special relationship



With the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino one era of success at the club ends and with the appointment of Jose Mourinho, Daniel Levy is hoping that another is about to begin.  But what of the two managers and what one has achieved and what the other brings to the club ?  Marco van Hip looks at the merits and drawbacks of both men that have brought us to this situation.

Mauricio Pochettino has done so much for our club.  Working under extreme restrictions, he made Tottenham a top four regular and took us to two finals and built a side in the great traditions of the club, playing good football while making them a force in England and Europe again.  His affinity with the players and the fans will ensure that he goes down in the history of the club as not only a successful manager (although obviously not as successful as Tim Sherwood, but how many Champions League finals did he get is to ?), but one who had a special connection with the club.  A relationship borne on the way he approached the game and the position with honour, pride and dignity sadly lacking in some people in football these days.

Coming to the club, Mauricio quickly identified the problems with the club and moved players on who either didn't fit his system or didn't want to show the commitment he demands on a daily basis.  This made sure that "the group" that remained were on board with "the project".  While the project was to run as long as his contract, maybe that five years had been in Levy's and maybe Poch's minds all along.  With the consistent qualification for the Champions League, it coincided nicely with the building of the new ground providing useful income that went to the stadium, when Pochettino might have preferred that some went into refreshing the squad.  But many of these things would have been made clear to him and the mutually appreciative relationship the two men had, forged on a trip to Mauricio's homeland, would have put things clearly on the table as to how the project was going to work.  Many times Poch told the media that Spurs were working to a project not like other Premier League clubs. 

His integration of young players brought up through the Spurs system was integral to any success he was to have and a steady stream of players who were Premier League ready provided him with those options.  However, these were not the world class operators who would necessarily take Tottenham to the next level and perhaps there lay the problem.

With no adequate direct replacement for Harry Kane, the manager used Son and Moura in the attack to great effect, but when it came to the crunch, Kane played in the Champions League final when not 100% fit and that hindered the functioning of the side, which failed to test Liverpool on the day.  The team were playing like they were shackled, either by not having the outlet to find as effectively as they would have normally or whether they were playing a holding game that was blown apart by the first minute penalty,  This flagged up another of Pochettino's criticisms by some who said that he lacked a Plan B.  It had been true and with the increasing success of the side, they faced more and more teams who were more than willing to stick lots of men behind the ball, making it difficult to break them down.  You can probably recall games against Swansea City, West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford when Spurs had toiled to get a breakthrough and sometimes even fail to do that, losing valuable points.  It's a far cry from the end to the 2016-17 season, when Spurs were blowing away the likes of Leicester City and Hull City for six and seven.

The blow-up on the pitch at the end of the game against Burnley at Turf Moor was most unlike Mauricio and while understandable, it was a face of him that we had not seen before.  He has criticised players for arrogance in not taking opponents as seriously as they should and that lost to Burnley was on the back of a good run that then turned into a poor run through to his sacking.  The Champions League final was not a great advert for football after Liverpool took the early lead with the penalty, but Spurs were unable to break down Liverpool, who dragged men back behind the ball, so with a significant amount of possession, Tottenham created very little.  Playing Kane, who had been out since the quarter-final was relying on a goal-scoring talisman, while leaving another, who had scored a hat-trick in the second leg of the semi-final, on the bench.  But the run to the final and getting there itself was nothing short of a mini-miracle and something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.

The sale of Trippier has caused much discussion, with Walker-Peters and Aurier left to play right-back.  The whispers of Trippier being unhappy and Poch being willing to let him go to preserve the group may or may not be true, but he had a shocking season after playing very well in the previous one and reaching the semi-final of the World Cup with England.   Other players in that semi-final didn't come back with that frame of mind, although their form suffered a little because of the stress and strains put on them.  The failure to secure a top class replacement may have been an issue, but within the wage structure at the club, it is more difficult at Tottenham than at other clubs to attract those who only want a large salary.

This season had seen a continuation of the diminishing returns in terms of our pressing game.  As the lack of a high press went on, teams were able to play out a bit more form the back and Spurs looked more vulnerable and more stretched.  This in turn led to the side losing its shape and when we did get the ball, the immediacy of hitting teams on the break seemed to be thwarted by the lack of intensity in the build-up.  Slowing things down allowed teams to re-group and that put us in the position of trying to break down massed defences again.

The big losses were probably the signposts to Levy that things might not be recoverable.  We played reasonably well in the first half of the Bayern Munich 2-7 defeat.  The second half we were shocking.  The defeat at Brighton wasn't helped by an early goal and the injury to Lloris, but where was the response ?  It was almost like the team were accepting there was no way back.  And this was the team who never knew when to give up !  The haul of 24 points from 25 games in 2019 and the falling away of our away form were perhaps signposts that Levy could not ignore as he has a new ground to fill and naming rights to sell.  The away results were always our strength and losing those points as well as our home form suffering led to a position that Levy couldn't take a risk on the ever-more grumpy Pochettino turning things around.

