Pep Guardiola was recently named the Premier League Manager of the Season after leading Manchester City, flush with cash and even more talent, to their second consecutive Premier League title. Fair play. Winning the league is hard, and it’s quite an accomplishment to do it twice. Mauricio Pochettino was one of the four finalists for the award, along with Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Wolves’ Nuno Espirito Santo, which undersells the incredible job he did with Tottenham this season.
Spurs started the year under a cloud, as Pochettino was seriously linked to the open Real Madrid job even after signing an extended deal at Tottenham. Despite that new £60m deal, there were real concerns that he might not manage Spurs into their new stadium. Those fears were with time shown to be unfounded, with Pochettino late in the season saying that he felt he wouldn’t be a man of his word if he left Tottenham under those circumstances.
Instead, Pochettino buckled down and put in what was clearly the best coaching job of his Tottenham tenure.
There were so many times this season where things could’ve gone catastrophically off the rails. Spurs were seemingly behind the eight ball right from the start, with nine of their players making it to the World Cup semifinals, more than any other league club. Leading scorer and club talisman Harry Kane suffered not one, but two serious ankle injuries. Hugo Lloris had a highly public and embarrassing arrest for drunk driving. Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Harry Winks, Dele Alli, and Victor Wanyama all missed time. Mousa Dembele, once the lynchpin of Spurs’ offense, was sold to China in January. Son Heung-Min played in three international tournaments. Tottenham’s new stadium was finished seven months late, leading to more unwanted matches at Wembley and fan frustration.
Did we mention Spurs didn’t buy anyone for an entire year? That too.
You can even argue that they did go off the rails in the league — at one point Spurs were solidly in third place, 10 points above fourth, and were being looked at as dark horse contenders for the league title. Instead, they finished the campaign taking 11 points from their last 12 matches, a stretch that included losses in their final six away games. However, that poor run of form was still enough for Spurs to back over the line and pip Arsenal for fourth place. Spurs clearly ran out of gas by the end, but were good enough over the course of the season to still finish in the top four.
All of these setbacks and extenuating circumstances forced Pochettino to innovate and tinker more than he has in past seasons, knowing that he had to get the absolute maximum out of his existing squad in order to meet the club’s goals this season. When injury and absence made Spurs’ midfield a problem area, Pochettino adapted by first making the offense run through the ball progression of Kieran Trippier, and later creating an “Air Raid” style offense that bypassed the midfield altogether. When Kane went down to injury, he turned to Son Heung-Min and Fernando Llorente to fill the void and adjusted his tactics to compensate for periods without his leading scorer. Instead of complaining about Wembley Stadium, he worked to continue to make playing in England’s national stadium a source of strength. He revitalized the career of Moussa Sissoko, taking him from a league laughingstock to arguably the player of the season. He shepherded the continued development of Juan Foyth and teenage midfielder Oliver Skipp.
Finally, he demonstrated unequivocally how the mindset and culture at Tottenham has changed since he took charge five years ago. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Champions League, where Spurs looked dead in the water in the group stages after taking just one point in its first three games. That Spurs managed to squeak out of the group is itself amazing. To see Spurs engineer aggregate wins over Dortmund, Manchester City, and Ajax en route to the final is nothing short of miraculous. These are not the pushover Spurs of years past. “To me, these players are superheroes,” he said after the win in Amsterdam. But if Spurs are Ninja Turtles, Pochettino is their Splinter.
Pochettino is not above criticism this season. He badly mismanaged his starting tactics on a number of occasions this season. His teams are still frustratingly unable to break down a bunkered defense. Pochettino’s substitution patterns and decisions are open to critique as well and are sometimes baffling. Finally, Poch’s unwillingness to dip into the transfer market “for the sake of buying players” this summer was part of the reason why Spurs went an entire year without bringing in any reinforcements and contributed greatly to the overall exhaustion of the team by the end of the season.
And yet, watching Poch drag the exhausted, injured carcasses of his players across the line this season into fourth place in the Premier League and the finals of the Champions League has been an absolute joy. Some of how you view the season is colored by what kind of a person you are — you can look back and wonder what might have happened if Spurs were smarter in the transfer window, if Spurs had not run their players into the ground, etc., or you can marvel that Tottenham had one of the most exciting seasons in modern history despite everything that happened.
Either way, this has been a masterful performance by Tottenham’s manager. This season will mean that he will continue to be considered one of the hottest managers in Europe, and he will continue to be linked with other, “bigger” clubs. That’s the downside. The upside is that he’s still at Tottenham Hotspur, and based on recent history seems to be quite happy where he is. His vision is still intact, although phase one of “the project” has completed. I can’t wait to see where things go from here.