How Mauricio Pochettino reimagined and reinvented a stale Tottenham

How Mauricio Pochettino reimagined and reinvented a stale Tottenham

It is unfair – and impossible – talk about José Mourinho’s future with Tottenham Hotspur without first mentioning the massive debt that he, the club and their fans owe to former manager Mauricio Pochettino. In a little over five seasons, the Argentine achieved on a consistent basis everything that had eluded this historic club since the turn of the century – and he did it with resources that should never have allowed him to achieve the success that he ultimately did.

In that sense at least, Pochettino deserves to be compared to Arsène Wenger – at least the version following the club’s move to the Emirates Stadium – for the simple reason that both men succeeded where mere mortals would have failed. Arsenal owe a giant debt of gratitude to the figure who led them into the modern era, and much the same can be said for Pochettino and his enduring romance with Tottenham.

There is so much to say about Pochettino and what he has achieved with Spurs, but perhaps the simplest method is the best: a year-on-year of how he made Spurs who they are today. It is a story of patience, practice and perfection, but above all a chronicle of how one man’s ambition transformed the fortunes of the club beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

2014/15: The early days

We are so accustomed to associating Spurs with Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son that most have forgotten what the team looked like when Pochettino first arrived. Led first by André Villas-Boas and then by Tim Sherwood, Spurs had finished sixth in the league in the 2013/14 season, with Emmanuel Adebayor the team’s top scorer with 11 in the league.

This was a side that contained players whose names have long since been replaced by the now-familiar faces of Kane, Son etc, with figures as varied as Michael Dawson, Paulinho, Aaron Lennon, Roberto Soldado, Kyle Naughton, Nacer Chadli and Vlad Chiricheș having played heavy minutes in the league. This was the situation that Pochettino walked into when he arrived before the 2014/15 season – and little could we predict that so much would change so soon into his tenure.

Ben Davies, Eric Dier and Dele Alli would all arrive in the summer of 2014, but none would emerge quite like Harry Kane did over the course of Pochettino’s debut season. Fuelled by the Englishman’s haul of 21 goals – on the back of 3.89 shots per game – Spurs were open, bold and fearless, recording uplifting victories against Chelsea and Arsenal in the process.

It would be a season built on a philosophy that emphasised toe-to-toe attacking play, with Erik Lamela and Eriksen impressing alongside Kane in attack. The Dane, in particular, raised his game on the attacking side, taking as many as 2.76 shots per game and racking up ten goals in the process. Another impressive performer was midfielder Chadli, with the Belgian contributing five assists and 11 goals from 2.01 shots per 90 minutes.

While Spurs bettered the previous year’s position by finishing fifth in Pochettino’s first season, the bigger story lay in the 2014/15 League Cup, where Spurs overcame the likes of Brighton, Newcastle and Sheffield United to square off against Mourinho’s Chelsea in the final. The Blues, who would go on to win the Premier League in the first season of the Portuguese’s second spell in charge, steamrolled their opponents in the game, with John Terry and Didier Drogba scoring in either half to see off the Lilywhites’ premature challenge.

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Spurs started the game on the front foot but Chelsea were a cut above in terms of quality, and when the Blues turned it on, there was little Pochettino could do as his side succumbed to defeat at Wembley. They had done well to reach the final stage but were too raw and unprepared to go on and finish the job, a theme which would unfortunately become the recurring leitmotif of Pochettino’s time in charge.

2015/16: A shot at glory

The 2015/16 season would bring with it renewed cheer and optimism, in addition to three players who would establish themselves as mainstays during Pochettino’s time in charge: Kieran Trippier, Toby Alderweireld and Heung-min Son. This period also saw an exodus from the club, with former starting fixtures Paulinho, Étienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli, Chiricheș and Adebayor all departing in a single window.

The 2015/16 Premier League season was highly unusual in many ways, and not just because it was the year that Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester stunned the world when their counter-attacking brilliance conquered England. There was nothing to indicate that Pochettino and Spurs would be able to secure Champion’s League football in just the second season of the Argentine’s tenure, and a streak of four games without a win to begin the campaign seemed to suggest that they had peaked too early and were due for a harsh regression.

