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Mauricio Pochettino’s singular legacy at Spurs wasn’t wins, it was belief

No one else will ever do what Poche did at Spurs.

Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

I started following Spurs in 2009. The first goal I remember seeing was Jermain Defoe’s first-minute opener against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was a wonderful goal but went for naught as United came from behind to win 3-1. My abiding memories of that season, however, came in the final two months.

First, the Danny Rose Game when Spurs defeated Arsenal 2-1 in a late-season North London Derby at White Hart Lane. We remember the game for Rose’s improbable opener, but the star that day was keeper Heurelho Gomes, who stood on his head in the second half to preserve a Spurs victory.

Second, the win at the Etihad—Peter Crouch scoring late to send Tottenham into the Champions League. I watched that game on a pirated stream sitting on the front porch of the duplex I lived in during my senior year—that game was my respite from finals week and preparing to move to the Twin Cities within a week.

What made that season so magical—and it’s what made the next season’s Champions League equally special—was the improbability of it all. We had always been outside the big four of the Premier League—that was one of the reasons I had chosen Spurs as my team. But even with Liverpool fading, newly rich Manchester City was obviously primed to replace them. Spurs were clearly the sixth biggest club in England and clearly the fifth best team for most of the next several seasons. So when we managed a surprise result—the 3-2 comeback at the Emirates under Harry Redknapp or the pair of victories against Manchester United and Manchester City in AVB’s first season—it meant more precisely because we were underdogs.

Of course, the thing with being an underdog is that you work with very fine margins. Spurs rose out of their midtable doldrums thanks to some excellent business in the transfer market, bringing in Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart, and Emmanuel Adebayor, all of whom could easily have gone to a bigger club. All four were good enough for bigger clubs. But, improbably, all four landed at Spurs. But how do you translate a short-term bump in a team’s fortunes brought about by canny (and difficult to reproduce) transfers into stable, long-term success? How do you take a club like Spurs and make them a genuine giant?

Daniel Levy hired Andre Villas-Boas to do that. The blueprint was obvious enough: We had upgraded our talent, but now we needed a manager with the tactical blueprint to maximize our talent to such a degree that we could overcome the shrinking talent gap between ourselves and our five wealthier rivals.

For a short window it looked like AVB would succeed: Gareth Bale made The Leap. Sandro and Mousa Dembele formed arguably the best midfield in England for the half season they were together. But then Sandro got hurt. The team’s form dipped. Bale left. And the whole AVB era flamed out with a series of catastrophic losses to those wealthier rivals. Then Tim Sherwood came and it was all I could do to make myself watch the games. It felt like the team’s window was closing—if the Bale 7 all flopped, as seemed possible, what then? The team had already moved on from Modric and van der Vaart as well. There were no major transfer windfalls coming. And the remaining stars, Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen most notably, were reasonably being linked with moves away from the club.

Levy’s next hire would follow the same basic approach as Villas-Boas but the margin for error with this one was zero. If Levy missed on his hire, it’s not hard to imagine Spurs slipping back into midtable. The club would always have enough wealth to fend off relegation but, like Everton or West Ham, it would be hard to imagine the team ever moving into the elites of English football. And that’s when Mauricio Pochettino arrived.

Over his five and a half years at the club Pochettino accomplished what Villas-Boas couldn’t—and he did it without the luxury of a £100m warchest. So how did he accomplish it? He taught the club to play an aggressive high-pressing style that stifled opposition attacks. He made canny acquisitions that would become signature players of the Poche era at Spurs—Toby Alderweireld arriving from Atletico for £11.5m, Dele Alli from MK Dons for £5m, Son Heung-Min from Bayer Leverkusen for £22m. He also figured out ways to utilize more limited players within a coherent tactical system, establishing Kieran Trippier as a playmaking right back and Moussa Sissoko as a box-to-box midfielder in last season’s Air Raid attack. He also helped to develop Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Christian Eriksen, and Eric Dier—all of whom made major improvements under Pochettino’s guidance.

Poche, of course, would say that there was something he did prior to any of that: He instilled belief at the club. And while it’s easy to roll your eyes at such vagaries, I think he’d be correct. The acquisitions were important. The player development was essential. The tactics mattered. But before any of those things, Poche taught the club to believe that they could succeed, that they really could belong at the top of the European game. And so, strange as it may seem, my memory of our greatest triumphs under Poche—the thrashing of Real Madrid at Wembley, the win against Manchester United on the final day at White Hart Lane, the wins against Manchester City and Ajax in last season’s Champions League—is that they didn’t feel as improbable. What made the Redknapp derby wins against Arsenal so fun was how unexpected they were. What made the signature Pochettino wins unique was precisely that they didn’t seem so far fetched.

Jose Mourinho is our manager now. That’s still strange to say. If previous patterns hold, he’ll be here for about three seasons. We’ll win a couple trophies. And if we’re lucky, the club won’t be a giant crater when he leaves. But when he leaves, we’ll hire another big name—and he’ll be here for a two or three years. That’s what the giants of European football do and, this is also strange to say, Spurs are one of the giants now. We’re a fixture in the Champions League. We’ve held our own against Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester City on Europe’s grandest stage.

Other managers will come and they’ll win more trophies than Pochettino did. But they’ll never be the man that took a club that was a European afterthought, accustomed to Thursday nights in obscure eastern European stadiums and an obvious underdog compared to their wealthier domestic rivals, and turned them into one of the undeniable giants of European football. That honor will always belong exclusively to Mauricio Pochettino.