The dust has finally settled on the 2018-19 club football season, and it was a strange, memorable one for Tottenham. The team’s great potential and nagging weakness both manifested as they reached the Champions League final in stunning fashion (I will never miss an opportunity to rewatch this game, and neither should you) while winning only once league game since February 10 and taking five points from their last ten games, yet somehow managing a top-four finish. As transfer rumors blossom about a team that has remained mostly unchanged since his arrival and Pochettino proclaims the end of a five-year journey, it feels like a good moment to pause, take stock of what has changed in those years, and examine what we should ask of the team in the coming year and beyond.
Since Pochettino took over for the 2014-15 season, the transformation at Spurs fell broadly into two categories: consistency and quality. Thinking back to the period immediately before he was signed, the team was managing decent league finishes, but without any feeling of continuity from season to season. Managers came and went, including the charmingly simple Tim Sherwood, and the team never felt like it was playing as a single unit, particularly when results began to look toward worse outcomes. It’s not that Spurs were a poor side, just that they relied on individual performances and flashes of good fortune rather than creating a style of play, business strategy, and lineup that fans could depend on week-in, week-out. This has been one of Pochettino’s greatest contributions.
Whether Spurs have been in disappointing or record-breaking form, for the most part they have played with a consistent lineup, and few changes from season to season have meant that powerful on-field relationships developed on crucial areas of the pitch. For example, as Spurs’ gifted attacking corps has evolved, each of Kane, Dele, Eriksen, and Son has created their own role that covers a distinct aspect of Tottenham’s offensive needs. In the midfield, players like Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier have learned exactly how they fit into the team’s formation and rotations. This is a different level of awareness than existed at Spurs five years ago, when good and bad players alike were seemingly left to their own devices where positioning and tactics were concerned and slotted into formations according to broad notions of position rather than specific considerations of their attributes. This is not to say, of course, that Spurs have done away with their wobbly (Spursy) tendencies, but rather that they have smoothed the peaks and valleys of those wobbles.
Having a consistent style of play and regular on-field partnerships will enable Spurs to focus on the next level of footballing development, which is the quality of their performances. With a core group of players that has remained mostly unaltered since his first season, Pochettino has worked magic by attaining better and better results over the years. Although the team’s quality has arguably been stagnant since its initial jump in the first few seasons under Poch, each season has brought new highs, new stars, and an undeniable upward trend in the benchmarks by which the team is evaluated. Tottenham’s league finishes are a good indicator of this: 5-3-2-3-4 from Poch’s first season through the most recent one. Regularly qualifying for the Champions League and finishing higher than Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea shows that the team have moved into a new echelon of competition, a particularly difficult feat because although Spurs’ best finish under Poch was second, they have begun to compete with the “big six” sides in a new way. Excluding this season’s improbably bad finish, the team has finished at or above the big six’s average point total in every season but Pochettino’s first, a feat that they did not attain once in the preceding five years.
In other words, the Pochettino era has undoubtedly been the best of the last decade. But where to go next? Most importantly, the club cannot let the foundation that they are building falter. This doesn’t mean marquee signings each year, but it does require smart business—exactly the kind that has brought Ndombele and Clarke to the club so far this summer. It also means guaranteeing consistent results in the league. While five more consecutive years of Champions League qualification would be nice, I think a more realistic target would be to accumulate more points each season than the last and slowly root out the nagging inconsistencies and shock performances that have troubled the team even at its best.
In terms of concrete outcomes, supporters should hope to see seasons that end as strongly as they start, a team that comfortably dispatches all but the most elite competition, and a reversal of the recent slip in Premier League form. All of these are different ways of restating the same thing, which is that Tottenham, despite having a bright future, is a team that is still in flux. Outcomes that see the club return to mid-table form and finances are possible, as is the single path that would see Tottenham join the highest ranks of European clubs. Thus, we should hope that over the next five years, smart tactical and business maneuvers take a team with vast potential and consolidate that potential into concrete, dependable quality, year-in, year-out. Much of the work towards this goal has already begun, and as long as Pochettino remains as skilled and enthused by the job as he has been thus far—and Levy gets a little looser with the purse strings—fans can be reasonably confident that the club’s success will be long-lasting.
As fans, we have the right to set our sights as high as we can imagine, but that’s not the same as how we define success for the team. Where adjudicating Pochettino and Levy’s performance is concerned, we ought to focus on a few key questions: are they learning from their mistakes? Are they working together? Is Tottenham’s outlook this season better than it was last season? The last five years have transformed the club from a side stuck in limbo between top-four and mid-table to a burgeoning member of the European elite. As supporters’ expectations adjust accordingly, the team will falter along the way, but when it does, we can take pride in the transformation our team has undergone and support the management until they are no longer stewarding the club’s future well. In a year that has seen us open a new stadium and welcome a new record signing, as well as play in the most prized game in Europe, we only have cause for celebration.