However, Spurs’ underlying numbers were solid in the previous season, with the team scoring 56 goals from an xG of 53.15. It was an impressive start considering the rigours involved in absorbing and actually implementing Pochettino’s high pressing game plan. The numbers presented overwhelming evidence that the coach’s tactics were beginning to click in the 2015/16 season.

A season where the defending champions Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool were strangely off-kilter presented crosstown rivals Arsenal and Spurs with the best opportunity to win the Premier League, but neither team could take advantage as Leicester surged to the top of the table and remained there from as early as matchday 22.

Spurs had cemented their position in the top five early in the season and entered the top two for the first time on matchday 25 with a 1-0 over Watford. It was a position they would hold on to until the penultimate day, when Arsenal would pip them to second place following a run of poor results in the final weeks on the part of the Lilywhites. What should have been a success story ended in regret as Spurs let slip the best chance a team outside of Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs had had to win the title since the 2004/05 season. However, Pochettino deserves to be commended for turning Spurs from a rebuilding project into a team of contenders just two seasons into his reign.

Their progress in terms of implementing his philosophy was phenomenal, with Spurs netting 68 goals from an enhanced xG of 63.92. Where the 2014/15 season saw the emergence of Kane, the 2015/16 campaign witnessed the arrival on the scene of Alli, with the Englishman contributing ten goals and nine assists as Spurs finished third. Kane registered an improvement over his previous campaign, nabbing 25 goals on an xG of 22.73. This was the season that saw the establishment of the Vertonghen-Alderweireld centre-back foundation, in addition to the Danny Rose-Kyle Walker partnership.

It was the season that Spurs truly announced their arrival under Pochettino, and also the year that saw the concept of the ‘big six’ replace the old idea of the top four. Characterised by an intense pressing style and a knack for unearthing hidden diamonds, Tottenham established themselves as the club of the future, forcing the rest of the league to sit up and take note.

2016/17: The embodiment of consistency

If the first two seasons of the Pochettino era saw overperformance from the Spurs, the next two seasons were all about maintaining growth and consistency in the face of overwhelming odds. The 2016/17 season saw the arrival on English shores of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, which raised the bar for preparation and tactical innovation to perhaps its highest level in the Premier League era.

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Pochettino now had to contend with even more competition than he witnessed during his first two seasons at the helm of Spurs, and it was a task the Argentine was well equipped to deal with. Guardiola was the first to discover this with Spurs running out 2-0 winners in their first meeting of the season with Manchester City, though Conte would pick up the three points when he faced Spurs for the first time at Stamford Bridge.

Having finished in fifth and third in his first two seasons, Pochettino stepped up to finish second in 2016/17, though eventual champions Chelsea had long since established themselves as the frontrunners for the title. It would not be until matchday 21 – following consecutive victories over Southampton, Watford, Chelsea and West Brom – that Spurs would take their place in the top two, and they would hold on this position to secure their highest league place in the Pochettino era.

Ambitions of winning the FA Cup and the League Cup were ended prematurely by Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Conte’s Chelsea, while Spurs dropped to the Europa League after finishing third in their group behind Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen. Silverware continued to elude Pochettino, as Belgian club Gent secured a shock result by knocking them out of Europe.

Still, there was an uptick in offensive numbers as Spurs outperformed an xG of 71.04 by scoring 84 goals, fuelled primarily by incredible conversion from Harry Kane who nabbed 29 goals on an xG of 19.82. This was also the year when the Alli experiment came together in all its glory, the former MK Dons man chipping in with 18 goals at just 2.76 shots per game.

Spurs also benefited from fruitful years for Eriksen and Son, with the Dane contributing 15 assists in the league to cement his position as the biggest creative influence at Tottenham. Son continued to thrive in Pochettino’s system, registering 14 goals and six assists in the process as new arrivals Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko were gradually integrated into the starting XI.

The two were brought in to offset the departures of Chadli and Nabil Bentaleb, which meant that most of the remnants from the pre-Pochettino era had now departed. In many ways, this side was perhaps Pochettino’s most well-rounded team, and it is regrettable that they failed to break their trophy drought, with the rest of the big six – apart from Chelsea – continuing to struggle with a bevvy of problems.

