44. Kane is literally half the striker he was in 2017/18. Mourinho has always gotten a lot out of his forwards. Whether it’s an old-school forward like Milito, a young hardworking striker like Benzema or an all-rounder in Zlatan. Mourinho could be the perfect guy to reinvigorate Kane and turn him into the player he used to be. 

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As for Pochettino, I’d recommend taking a year off. This whole Spurs’ situation seems to have drained him. Just like Pep after departing Barcelona, Pochettino could do with the time off, to rethink his approach and recuperate after a very long five years. He will have plenty of jobs when he decides to return to football. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and possibly Paris Saint-Germain could all be looking for a coach next summer. Pochettino has proven he can build a team, get the best out of his assets and improve his teams in defence while bringing an entertaining style and aggressive press with him. Tottenham needed a fresh face in the dugout, just like Pochettino needs a new environment. 

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