How did we get here? Tottenham Hotspur appear to be a shell of the club they once were, and it feels like things have fallen apart so quickly. Saturday’s 3-0 loss at Brighton & Hove Albion, which comes just days after a 7-2 shellacking at home by Bayern Munich, feels catastrophic, considering four months ago Tottenham were playing in the finals of the Champions League.
But in truth, the Brighton result is starting to look less like a sudden aberration and more the continuation of nearly a year of poor results. In fact, the miracle Champions League run now looks more like the fluke.
In what was supposed to be a match where Spurs proved their critics wrong and bounced back from a humiliating defeat, Spurs put in one of the most listless and self-defeating performances in years. It’s time to face facts. This isn’t just a bad run of form. There is something seriously wrong with Tottenham Hotspur this season under Mauricio Pochettino.
The question becomes then what to do about it. As I see it, there are basically two ways that the club can go to turn things around. Let’s examine both options.
1. Poch Out
The simplest and most direct solution would be just to fire Pochettino. It’s certainly what most clubs do when they hit what they feel is an untenable run of form with their current manager, and it’s by far the most popular choice among Tottenham fans who are raging on social media at the moment. I even tweeted it myself in the immediate aftermath of the loss. There are certainly positive outcomes that can come out of firing your manager when they’ve seemingly lost the dressing room.
Let’s look at Chelsea as an example of this. Three months into the 2015-16 season, Chelsea were floundering under Jose Mourinho who had just signed a contract extension the previous summer. The season started with Mourinho criticizing Chelsea physio Eva Carniero for “naivety” in their first match and team spirit only went down from there as the Blues collapsed after a horrible opening run of games. Journalists and fans were calling for Mourinho to be sacked by October. Relations between Mourinho and the Chelsea players became toxic, with Mou publicly commenting that he felt “betrayed” by his players and by December the Blues were a point above the relegation zone. Mourinho was let go on December 17, with Technical Director Michael Emenalo citing “a palpable discord between manager and players” as the reason. The Blues appointed Guus Hiddink as caretaker manager and under his leadership the team rallied somewhat, at one point going 15 matches unbeaten, eventually finishing an uncharacteristic tenth in the table. They appointed Antonio Conte the following summer and won the Premier League in 2016-17.
Mourinho’s Chelsea players clearly hated him during the first part of that season, and there are some eerie parallels between what we saw with the Blues and what we’re seeing now with Spurs. The thinking is this: you can’t fire an entire team of players. So if the players are no longer willing to fight for the manager, no matter how good he is, get rid of him and bring in a new coach that will turn things around.
Pochettino is quite possibly the best manager Tottenham could conceivably get, possibly ever, and firing him would almost certainly mean he ends up at a bigger club with significantly more finances at his disposal, like Real Madrid or Manchester United. He’s too good a coach to stay out of football for too long.
But as a manager once you’ve lost the dressing room, it’s extremely rare that you’re able to get it back. Firing Pochettino would be painful but would probably result in at least a short term boost in team morale and hopefully some positive results. It could save the season.
There’s also a line of thought that says that managers have “shelf lives” at clubs. Mourinho’s was about three years. Most managers don’t last longer than five or six. We may never see a top-flight manager who ever lasts as long at a single club as Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger. This might be Poch exceeding his sell-by date at Spurs. A new face and a new approach may just be what is needed for Tottenham to continue to evolve going forward.
2. Back the manager, refresh the team
Let’s start with what we already know: Tottenham Hotspur overachieved, and did it too early. It has been acknowledged that the original plan when Pochettino was first hired was to qualify for the Champions League by the time the new stadium was finished. This would allow the stadium finances to settle and allow Spurs to gradually increase their wage and transfer budget to be able to better compete with the rest of the top six for top talent
By the end of last season, Spurs had already caught lightning in a bottle in the form of Harry Kane & Dele Alli, had made the Champions League four times (including a run to the final) and had even been in a Premier League title hunt twice. To keep the party going while the stadium was built, the club sold Spurs’ young, overachieving core on the idea that this was a process that would result in the club, under a world-class manager in Pochettino, eventually becoming one of the best in the world, and with Spurs being able to pay wages competitive to Chelsea, Liverpool and United.
But the players got older, lost interest in the project, or weren’t able to move on, and cracks have begun to form in what was once a tightly-knit group. It’s ironic that, in this first season in the new stadium, things are starting to crumble right when they were supposed to really solidify for the better.
