Michael: Mauricio Pochettino's first year in charge of Tottenham Hotspur looks successful on the surface (5th place! Harry Kane!) but you do not have to dig far below that surface to find serious problems. The club's underlying statistics fall below "disappointing" to the level of simply bad, and the experience of watching this club scrape victories from poor performances was rarely heartening, if perhaps sometimes grotesquely fun.
So what does that mean about Pochettino? To what degree and in what ways is he to blame for the poor football that Tottenham played last year? At the moment, neither Ben nor myself wants Poche sacked. But we want to get a handle on exactly what Pochettino did wrong last year, and what Spurs fans should watch for in the new season to see if he can fix those problems.
What are your biggest grievances, Ben?
Ben: My biggest grievance with Pochettino was that the manager we got wasn't the manager that was advertised to us. Based on his history at Southampton and Espanyol before him, his resume billed him as a manager who could come into a team, impose his plan, and forge an effective unit out of the players at his disposal. His ability to transform Southampton from a relegation no-hoper to a top ten side with minimal investment and astute promotion from the youth teams was the key quality that recommended him to Spurs.
The summer before Pochettino arrived, the club had already invested heavily in seven players at great expense. After the failures of AVB and Tim Sherwood to compose a working team from the parts available, Pochettino seemed brought in for that sole purpose. And the signings made under his watched seemed to confirm that. There were no major buys, just depth signings and young prospects. His task seemed simple: take all this expensive talent, supplement it with some of our promising kids, and put out a team that plays together like a team.
Instead we got Frankenstein's football team, with a midfield and back line sewn together from spare body parts that rarely coordinated well enough to move the whole lumbering shambles in the same direction.
The excuses for the team's deficiencies are the same excuses we heard under AVB. Once he gets his guys to play in his system, it will be fine, you'll see. We already jettisoned one under-performing ideologue, and if I'd known we were just going to sign up another I'd have been very against it from the start.
As it stands, the peak version of Pochettino might be very good indeed, but are we ever going to be able to give him his Hulks and Moutinhos to make it work?
Michael: This raises a key question. On what sort of timeline could we reasonably expect improvement and reform at Tottenham? Despite the apparent quick transformation of Southampton, according to Morgan Schneiderlin in an interview with L'Équipe, it took the guys over a year to understand Pochettino's pressing principles. On top of that, perhaps the clubhouse situation that Poche walked into at Spurs was particularly toxic.
The evidence. First, while we don't know why exactly Andre Villas-Boas was sacked last year, Villas-Boas has hinted that his authority with players was undercut by management. Second, there is Kaboul Kabal theory. Let's take this from the facts backward instead of making assumptions about "ITK" sources. On November 6, Tottenham lost to Stoke City at home. All of Younes Kaboul, Emmanuel Adebayor and Étienne Capoue started. None of the three even made the squad for league matches until January, and for the most part they were entirely exiled.
A manager choosing to bench some veterans after a loss is normal. Exiling his co-captains plus another veteran from the squad entirely points to issues beyond football, some sort of locker room dysfunction that required not tactical adjustments but radical disciplinary action.
It makes for a plausible story. The dressing room had become unmanageable under AVB and Sherwood, and Pochettino could not get through to the players. Finally, he asserted his authority and got the players to buy in to his system, but it was too late. The two-game-a-week season had begun and there was not time to drill the press as it needed be done.
I'm not saying I buy this story entirely. Why didn't things improve at least a little? Do we really want to stake our reading of history on a series of plausible but entirely unconfirmed assumptions? But I think I buy it enough that I am willing to live in hope as I wait out another offseason. Can you go that far?
Ben: I'm perfectly willing to accept that story as fact. Even if it isn't, I'm also perfectly willing to allow him the time it takes to figure out his squad and see who can do what. Growing pains are to be expected, and settling into a new environment takes time.
And Pochettino actually handled that situation as well as could be expected. The Kaboul Cabal eventually vanished into the ether and Harry Kane rose from the depths of R'lyeh, maw agape, prepared to consume the Premier League and drag our rivals back into the watery deep. All of that is great.
My problems come later.
Between Harry Kane's introduction to the league and the end of the season, we initially got better, then very promptly got worse and continued to get worse until finally stumbling over the finish line at the end of the season. This is the part that leaves me scratching my head. He had useful players at his disposal that, at one point or another, he actually made work. He even made Paulinho look awesome as a defensive midfielder for a day. But then for reasons which remain a mystery to me, he stopped using Mousa Dembele completely, he benched Erik Lamela for a random five game stretch during which the only team we beat was QPR, Benji Stambouli was locked inside his own magician's trunk and told he could only play once he escaped from within.
Meanwhile he continued to throw out a Mason-Bentaleb midfield which only very rarely looked functional. He chopped and changed things that actually worked while remaining steadfastly dedicated to things that overwhelmingly didn't. But again we are reassured that this is symptomatic of the club's failure to sign him the necessary pieces to his puzzle. Which we will do this summer and therefore rectify all future problems. I'm just not sure I buy it.
Michael: Yup. This may be the part where we agree to agree.
I think I'm going to try to put a positive spin on this and see how long I can keep it up. One of my takeaways from this season is that Mauricio Pochettino is an optimist. In Bill James' Guide to Baseball Managers, he sought to classify managers as either "problem-solvers" or "optimists." If something isn't working, does this manager believe in the guys he chose earlier or does he look to make a change, find a solution? Pochettino's treatment of Danny Rose was highly optimistic. He clearly identified Rose as his best attacking fullback weapon, something he needed in the unbalanced formation he prefers. And even while Rose was making regular mistakes in positioning, Poche stuck by him. By the end of the season, Rose had paid off Pochettino's belief and rewarded his optimism.
Sometimes a guy needs time to prove what he can do, and if you quit on him too early to "solve" the apparent problem you're actually costing your team goals in the medium-term. Of course, that's not exactly what happened in midfield. Pochettino did not just stick with Masontaleb for six months, believing in his guys that he'd picked.
Instead, he fixed midfield and then, quite inexplicably, he unfixed it. When Poche introduced the Dembele-destroyer lineup, I thought, finally, Poche made the change. He saw something needed to be done, and maybe he took too long but he came up with a solution. This was the manager I thought we were getting, a guy who knows his high press and will make sure it works. And then Dembele played one bad half of football against West Ham and he was exiled.
So did Pochettino's optimistic nature overwhelm his football sense? I still have no handle whatsoever on what happened there, and outside of Kevin McCauley's theory [REDACTED], nothing can really explain it in a way that satisfies me. Fundamentally the manager screwed up and he made the team significantly more bad than it should have been. That is a hard thing to forget.
Like you, I want to believe that new personnel and a new year will see our problems solved. But I have midfield sticking in my craw and nothing other than a good couple months of league football is going to get it out. But if we see this club show up in August and play the kind of convincing, tactically-sound football that we saw from Southampton under Poche, it won't take me very long to start fully believing in the manager again.