Importantly, this was Spurs’ final season at White Hart Lane. In a remarkable achievement, Pochettino ensured that his team provided their beloved old stadium with an appropriate farewell: not only did Spurs go unbeaten at home in a league campaign since the 1964/65 season, they also equalled a club record by winning their final 14 matches on home turf.

2017/18: The Wenger impersonation

A decline was expected following Spurs’ move to Wembley, however it was vital that the club secured Champion’s League football as they looked to pay off the debt incurred in constructing the new stadium. In many ways, this brings to mind the difficulties – economic and otherwise – that Wenger had to navigate when the Gunners began development of the Emirates, though Spurs still carried out some impressive transfer business given the handicaps hindering their progress.

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Out of the six departures in Pochettino’s sixth season, it was right-back Walker’s that was most significant, the Englishman departing London to become the latest addition to the gleaming side being built by Guardiola in Manchester. Determined not to let their transfer window be overshadowed by this, Spurs spent big in preparation for 2017/18, with Davinson Sánchez, Paulo Gazzaniga, Juan Foyth, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente coming in.

The statement signing was undoubtedly that of Sánchez, whose performances at Ajax convinced Daniel Levy to loosen the purse strings and spend £42m to bring him to London. Lucas Moura would join the squad mid-season after engineering a move away from Paris Saint-Germain, where the Brazilian’s minutes were cut short thanks to the arrival of both Kylian Mbappé and Neymar.

The season itself was mixed for Spurs who found themselves consistently in the top four within ten matchdays, eventually climbing to third on the penultimate day and staying there as Liverpool’s attentions turned towards their Champion’s League showdown with Real Madrid. Pochettino’s men would see their League Cup dream ended by West Ham and fell in the semi-final of the FA Cup to Mourinho’s Manchester United. There was little to no chance of winning the league as Guardiola’s Manchester City clicked into gear, setting numerous records en route to claiming the Premier League title. 

Criticism around Pochettino’s inability to win silverware was compounded by their defeat to Juventus in the Champion’s League last-16, Spurs unable to progress despite having taken the lead in the second leg and possessing the away goals advantage. Familiar criticisms abounded concerning Spurs’ lack of killer mentality, and it was accepted that the team’s “softness” would see the club go trophyless through this era.

Still, Pochettino continued to draw the best he could from his players as Kane, Son and Eriksen improved on their performances in the previous season. The Englishman managed to hit the 30-goal mark for the first time, and he propped up Spurs’ attack with help from Son and Eriksen. The South Korean grabbed 12 goals and registered six assists, with Eriksen hitting double digits in goals and assists by contributing ten of each.

There was also an emphasis on keeping the defence robust after Walker’s departure and Rose’s injury robbed Spurs of two of their best players, but Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier stepped up to ensure that the flanks were adequately protected. Opponents were able to only marginally improve the number of open play chances created against this new pairing, with an increase in xGA from 26.03 to 26.56.

Despite this, media focus remained on a lack of trophies, and in an ironic twist, Pochettino’s development of his young, inexperienced squad into one capable of competing for the title became the proverbial stick with which he was beaten by fans and opposing managers. A sense of discontent seemed to plague the club despite the quality of play and the success they had enjoyed over the past two seasons, however this would set the context for Pochettino’s brightest chapter yet at Tottenham.

2018/19: Within touching distance

If ever there was a season defined by the term ”duality’, Spurs’ 2018/19 campaign would be the leading contender. Everything that happened can be expressed through opposites: Spurs were good in the first half of the campaign but fell off the cliff in the second; they struggled in the first half of their Champion’s League season but recovered to go to all the way to the final in the second; they lost seemingly every first leg game but bounced right back to win on aggregate, and they lost the high pressing identity that had characterised them for so long but came closer to glory than ever before.

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It was a season of gradual lows but breathtaking highs, bringing Pochettino the closest he has ever been to silverware yet also opening the door to his exit just months later. The rollercoaster ride that made it up was a far cry from the consistency of years past, but the uncertainty seemed to galvanise Pochettino and brought out the best in him as he navigated his trickiest year at the club with aplomb.