Sir Alex Ferguson used to talk about how he would refresh his United squads every four years or so to keep things from getting stale. Players would go out, sometimes beloved ones, and new/younger players would come in who were hungry for minutes and would push the remaining players for places. That wasn’t the only reason why United were phenomenal throughout Fergie’s tenure, but the idea of keeping a football squad fresh was clearly an important part of his ethos.
Pochettino seemed to anticipate something happening like what’s happening now. Last summer, he talked extensively about needing Spurs to undergo a “painful rebuild” and spoke about a “new five-year project.” That rebuild didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons, including misinterpreting the market for Spurs’ want-away players, players aging/declining, and not making any signings for over a year. Danny Rose was left out of this summer’s preseason tour to Asia to potentially “sort out his future” but didn’t find any suitors. Nobody was willing to pay £25m for Toby Alderweireld, a sum most considered a gimme. Victor Wanyama’s expected move to Genk fell through. Christian Eriksen didn’t attract the anticipated attention from the mega-clubs that he hoped for. Compounding the issue were the unfortunate injuries to new players Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso, and Ryan Sessegnon, which has prevented all three from fully bedding into the squad.
The end result is that while Spurs were able to bring in some exciting young talent this summer, it’s not enough — Pochettino is still stuck with essentially the same squad as two seasons ago, including a bunch of players that seem to have given up on him and the club.
The reports coming out through the media about the backing of Pochettino suggests that the club may want to take the long, painful approach to regeneration — limp along in the short term, and give Pochettino the chance to clear out those who no longer want to be a part of the plan.
That is likely going to be, as he predicted, an extremely painful and protracted process, made more so by what didn’t happen this summer. It could mean, in the immediate term, a continuation of the poor on-pitch form we’ve seen thus far. The players we know are unhappy will likely leave at the first opportunity. There may be others, like Dele Alli or Hugo Lloris, who may follow out the door close behind. Any players the club may bring in will take time to bed in and may not be as good as the ones who they are replacing. Gaps in the squad could be filled with hungry academy products who will run through a wall for Pochettino if he asks them to. Spurs will likely regress in the short to medium term compared to the past few years, and the team could look very different. It may also be the smartest and best play.
It’s also worth noting that this wouldn’t be the first time Poch has done this — after his first season at the club, he exiled Emmanuel Adebayor to the U23s, showed players like Nabil Bentaleb, Younes Kaboul, Aaron Lennon, Etienne Capoue, and Benjamin Stambouli the door, and gave chances to younger players who wanted the opportunity. It seemed to work out pretty well.
If Option 1 is to dump Pochettino for what is hopefully a quick fix, Option 2 is to give Pochettino the keys to the car and let him rebuild the engine over a period of years. The second option is noble, and it would be hard to say that Spurs fans don’t owe him the opportunity for at minimum a quick valve job after everything he has done for us the past five years.
But this is turning out to be a much bigger problem than anyone anticipated, and there are still lots of questions that remain unanswered. We don’t know how deep the fissures in the squad go. Do they include Dele? What about Harry Kane? Sacking Pochettino would probably give the club and the players a boost, and it’s possible, maybe even likely, that it could keep Tottenham in the hunt for a top four finish. But would doing so mean that there still wouldn’t then be a significant exodus from the club this January and summer? We don’t know. The players who wanted out may not suddenly change their minds just because Pochettino is gone. Firing Poch could potentially result in a Spurs team without their best stars AND without Pochettino to guide them.
The other big question is what is in the minds of the Tottenham brass. They may be quietly standing behind Pochettino for now, but what if the current slide continues? Will they be quite so eager to keep him if Spurs finish outside of the Champions League? What if they finish outside of European competition entirely? At what point does it make sense to stick by the manager, and what’s the breaking point where Pochettino becomes untenable as manager?
There’s a third possibility as well — Spurs are not definitive in backing Pochettino to his satisfaction and he voluntarily walks away from the club this summer. That seems unlikely, as he has four years and about £25m left on his current contract, but we can’t completely discount the possibility.
One thing is for sure — the Brighton match feels like the club has crossed a Rubicon of some sort. Inaction is no longer acceptable. This is a Tottenham team that needs change, one way or the other. The club needs to decide now what it wants to do and what kind of club it wants to be going forward — either by supporting the current players, some of whom are likely beloved by fans, or the manager, who has fostered one of the greatest periods of success in Spurs’ history. Either way, Tottenham fans should brace themselves for a period of discomfort and not insignificant pain.