(Yes, yes. That’s an incendiary lead. I know. We’ll get there. Just give me a minute.)
After last season, many Spurs supporters believed that Mauricio Pochettino was one of the world’s best young managers. And we weren’t alone: Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson said much the same thing.
Then this season happened. Specifically, the Champions League flameout happened and the generally calamitous month of November happened. Since the excellent performance against Manchester City, Tottenham have probably played ~60 minutes of good football. Naturally, members of the commentariat have started to ask if Pochettino is over-rated. Whispers about how #actually bad Spurs were in his first season are starting to crop up again. Last year’s success is being attributed as much to some fortunate results and unrepeatable luck with player fitness as it is to Poche’s qualities as a manager.
James Yorke at Stats Bomb went so far as to note, quite reasonably given the data, that Pochettino Spurs actually look a bit like AVB Spurs: We look great on shot metrics, but the quality of our chances are generally lower due in part to a lack of effective movement in the attacking third and a willingness to shoot from just about anywhere.
(To be fair, one of the enduring myths that needs to die amongst Spurs fans is that AVB’s second team was objectively bad. Up until the Newcastle game we were fine on most advanced metrics and were mostly struggling due to Soldado and Paulinho’s problems finishing chances. After the Newcastle game, AVB seems to have panicked, scrambled his tactics, and then we got destroyed for six weeks until Levy finally saw enough and sacked him. But for most of AVB’s stint at Spurs, we were actually pretty good, especially when we had both Sandro and Dembele starting together prior to Sandro destroying his knee. There is a strong case to be made, in fact, that it was Sandro’s injury rather than Gareth Bale’s departure that sunk AVB at Spurs.)
So, which is it? Is Pochettino one of the best young managers in Europe or is in he over his head, mostly riding a single spectacular season that is attributable as much to random luck as it is his own managerial brilliance?
The key word here is “young” manager.
Because of the almost instant success experienced by the two defining managers of the post-2005 European club soccer scene, fans have now come to develop frankly absurd expectations of young managers. Jose Mourinho won the Champions League in his first full-season at a single club. He won the Premier League in his second full season at a single club. Pep Guardiola won three La Liga titles and two Champions League titles in his first three seasons of management.
None of that is normal. Mourinho and Guardiola are freakish talents. They both possess a unique array of skills that make them well-suited to quick turnarounds but ill-equipped for anything like long-term success at a single club. That’s why Mourinho never lasts more than three years at a single club and why Guardiola seems to be following a similar pattern. When you’re assessing a manager’s career, judging them by the instant success of Mourinho and Guardiola is simply not reasonable.
We need to evaluate Pochettino relative to normal elite managers rather than the outliers.
If you compare Pochettino to the other elite managers in Europe right now, a more complex picture emerges.
Below I have listed the number of games that today’s best managers had managed before taking their first European-level job as well as the clubs they worked at prior to taking the job.
(By “European-level” I mean “games managed before they took over a club that regularly competes in a top European domestic league and the Europa League or Champions League.”)
- Mauricio Pochettino: 261 games (Espanyol and Southampton)
- Jurgen Klopp: 270 games (Mainz)
- Antonio Conte: 151 games (Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta, Siena)
- Arsene Wenger: 467 games (Nancy, Monaco, Nagoya Grampus)
- Thomas Tuchel: 216 games (Augsburg II and Mainz)
- Carlo Ancelotti: 128 games (Reggiana, Parma)
- Jorge Jesus: 469 games (Felgueiras, Uniao Madeira, Estrela Amadora, Vitoria Setubal, Vitoria Guimaraes, Moreirense, Uniao Leiria, Belenenses, Braga)
- Max Allegri: 222 games (Aglianese, Real SPAL, Gorsseto, Sassuolo, Cagliari)
- Diego Simeone: 204 games (Racing, Estudiantes, River Plate, San Lorenzo, Catania)
- Roger Schmidt: 327 games (Delbrucker SC, Preussen Munster, Paderborn 07, and RB Salzburg)
- Luis Enrique: 124 games till the Roma job (Barcelona B), 206 games until Barcelona job (Barcelona B, Roma, Celta Vigo)
For fun, let’s toss on a few other big names:
- Sir Alex Ferguson: 621 games (East Sterlingshire, St Mirren, Aberdeen)
- Roberto Mancini: 146 games (Fiorentina, Lazio)
- Louis Van Gaal: 285 games (Ajax)
What we see, then, is that Pochettino is within the normal number of games managed before moving to a European job. He’s on the high end, actually, but basically in the same ballpark as Klopp, Tuchel, Allegri, and Van Gaal. He also had only about one season’s worth more experience than Simeone and one season less than Schmidt.
That said, several elite managers took much longer than Pochettino before moving to the top level and, not coincidentally, they are amongst those who have built the sort of enduring legacy that Pochettino talks about as part of his ambitions at Tottenham.
