It was just four words.
During his press conference after Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 loss to Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, an obviously disappointed and emotional Mauricio Pochettino seemed to suggest that — gasp — he might not be Spurs manager forever. Pochettino said that Tottenham need to keep moving forward, whether or not he is the one in charge, in the pursuit of championships and trophies.
When journalists heard Poch utter the phrase “with me or another,” to some it represented the first crack in Pochettino’s armor at Tottenham Hotspur. It seemed like, with those four words, Pochettino might be expressing frustration over his position at Spurs, that in the moment he might have beginning to doubt whether the “Tottenham project” is achievable in a league that features clubs with seemingly bottomless resources like Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United.
There were predictable and breathless exhortations — Is this the beginning of the end of the Pochettino era at Spurs? With big clubs calling, will Poch answer the phone? Is he questioning his future in North London?
But before we get too far in front of the issue, let’s look at exactly what Pochettino said. Here he is, speaking about playing in big games like cup semi-finals.
“I think we tried to learn always. At some points though it’s difficult, it’s not about to learn, to have the capacity to beat your opponent, otherwise you can go to university and study. Of course we are in a process to arrive to the semi-final and be competitive in the Champions League and competitive in the Premier League, fighting for the top four. I think it’s not enough because everyone feels that we are close, we are close, we are close, but it’s still nearly no? Nearly to touch.
“But I think it’s the only way to reach this last level, to not only compete but to win. Of course Tottenham is in the last four years that you follow our process, we are building a very good team, about trying to create the winning mentality, but it is still at the moment not enough. But I think Tottenham need to keep going in this direction because it will be perfect, then to create that winning mentality is not about a few years. Tottenham need more time, of course with me or another, but I think it’s so important to keep going, focusing on working and developing that philosophy which is fantastic for the club.”
Tottenham’s financial deficiencies are well-known. Despite Spurs punching above their weight for the past several seasons under Pochettino, and even with the promise of additional revenue from their new stadium, Spurs are still, and will be, well behind the likes of the Manchesters and Chelsea in terms of finances. They should close the gap on Arsenal and Liverpool eventually, which puts them on firmer ground, but fans should never expect offseason outlays of £250m like what City spent this past summer.
So yes, it’s frustrating that no matter how much Spurs improve and how good a team they have, they will always seem to be at a disadvantage compared to their rivals for top four. That could suggest that Pochettino might feel like he’ll have to find success elsewhere.
But I doubt it.
Pochettino has always been a pragmatic manager. He’s never been naïve about the realities of management in the Premier League, and although he’s had success almost everywhere he’s gone in his relatively short managerial career, he’s not blind to the idea that only continued success will keep him in management long-term.
Pochettino has joked about Daniel sacking him in past press conferences, and how he’s aware that the manager is the first one to go when there are problems. Most of the time, those comments have gone uncommented on, since for the most part they have come during runs of success for the club.
But it seems overly dramatic to look at his use of the words “with me or another” and suddenly clutch your pearls in horror at the idea that Poch might understand that eventually he could leave Spurs, either willingly or by force. Daniel Levy has hired and fired seven managers since assuming the chairmanship in 2001 (more if you count the various caretaker managers). Pochettino’s tenure is the longest since Harry Redknapp, but he certainly knows that success in both football and especially in North London isn’t guaranteed.
But did he say he’s fed up? Has he given any indication in the past that he hasn’t been 100% committed to Tottenham Hotspur? And why is a manager acknowledging that no job is ever safe at the highest levels of football suddenly headline-making news?
Poch is an emotional guy, and he was clearly speaking from a position of extreme disappointment. Although he spent much of the past week trying (unsuccessfully) to take the pressure off his team by downplaying the importance of the FA Cup, in the end you could tell that it really mattered to him. While Poch is usually very deliberate with his language, you say things sometimes in the heat of the moment that can be misconstrued, especially when English isn’t your first language.
The phrase “trust the process” is overused in sports right now, but Pochettino most certainly adheres to it. His process for developing Spurs from a young, raw team to one that competes at a high level and wins things has been effective, if incomplete. Part of that process is a strong sense of loyalty, both to his players and to the system. Poch would never abuse that loyalty by knowingly suggesting to the press that he was dissatisfied with his job.
A little later in that same press conference, Poch went to great lengths to talk about how far Spurs have come in the few years that he has been in charge, and how the focus needs to be to continue to get better, to keep pushing that boulder up the hill
“Tottenham is in a position that is completely different today. Maybe you can arrive to a semi-final and win or arrive in a final and win some trophies of course. But the most important thing now is to finish in the top four, play again in the Champions League for the club. We are building the new stadium. We played the whole season at Wembley which you know is very difficult to play. That is stress that is not only for the team, but for the fans.
“It was the most difficult when we started the season. But for me it is to keep going. I am disappointed, sometimes after the defeat when finished the game very frustrated but then [clicks fingers] quick I move on. Thinking about trying to finish the season in the best way, four games ahead and we need to be sure to play Champions League. Sure it will be a very successful season if we are able to keep our position in the table.”
No, Mauricio Pochettino won’t be the manager at Tottenham Hotspur forever, but it does him a great disservice to conflate the narrative surrounding Spurs’ lack of silverware with the emotions that come after a difficult loss, and to use that as a wedge to suggest that he might be moving on.
That Pochettino and the fans can be disappointed by continually coming up short only speaks to the fact that Tottenham have raised their level to the point where they are regularly competing for honors and titles. Mauricio Pochettino has changed the culture of the club so that Spurs fans not only dream about winning silverware, they actually believe that they can do it every season. That is transformational management, and although in moments of weakness Poch may wonder about his future at the club, I suspect that when Spurs finally do lift their first trophy since 2008, Mauricio Pochettino will be the one that got them there.