To understand why it has come to this for Mauricio Pochettino, why his Tottenham team has flatlined in the Premier League and why his continued employment is under scrutiny as never before, it is necessary to consider a concept that he holds dear. It involves the natural cycle of an elite player’s development.
When the player is young, he is grateful for opportunity and he seizes it with everything he has. He becomes a regular, a star, a full international. He wants more money. Then, in many cases, he wants an opportunity at another club, a bigger club, perhaps. He thinks that he deserves even more money.
At this point, it is decision time and, for Pochettino, it often makes sense to sell that player, ideally at a profit, and either reinvest the proceeds on a player at a higher starting level or create new pathways for others, possibly from the academy.
There is no recrimination towards the want-away player, merely realism. This is how football’s ecosystem works, certainly at a club like Spurs. It should be noted, too, that, rather like the parenting of children as they grow up, the man-management of players must evolve at each new stage.
The problem comes when the order of things is stunted and this is what has happened for various reasons at Spurs over the past 18 months. The club have been unable to move on players that either want to leave or have become surplus and the result has been stalemates. The players have sat on their contracts, running them down, heightening tensions.
Remember the criticism that Arsenal received a couple of seasons ago when some of their key players were stalling on re-signing with the club? The situation is just as bad now at Spurs, with Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen approaching the final six months on their deals. Danny Rose, who is out of contract in the summer of 2021, has said that he will not sign a new one.
For Pochettino, the frustrations boiled over this summer. At the end of the 2017-18 season, he had called for decisive action in the club’s transfer business only for nothing to happen. And when he returned this July, after spending time at his home in Barcelona after the Champions League final defeat against Liverpool, he was furious to see that outgoing business was once again slow.
Spurs would sell Kieran Trippier to Atlético Madrid for a cut-price £20m in an attempt to get things moving while they added three young players – Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon.
The renewal was not what Pochettino had in mind and, this season, he has been left to use essentially the same names although, in some cases, they are different people; a little less full of zest for the project. It follows that they are more difficult to manage; the dynamics of the squad are heavier, more testing.
Pochettino’s summer was pockmarked by conflict with the chairman, Daniel Levy, which was fired by his decision to go straight from the Champions League final in Madrid to Barcelona and let it be known that if Levy wanted him, he could come to see him there.
Pochettino was devastated by the loss to Liverpool and there are those at Spurs who think that his “head went” after it. In terms of the summer, he made it clear to Levy that it was over to him to reshape the squad and define the next chapter. It was a fraught period, with Levy the immovable object to Pochettino’s irresistible force. The relationship between the pair seems to have returned to a more stable footing since the closure of the European transfer window at the end of August, with them sharing a private jet to Milan for the Fifa Best Awards in late September. Also on board were Pochettino’s wife, Karina; his assistant manager, Jesus Perez, and the club’s chief scout, Steve Hitchin.
But the question has come to be asked with increasing desperation: can Pochettino drag himself and the club out of the quicksand? The hierarchy’s view is that something has to give and that could be Pochettino’s job because results in the league cannot continue like this. It is 14 points from 12 matches this season and, taking a larger sample size back to February, 25 from 24 games – in other words, relegation form. Performances have been flat and fragile.
What is known is that Pochettino will not walk away. He has had the opportunities in better times to think about offers from rival clubs after they put out the feelers for him only to remain loyal. It is not a part of his make-up to fall on his sword.
It is worth considering that the Spurs fans have not turned on him and that Levy is loth to sack him, particularly in mid-season, when the options to replace him would be more restricted – although Max Allegri, the former Juventus manager, who has his admirers on the board, is currently out of work. It would also be expensive; Pochettino has a little over three and a half years to run on his £8.5m-a-season deal.
Pochettino is not immune to the realities of football. He has described himself as being in the throes of a rebuilding job but, with the situation so precarious, he said recently that “we will see if we have the time to build what we want”. He knows that the sack can come, even if he will continue to work and not worry about it.
There is the sense at Spurs that everybody is praying for an upturn, beginning at West Ham on Saturday, which might allow them to battle on until the summer when a full reboot could take place, under Pochettino or another manager. Results will drive the situation. Pochettino is on the tightest of spots.