The club’s spending in the previous window and the mounting financial stress brought on by the new stadium meant that Spurs went into the new season with the same core that had been playing under Pochettino for five seasons. Save for Lucas Moura, who arrived in the 2017 January window, there were no new players for Pochettino to rotate with, as his threadbare squad began their quest for trophies and Champion’s League football once again.

Among the departures, none would hurt the team as much as that of Moussa Dembélé, who had established himself as the bedrock upon which the success of the previous seasons had been built. The Belgian was an anomaly in as much as his assists and goals tally showed a player who didn’t belong in such a polished side, but Dembélé was the man who knitted things for Spurs together in deep midfield.

Always the first choice as an outlet for teammates under pressure, the enduring image of his time at the club is that of him weaving through a clutch of challenges in the middle, which not only allowed Spurs to break opposition lines but also enabled them to construct attacks with as few passes as possible. His decline had hurt Spurs towards the tail end of the 2017/18 season, and would cause even more problems in the first half of the next campaign.

Still, his absence and eventual departure forced Pochettino to deploy a new formation, which the Argentine did by playing Harry Winks and Sissoko as a double pivot behind a trio of attacking midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. This would more often than not morph into a 4-4-2 diamond but was enough to cover gaps in the midfield, and was just about enough to make sure the squad continued picking up points while players sat out at various points with muscular injuries.

It worked well enough till the halfway point of the season, which saw Spurs in third place having picked up 45 points along the way. However, it was less than effective in the Champion’s League group stages, which saw Spurs qualify in second place by the skin of their teeth as Inter failed to seize their chance and leap over the Londoners.

The first half of the season saw a slightly disappointing brand of football, but Spurs were continuing to pick up points in the league, and it wouldn’t be until the second half of the campaign that the wheels would fall off. This was the period that would see Spurs collect just 26 points from a possible 54, with Champion’s League football only continuing due to Arsenal’s even worse run during the same period. With Kane injured, Son and Moura stepped up to fill the void in the league, though it was in Europe that the pair would truly demonstrate their value.

An easier than expected win over Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16 would be followed by a trip to the Etihad to face English champions Manchester City, the first of three encounters to take place between the sides in April. To compound their issues, Spurs would lose Kane to injury midway in the first leg, though they would escape with a 1-0 win thanks to a late second-half effort from Son. The away goal advantage and the gulf in quality between the two sides promised an intriguing second leg, though few would have predicted the match unfolding the way it did.

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An early goal from Raheem Sterling seemed to even the stakes in the tie, though Son would strike twice in the space of four minutes to give Spurs the lead in the game as well as on aggregate. Their joy, however, would be cruelly cut short by Bernardo Silva, who responded within a minute of the restart to cancel out Son’s double. Sterling would give City the lead for the first time before Sergio Agüero increased the tally to four, prompting Pochettino to throw on Fernando Llorente and pray for a miracle.

That is exactly what he got as Llorente put the ball into the back of the net in the 78th minute, defeating City’s calls for handballs in the process. Further drama would ensue as Sterling’s late goal was ruled out for offside by VAR, and Spurs would cling on for a famous victory that would improbably be overshadowed little less than a month later.

Spurs’ dire domestic form would continue as they slumped to defeat in the Premier League rematch against City, and Pochettino’s woes would be compounded as his side fell to 1-0 defeat to Ajax in the Champion’s League semi-finals. Spurs had no answer to Ajax’s free-flowing style, and hope was in short supply for Pochettino and his men as they travelled to Amsterdam for the second leg.

Early goals from Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech seemed to seal the deal for Erik ten Hag’s side, but Ajax should have kept in mind the previous day’s events – when Liverpool mounted a stunning comeback to beat Barcelona – as a warning that nothing in football is truly over till the referee blows the whistle.

Pochettino threw on Llorente immediately after half time as Spurs shifted to the long ball style that had brought them victory in the previous round against City. With Eriksen launching balls from deep, Llorente playing the classic target man, and Alli flitting about the pitch looking for gaps, Spurs began growing into the game, with Moura’s brace sparking the team to life.

