It may be fair to describe Tottenham Hotspur’s Tuesday announcement of Mauricio Pochettino’s departure as an initial shock, but not as a true surprise. Spurs have been in terrible form for almost the entirety of the 2019-20 season and already went through a news cycle about players unhappy with tactics. Grouped with continual, abysmal away form in 2019, the quickest remedy for a poor season is to fire the manager.
In the end, chairman Daniel Levy and the Tottenham board had an easy justification to make a decision, difficult because of an otherwise successful tenure. The accomplishments of the five-plus year Pochettino era are, of course, mostly irrelevant in the decision-making process; a slippery slope is visible if a top four finish is not achieved by season’s end. It is hard not to dwell on that period, though, as the era ends.
The highlight of the period was reaching the Champions League final little more than five months ago, an event in many ways emblematic of the entirety of Pochettino’s tenure. The task was a large one, and perhaps an unrealistic one, but he actualized the vision of a club chasing rapid growth. A Europa League perennial became a Champions League mainstay. Young players emerged along with a young manager, playing attractively to couple with the victories.
It all came with the task of having less money than the teams Spurs were competing with. Pochettino last year compared Spurs’ budget to Leicester’s (before Brendan Rodgers put them in their current second-place standing), and before the Champions League final noted that the success would not lead to more funds from Levy.
Fascinating tactical decisions became a norm as a result, particularly in times of injury crises. Formations and lineups were changed, and sometimes it was a stroke of genius: prioritizing prime Danny Rose and Kyle Walker in tactical setup led to some of the team’s best form under Pochettino. Other times, the changes reeked of force: Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko spent a lot of time partnered in midfield towards the end of the Pochettino era, and were sometimes the only available options. The partnership still never worked, even if one player was the result of promoting youth — something regarded as a Pochettino staple — and spending large, a thing he had subtly noted he wanted.
He had it all and had nothing at the same time. His managerial talent was met with world-class players, be they academy products or signings from elsewhere. He had splashy signings, too; under him, the club signed three players who were record signings at the time. He also had the results, but never enough; he got close to the top in each and every competition Tottenham were in, but collected no silverware. All of the items never aligned at once, which is why Pochettino’s legacy at Tottenham, though all his, includes another person: Levy.
In part, Pochettino’s time at Spurs was the story of a power struggle. The talk of money included, the manager was always pitching the chairman something. Pochettino got a vote of confidence last year with a new contract — and a substantial raise — for him and his coaching staff. Levy spent big on players, too; Spurs spent around £30 million on Sissoko, while Davinson Sánchez cost up to £42 million and Tanguy Ndombele cost £55 million.
It was always clear Levy was at least pleased, if not impressed with Pochettino’s work. It would be hard not to; while Levy was obsessing over details of the stadium and training ground of his dreams, Pochettino created a first team that matched it. Both were the result of leaders who put careful thought into their work, and both were in a way surprisingly impressive but somehow within the realm of possibility.
The two also craved as much control as they deemed necessary, in many ways a reasonable request. Pochettino offered limited input on the stadium, but asked for full control over the squad. Levy was all hands on deck with the stadium, which Pochettino imagined was his dream, and also wanted a role in the squad. Again, that was reasonable — he was closer to the money than Pochettino — but conflict arose.
The clearest recent example was the summer signing of forward Jack Clarke, which Pochettino did not approve but Levy went for regardless. It was at that point par for the course; at the end of the 2017-18 season, he said the club needed to “take risks” and a year later said a painful rebuild was a natural next step to lasting success. By the time the 2019-20 mess became real, it felt clear that Pochettino’s argument had failed to convince Levy, whatever the specifics were.
Other feelings color in the full story, but they remain unknown. Certain details of what Levy and Pochettino thought and discussed are obviously unavailable, as are those of the players, most of whom who rose to fame with the manager. All were an important part of the process, but a system of individuals stretching to make something whole became very difficult to maintain. As always, something had to change and in the end it was Pochettino, which may have been a particularly reasonable choice if there was a full breakdown in his working relationship with the players.
If it was a power struggle, one person had to eventually win. In the beginning, the question did not exist. In the middle, the result leaned towards Levy. In the end, the natural structure ensured it.
Blame will go around, and a consensus will be reached, quickly or otherwise. What is clear in the immediate aftermath of one of the biggest choice Levy has made as chairman is that the club is in a very different place than it was five and a half years ago. In a way, it speaks highly of all involved; Pochettino remains one of the best managers around, and Levy a skilled chairman who continues to orchestrate a club’s truly dramatic transformation.
The continual power struggle will mean a question may linger for some time about who can truly own the success. Pochettino may have dazzled all onlookers with the team on the field, but Levy can argue it was he who gave the manager his star-making turn in the first place. An entirely possible alternate set of events could also have it that both, talented as they are, could have found success without each other.
Because of their talent, both Pochettino and Spurs are in good position to bounce back and achieve true greatness, even if both parties are sad it might be achieved separately. While the two will be inextricably linked when recapping this period in Tottenham’s history, Pochettino is poised to forever remain a part of Levy’s legacy as Spurs’ chairman, now the man who looks for a follow-up act to a man who had supporters calling him magic.
When he does eventually land another gig, Pochettino will be free of Levy. He may run into similar issues again, but he will have another opportunity to add to his own reputation, and likely a number of further opportunities after the next. If there is anything he has proved at Tottenham, it is that he is more than worth the try.