You don't know if the chairman sought the views of the players, as that might have been a mixed bag with some not getting playing time and others loyal to the man who had taken the team so far.  If anything, Pochettino was a victim of his own success, but the real reason behind his change in demeanour will not be know, at least until the Amazon Prime documentary comes out.  Was that one of the reasons ?  Was it not getting the Manchester United job ?  Was it the lack of backing in the transfer market ?  He seemed to become an irritable and isolated figure towards the end.  The ready smile had been put away, as a puzzled look replaced it with every game we didn't win.  His frustrated frame, soaked to the skin against Sheffield United is perhaps one of the saddest lasting memories when compared to the joyous scenes in Amsterdam with his tears of joy.  It was that association with the fans, always going over to applaud them, that made him a special one.

Some say the failure to move players on last summer was behind Pochettino's unhappiness, but then players have got to want to move and clubs have got to want to buy them.  The lack of solid interest in Eriksen, Rose, Vertonghen and Alderweireld were a result of clubs, and perhaps the players, realising that there is a bounty in being patient and leaving when your contract runs out.  Clubs can pick up players for free and pay them a high signing on fee or salary, which would still be less than paying out for them, while players can ask for a big pay day once freed from the conditions of their existing deal.  Player power allows them to do that and it doesn't matter if you are Daniel Levy or the chairman of Port Vale, there is little you can do.

It is very odd that pundits who were criticising Pochettino for not having won a trophy and banging on about how important it was for him to do so have quickly changed horses in mid-stream following his sacking, saying that Levy has been hasty and that even though he had not brought any silverware to the club that he deserved time to try and put things right.  There are some who you wouldn't want standing behind you for too long with knives in their hands, although they will still be there to pull them out when it suits their profile.

But history will reflect well on Pochettino.  He leaves the club in a much healthier state than he found it and his impact should not be under-estimated even though the last year has not been as successful as the previous four and a half.

So ... onto Mourinho and what he brings to the party.

Does Daniel Levy see him as a man to take Spurs to the next level ?  He comes with a track record of winning trophies and instilling that mentality has been something that managers have been trying to do since Martin Jol.  The players are getting closer, but did Levy think that Poch had achieved all he could at the club and therefore someone new needed to come in with fresh ideas to push the players on to greater things ?  After Poch's tenure has resulted in Tottenham becoming a regular top four finisher and then being a nearly team, having reached two finals and lost them, as well as falling at the semi-final in the FA Cup, the next logical step is for the team to start collecting silverware.  The new Head Coach will also have to be the man to improve our record against the other side sin the top six, to take vital points from our rivals and push us further towards the top.

And Mourinho is successful in winning silverware, but can he still do it ?  He won two trophies with Manchester United in what was regarded as a failure in charge at Old Trafford.  But winning cups is not the available option it used to be.  Very few clubs outside of Arsenal, Chelsea, the two Manchester clubs and Liverpool have won much in the last 20 years.  Whereas, it used to be that winning things used to be shared around, nowadays, it is a closed shop and Mourinho needs to organise Spurs to break into that cartel and become part of it.  He said that he had his eyes set on Tottenham while out of work, praising the work that Poch had done and the quality of the players at the club.  While out of a job, Jose says he is a more reflective Head Coach now, analysing himself and being more relaxed and having learned from the mistake she has made in his past.  This is a very different challenge for him, coming in mid-season for a start, but also at a club where he cannot spend as lavishly as Abromovich allowed him.  A club where the ethos of bringing players through the ranks is not an option, but a necessity.  Mourinho has praised the Academy system at Tottenham ,claiming that it is not as good at other clubs and that he will use the players there.  How and when remains to be seen, as already having exited the League Cup, there is not too much scope to play them other than in extreme circumstances, when established players are not available. 

There is no doubt that the arrival of a big name manager may be designed to bring in big name players and sponsors.  Finance has never been far from the minds of the Spurs board and following the Champions League final appearance, there is there pressing need to fill the stadium and put Tottenham back in the World Football spotlight.  Mourinho comes with that ability and the rush for access  to his first Press conference showed that even if he is no longer special, then at least he is the a crowd puller.  And that brings me on to the next point.

As tactically astute as Jose might be, he has not always be noted as playing in the free-flowing way that Pochettino had the side operating in.  Having put a good performance in against West Ham in his first match, the side were not defensive (quite the opposite in the last twenty minutes) and their attacking mentality put them 3-0 ahead with a fine display of  dominating the ball and the opposition.  However, it won't be like that all the time.  I think he will ensure that some matches are approached with a defensive approach to ensure that we don't lose.  The first test of this may be Manchester United at Old Trafford on 4th December ironically.  Not a match against a top six side, but one that he most definitely will not want to lose.  The team might not be a lot different, but they will play a different way to prevent United using home advantage and getting at Spurs, with his knowledge of the players there and more recent punditry on their games helping him set out a side to defy and then overcome them.  The original coiner of the phrase "parking the bus" in relation to Jacques Santini's defensive tactics against Chelsea.  That was a bit rich as his Porto side that won the UEFA Cup were noted for their use of the dark arts during the campaign to winning the trophy against Celtic in the final.  