As the clock ticked towards 90, a desperate Pochettino threw caution to the wind, sending on Davies and Lamela to back down an increasingly nervous Ajax side. It would have been plenty of drama if the match had ended there but the football gods seemed determined to give the Argentine a reward for having withstood so much during the past five seasons, with Moura getting the winner deep into stoppage time.

The guttural cry let out by the Spurs bench at the full-time whistle spoke volumes of the unity of the group and the sacrifices they had made to get there, and it seemed entirely apt that Pochettino – a man for whom emotions have always been a source of strength – broke into floods of tears as he attempted to come to terms with what his men had just accomplished.

Spurs had never in their history reached the final of the European Cup, and somehow Pochettino had done it within five years. It is ironic that it came in the year when his side were far from their best, when Spurs were stripped to the bone with departures and injuries. Few could have predicted this and fewer still would have been willing to bet on it, but the ability to confound expectation has always been Pochettino’s bread and butter.

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The improbable victory and the celebration that followed – despite the heartbreak in the final at the hands of Liverpool – will always be the Argentine’s moment, one he created through sheer perseverance and rigorous coaching. Regardless of what was to come next, this was Pochettino’s crowning moment of glory, a vindication of his constant line that Spurs must always compete for the “big trophies”.

2019/20: The end of an era

Despite employing what he had at his disposal, Spurs lost the Champions League final to Liverpool, a crushing blow to the manager who left the team months later. His admission that he would consider leaving Tottenham if they won the game seemed to indicate that he had done as much as he could with the resources he had been given, which made it surprising that he returned and began preparing for the new season as though the comments had never been made.

It was clear that something was wrong, though – the link that bound Pochettino to the club had been broken. The resources that the Argentine had been crying out for finally arrived as Levy broke the club’s transfer record for Tanguy Ndombele and also brought in Ryan Sessegnon and Giovanni Lo Celso.

Yet, a failure to move wantaway players like Eriksen, Alderweireld and Rose poisoned the relationship between Levy and his manager, with the deteriorating results since the start of 2019 piling pressure on the Argentine. Spurs’ European adventure was dazzling and firmly placed the club on the map, but it was window dressing for the clear downturn in results that saw them barely cling on to fourth place in the closing stages.

A 2-1 win against Southampton saw the start of a run of five seemingly easy fixtures that Spurs found almost impossible to navigate, losing to Brighton and Liverpool and drawing against Watford, Everton and Sheffield United. An embarrassing exit to Colchester in the third round of the League Cup heaped further pressure, and Pochettino suffered his harshest defeat when Spurs were beaten 7-2 by Bayern Munich in their own stadium.

When the sack came it was swift and brutal, with Pochettino not even given time to say proper goodbyes to the players. A frantic 11 hours later, José Mourinho was unveiled as the new head coach of Tottenham in a move that left the football world reeling, but it was clear how much the Argentine meant to the fans as the platitudes began pouring in. There was an acknowledgement that were it not for him, Spurs would never have been able to attract a figure like Mourinho in the first place, whose “serial winner” tag ultimately proved too irresistible to Levy.

But no matter how successful Mourinho may ultimately be, Pochettino will forever occupy a special place in hearts of Spurs’ fans, and it is impossible to visualise him wearing the colours of another English club despite Manchester United being a viable destination. It is obvious that there are big things on the horizon for him, who leaves Spurs with a burgeoning reputation as someone who can perform miracles on tight budgets.

Ever the classy figure, Pochettino left a message to the players and the fans on the tactics board: “Big thanks to you all …. we can’t say goodbye … you will always be in our hearts.” It was symbolic in a way – for all the talk of technique and tactics, Spurs and Pochettino relied on emotion to drive them to greater heights.

Ultimately, there was nothing left to give, no heights left to be scaled. Mauricio Pochettino left in a manner that was the mirror opposite to how he had arrived: quietly, with sadness in his heart at having seen the race end, but with unmistakable pride that he had taken Tottenham as far as he did.

By Manasvin Andra @RP_3313

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