Arsene Wenger managed nearly 500 club matches before moving to Arsenal where he transformed the club and permanently changed the culture of English football. Jorge Jesus managed nearly 500 club matches before moving to Benfica and restoring the Portuguese giants to their place atop Portuguese football which had been usurped by Porto. Most notable of all, Sir Alex Ferguson managed over 600 games at club level before taking the Manchester United job—and it took him an additional several seasons before he really established himself at Old Trafford.
The short-term specialists who spend 3-5 years at a club and then need to move on seem to need less time at smaller jobs before taking their first major job. But the legacy-builders like Wenger or Ferguson take more time to acquire the much broader set of skills required to achieve such a status at a single club.
This makes sense, of course. The legacy-builders aren’t just master tacticians who transform teams seemingly over night and burn bright for three seasons before breaking many of their players under the burden of their heavy demands. They need a much broader skill set that lends itself toward greater longevity at a single club. They need to be good politicians in order to manage internal issues with the club and have excellent man-management skills that allow them to maintain their place at a club for a longer period of time.
We should expect that a larger skill set requires more on-the-job learning. Based on everything he has said, Pochettino aspires to the second category rather than the first, so we shouldn’t necessarily compare him to Conte, for example, as Conte has yet to show an ability to stay at a single club for any length of time. So by that standard, he is still an extremely young manager. He has only managed 351 club matches so far which places him well behind the number of games managed before Wenger, Jesus, or Ferguson took their signature positions—and Poche is already in year three at his first major job.
There is a second caveat to keep in mind as well: Most of the managers with slightly less experience before moving to top sides had much easier jobs at their first major European side: It’s much easier to crack the top three in domestic play if you’re at Dortmund, as Klopp and Tuchel were in their first major jobs, than if you’re at Spurs.
It’s much easier to win silverware at Juventus (Conte), Milan (Allegri), or Benfica (Jesus). None of these managers save Simeone faced anything like the level of competition Pochettino is facing now at Spurs. Even Simeone had an easier task if we’re evaluating based on Champions League qualification rather than trophies won.
So where does Pochettino rank amongst the top managers?
Here’s what we know about Pochettino after 2.3 seasons at Spurs:
- When Pochettino has a healthy team with 11-13 players who fit his system and are bought in, he can create a very strong team.
- When he doesn’t have the right personnel, he struggles to adapt.
- Related: He doesn’t have a great Plan B.
- Related: He struggles to adjust his system when injuries, suspension, or fatigue force him to change.
- Finally, his in-game management skills are not fantastic.
Here’s the thing: I think I just described Arsene Wenger.
Try it: Take that list of five traits. Remove Pochettino’s name. Show it to an Arsenal fan. Ask them who it’s describing.
If comparing Pochettino to Wenger is too distasteful, well... I think I just described Antonio Conte too. Michael Caley noted in our writer’s room that Conte’s substitutions Saturday, which were very poor, allowed us to get back into the game. Further, like Pochettino, Conte struggled to adapt at Chelsea until he figured out a way to play his most comfortable system—a sturdy, three-man defense with an all-action duo patrolling the midfield. Take any elite manager, remove one or two essential cogs in their tactical system, and they will probably struggle. And that’s precisely what Pochettino has been dealing with while Spurs are missing both Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela.
Indeed, “brilliant tactician and man-manager but too stubborn for his own good and bad at coming up with Plan B” is a good description of many elite managers. More to the point, it is especially true of managers who succeed at clubs like Spurs who are suspended in that weird purgatory between the domestic also-rans and the true powers of their domestic leagues.
It’s remarkable how consistent the profile of managers at such clubs is right now: In England, the two purgatory teams are Spurs and Liverpool. We have Poche and Klopp. In Germany, two of the purgatory teams are Dortmund and Leverkusen. They have Tuchel and Schmidt. In Spain two purgatory teams are Sevilla and Atletico. They have Jorge Sampaoli and Simeone.
All across Europe the conventional wisdom at these tweener clubs is “hire a homicidally competitive lunatic who places insane demands on his players and whose players inexplicably love him and hope that that makes up for the talent gap between you and the true elites.”
To be sure, you can argue that Poche is nearer to the bottom of that list than the top. He certainly hasn’t achieved anything on the level of what Jurgen Klopp or Diego Simeone have managed. And his best teams have not looked as formidable as Tuchel’s Dortmund of last season.
But it seems to me that in ranking these six managers, Klopp, Simeone, Pochettino, Sampaoli, Tuchel, and Schmidt, we’re firmly in the realm of “interesting debates with multiple valid positions.”
There’s no cause to hum “one of these things is not like the others” to ourselves as we consider Poche relative to these other five managers at similar clubs. Poche belongs in that group, even if he isn’t on the level of Klopp or Simeone. (My personal rankings based on club record so far would be Simeone, Klopp, Tuchel, Pochettino, Schmidt with Sampaoli getting a flyer for now until he gets a full season at Sevilla under his belt.)
Wherever you land on where Poche fits in that group, it’s hard to imagine Spurs finding a better manager right now or a more promising young talent for the future. Even after a bad November, the best way forward for Spurs is the same as it was heading into this season: #InPocheWeTrust.