What he might do is toughen Spurs up a bit.  We are sometimes bullied out of games and standing up to that, especially in Europe might help the side progress into one with a tougher mentality.  Shades of it were seen in the West Ham match, with Kane putting himself about more and the team standing up to the physical approach the Irons put in.  While the away form has been shocking, there is also an aspect of the stronger approach needed at home.  What was supposed to make the Tottenham Hotspur stadium a fortress has had a little of the opposite effect.  The new stadium form has not been great and opposition sides appear to be lifted by the grand surroundings they find themselves in.  Most of his Jose's sides have had very good home records and I am sure he will try and instil this into his team, giving them the confidence to boss matches from the off.

And that confidence should be the key to allowing the team to open up and play.  Dele's performance against West Ham was out of all comparison with his recent displays.  Playing in a freer role in the middle of the attacking three, he found space and time to pull the strings, creating chances for Son and Kane where these openings had not been coming.  His skill and belief seemed to be returning and while it is not possible to put that all down to Mourinho's man-management, it was one of the immediately obvious things that have changed.  Many reports have said the squad were impressed by him in training, as they were only aware of the public face he portrays, but when on the training pitch, he is a different character, who wants to get the best out of players who want to play his way.  With a highly regarded support team, the coaching will stimulate the players, who may have grown weary of the methods Pochettino and his staff had provided for five years.  Some say that the manner in which Mauricio was putting across these sessions was less accepted by the players, but hopefully, the players will respond and improve as they become used to working with him. 

The relationship with Levy will be an interesting evolution.  A Chairman who matches Mourinho's ambitions or an ill-fitting Odd Couple ?  If Levy couldn't get on with Pochettino - reportedly one of the nicest men in football - how will it end up with Jose ?  I am sure that Jose won't be taking Levy to Portugal for a bonding trop and it will be interesting to see how often they go out to dinner together, although regular meetings will always be on the cards, as Daniel maintains a tight rein on his manager's and wants those talks about how things are going.  While things are going well, it will be all sweetness and win, but if things go awry, then that will be the testing time.  Levy does not suffer coaches who try and push him into corners, with Redknapp saying he deserved a new contract when Levy's mother was ill was badly timed and there was not a way back after that.  Even Poch may have pushed the chairman a little too far with his comments about not knowing about transfers and saying to the media that he should have his job title changed.  Levy is not a sensitive man, but he is not one to be taken lightly.  Let's hope that it doesn't come to the crunch, but if it does, managers are expendable.

There are aspects of his story that I hope have been confined just to that ... history.  Touchline bans, running up the touchline when his team score, criticism of other teams/managers, poking an opposing coach in thee eye.  They are all unnecessary actions which make him appear the arrogant and annoying figure he was perceived as being.  It is also not the way we do things at this club.  So, has he changed ?  Has he matured ?  Will we see only good headlines now, as he has already stated that he doesn't want it to be about him, but that might be unavoidable with the Press the way they are.  Blowing things out of proportion is their speciality and with Mourinho in the past, there has always been something to bite on and turn into a story.  With time to reflect on his personality and his outward facing profile, with the accompanying effect that has on the team and the club, I hope we do see a new Mourinho.  One that concentrates on the group and their performance more than anything lese that may have previously been on his agenda.  It is what we need for any success that the Head Coach and the squad have together.

And what happens when Jose and Spurs part ways ?  Will the club be left in the turmoil that has typified his last couple of contracts in the Premier League, although at Chelsea the dressing room was ruled by a few players, who turned the tide against him (not helped by his criticism of a female physio) and at Manchester United he had a team in transition with some big players who did not perform or buy into his philosophy.  He has always managed at big clubs and while Spurs are in the lower reaches of mid-table, they are probably a better club than Manchester United at the moment. With the off-field problems there not resolved and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer having a struggle after the initial bounce he brought not the team, Mourinho's second place looks like a major achievement comparable with Poch's lengthy period of success with limited resources.  With the exception of the transfer situation of those who want away, the club is reasonably stable and once Mourinho works out who he doesn't want to keep or who doesn't want to stay, he can raise some money through sales to spend himself. 

It has been a whirlwind turn around in affairs at the club.  Will the contract rebels now want to stay ?  Will there be money available in January, even though Jose said he doesn't need players ?  While this season has slipped away from the club a bit this season, what are the realistic ambitions for Spurs this campaign ?  And will he be The alchemist and be able to turn the sweat and effort into silverware ?

There are still a host of unanswered questions, but all we can hope for is that Mourinho and Tottenham are a happy marriage and a successful one.

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