I feel like each time I root myself in #PochIn, I’m wrestled back towards #PochOut the following week. That I’m even having this conversation in my head is sad; I love the man dearly. Or rather, I have loved the man dearly over the past five and a half years. He’s brought me more joy as Spurs manager than any of the previous incumbents in my lifetime. That there is a perfect solution to the current situation is pure fallacy.
Option one is that we part company with one of the better managers in world football, losing the prospect of our squad being rebuilt by one of the greatest around who built *his* reputation on building an exciting, young team, developing players from relative newcomer status to fully-fledged superstar internationals.
Option two is that we potentially let that man stay long enough to undermine his own legacy. At the moment there seems little evidence that he is able to motivate the squad that — and I think this is an oft-overlooked point — he has overseen and built. His demeanour and language in press conferences have changed over the last year, with him now more likely to throw blame the way of players or to deflect. It certainly felt that way yesterday.
There is no solution right now that does what we all want: flicks a switch and makes us play well again with a vibrant, happy team and manager. It has been years of letting squad-building get away from us that has led to this point, and it may take another two years to resolve the issues. That’s a painful thing to come to terms with. You are left to decide whether 1. sticking with the man who took us to this point (and I’ve deliberately written that in a way open to two interpretations) is the right solution, or 2. whether bringing in a new man who might (and, wow, that’s a gamble) get us back to where we were more quickly through a change in approach is better.
I alluded above to the fact that I think Mauricio Pochettino gets let off the hook too often when it comes to the critique on building his squad. It is very easy to blame Daniel Levy, very easy to blame a lack of investment. But Pochettino’s very deliberately made himself the Manager, not the Head Coach, and we know that he is very selective with new signings. It’s been widely-reported that he turned down Youri Tielemans on loan in January last season. It was also reported that he wasn’t sure about Ricardo Pereira and so went with Serge Aurier instead. Both now look like wonderful bits of business for Leicester City.
Pochettino has called Levy out in public for his style of operating in the transfer market, sure. I don’t think Levy is the easiest to work with, and I don’t think he parts with money easily. But there were other solutions here. Over the past few years we have also turned our noses up at James Maddison, Demarai Gray, Max Aarons, Ryan Sessegnon (when he was reeeeeally cheap), Ademola Lookman, and Jack Grealish (at various points). These players were all available cheaply and fitted Levy’s previous policy of buying young and buying early. I struggle to believe that these deals would not have been sanctioned — after all, we were employing scouts to find exactly these types of players.
Then we had the possibility of developing players already at the club. I wrote about this this past week. Pochettino has not been keen to develop players in any sort of focussed way, instead letting them stay around the fringes of the squad, having a look in training but not actually playing them in matches at *any* level and, thus, allowing them to stagnate. His refusal to let players out on loan has — as I say in my article — led to contract stand-offs and, ultimately, talented young players leaving or not developing post-scholarship.
So if your hands are tied with the big money moves (maybe), you aren’t interested in the ‘cheap, young punt’ transfers and you’re not developing young players already at the club… how do you intend to refresh the squad? Did Pochettino really spend multiple windows hoping that Levy would eventually change his mind and then try to get four windows’ worth of business done in one?
In the meantime, too many players have been allowed to stay beyond their peak without any succession-planning taking place. Danny Rose is the obvious example, but the same could be said for Christian Eriksen. Meanwhile we sold Kieran Trippier at the right time (probably) but did not have a plan on how to replace him. Indeed, the plan was to sell Serge Aurier too and go into the season with Juan Foyth and Kyle Walker-Peters as our right-backs, two players largely untested because Pochettino hadn’t really committed to testing them. As it turns out, he’s had to go back on that plan and bring Aurier back into the fold.
I think you could argue that there *was* some succession-planning at centre-back, with Davinson Sanchez and Juan Foyth being developed to take over from Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. But it’s been left to rumble on and now we’re in this toxic situation of the Belgians both being out of contract. Pochettino’s fall-out with Vertonghen at the beginning of the season felt symptomatic of the situation that he had created.
Central midfield is, of course, the biggest mess, though. Moussa Dembele has *finally* been replaced properly (with Tanguy Ndombele) but a year of the Harry Winks/Moussa Sissoko midfield axis has been a painful watch, and now Pochettino is unsure who best to partner Ndombele with. Winks is probably fine in a midfield three in games where we are going to have most of the ball, and Sissoko is probably fine in a three in games where we need to press and pounce on loose balls. But both have niche skillsets unsuited to being in a two without a more traditional ball-winner, and signing 30-year old Sissoko to a an extended new contract seemed somewhat desperate.
And in all of this I have not yet mentioned our playing style. The ‘Pochettino Press’ has all but gone. The latest example on Saturday showed a team that didn’t know whether they were staying compact or pressing, and got caught in-between. For the Sheffield United goal (in the tweet below) Giovani Lo Celso eventually commits to the press with Son Heung-min ready to pounce, but the fact that they either ‘go rogue’ or are the only players focussed on winning the ball and countering directly leads to the goal.
The ‘painful’ rebuild that Pochettino spoke of is, sadly, panning out to be way more painful than we all thought.