Subject: Let us help you! (Manager search)
Can I call you Dan? I don’t know if you’re a regular reader of our little website, but I’m willing to bet you know we exist and may have read some of our stuff now and again, and that makes us friends. So I’m gonna call you Dan.
Dan, it looks like you’re in a spot of bother again with your manager. Well, both managers if we’re including Rehanne Skinner and Spurs Women, but let’s stick with the men’s team for now. You dragged your feet for a lot longer than I expected after Tony’s little outburst after the Southampton match but it seems like you did come to the right conclusion in the end.
But that means that, once again, Tottenham Hotspur are looking for a new boss. Cartilage Free Captain has offered our help for managerial analysis a couple of times over the years. We’re pretty good at evaluating potential head coach targets, and we’d like to offer our services again, free of charge.
It’s a big job, Dan, and you’re a very busy man. Let us help! Up first, see below for a detailed look at the most obvious potential candidate. He’s someone you know pretty well. I understand he fished you out of a river on Joe’s ranch in Argentina. He likes lemons and long walks in the rain. He’s available, and pretty handsome too.
Remember, we’re just an email away if you’d like a consult. All we want is what’s best for the club, and maybe a free trip to London and some Skywalk tickets if you’d be so inclined. But no pressure.
Here to help,
Cartilage Free Captain
Name: Mauricio Pochettino
Team: Unattached (most recently PSG)
Cumulative ELO rating: 1834
Ligue 1 (PSG, 2021-22), Coupe de France (PSG, 2022), Audi Cup (Tottenham, 2019 — it counts, dammit)
Hello, old friend. Mauricio Pochettino is not a stranger to many Spurs fans, because he was Tottenham’s manager as recently as 3.5 years ago. We know the story and don’t need to spend too much time on the details, but for those who are new to Spurs fandom (welcome, sorry you joined when you did, that sucks for you): Pochettino, an Argentine international defender as a player, was appointed at Spurs from Southampton in 2014 after a period of success with the Saints and, prior, at Espanyol. Poch was fortunate in a lot of ways to join up during a time exemplified by the rise of Harry Kane and Dele Alli — he successfully bottled that lightning and led Spurs to their best and most successful period since the 1980s. While there were no (non-Audi) trophies to lift during his tenure, Spurs came very close to the league title in 2016 and 2017, and made the Champions League final in 2019.
But that emotional final took a toll on Pochettino. Spurs, distracted by the new stadium build, let the squad get stale, notably not making any player additions for a full calendar year in 2018. Results began to fall away in the 2019-20 season as Pochettino (and his players) got more and more burned out, and Pochettino was sacked in November of 2019. But remarkably, he maintains a healthy and friendly relationship with Levy, the man who fired him, and still loves and supports the club. He’s been linked with a return to Spurs ever since.
In Pochettino’s best season at Spurs — 2016-17 when they finished second with 86 points — Pochettino alternated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1, sometimes within the same game. Both formations relied on playing out of the back and a maniacal high and narrow press, with the fullbacks given license to push forward in attack. That said, midfield was a huge point of emphasis. Poch loved to play with one midfield destroyer (Victor Wanyama) able to sit deep and break up play and at times reinforcing the back line. In addition, an attacking midfielder (Christian Eriksen) could drop deeper to ensure the midfield wasn’t overrun, essentially morphing into a 4-3-3. Progression was done either via the wingbacks or centrally, but Poch’s best squads relied on the freakish ball handling and dribbling ability of Mousa Dembele to open up the field. If opponents keyed in on midfield, it left the fullbacks with lots of room to operate on the flanks. Meanwhile, Harry Kane could either hang around in the box or drop deeper to play in Son Heung-Min and Dele as needed. It was a fun, progressive, balanced, and at times devastating style of football that nevertheless relied on a few key players when Spurs were at their best.
Poch tried something similar at PSG, but the particularities of the (world-class) players at his disposal didn’t always mesh with his desired tactics. The biggest challenge was getting all of Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe into the same side — PSG looked great going forward, but Poch’s tactics relied on his forward line to press, and... well, none of them did. Or especially wanted to. Pochettino turned out to be a very good coach, winning the league and cup in 2022, but that success didn’t translate to the Champions League, and there were reports of outsized influence by the massive egos in that team. In the end he was just not the right fit for that PSG team at that time. I’d argue the responsibility for that lies more with PSG’s leadership than with Poch himself, but it’s worth noting that he underachieved when given everything a manager could want.
So we know Pochettino’s tactics work in the Premier League and at Spurs specifically. What remains to be seen is whether Pochettino can create a cromulent high pressing progressive side with a team purpose-built for Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, and how long it would take to do so. He certainly has the wingbacks and is comfortable playing in a back three, but as built now Spurs do not have the creative midfielders that Pochettino’s tactics demand.
We at Carty Free lovingly referred to Pochettino as a “cult leader” when he was at Spurs, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of mentality in an insular group like a football club. Poch is a real motivational manager, an arm-around-the-shoulder type that can command fierce loyalty from his players when things are going well. Upon his arrival, he promised want-away fullback Danny Rose that he’d make him an England international, and turned him for a while into the best left back in the Premier League. That’s just one example of the players he’s mentored and developed. His motivations are weird, but they’re effective... so long as everyone buys in.
Poch is also a somewhat flexible tactician, and his football embodies a high-pressing, possession-based style that was (mostly) fun to watch and adaptable. It’s certainly in line with Spurs’ “DNA.” Poch also doesn’t mind playing younger players, so long as they perform, and is les beholden to reputation. Critically — and this is pretty important considering the last three years — his vibes are off the charts good. He’s Tottenham’s football dad, and a lot of fans just want him to come home and give us all a big hug.
But Poch isn’t without his foibles. We complained a LOT about his poor use of substitutions while in charge, and as we saw the first time if his team doesn’t fully buy into what he’s selling it has the possibility to go very badly. Poch’s time at PSG puts that particular weakness in great focus — as much talent as that PSG squad had, Poch was never able to get the best out of that team of high profile mega-egos, probably in part because he couldn’t convince them to buy into his team-first mentality. It’s not the sole reason he didn’t last in Paris, but it’s a big part of it.
Pochettino is also weirdly particular when it comes to the players he wants to bring in. During the Fallow Year of 2018, part of Spurs’ inability to purchase any players was due to Poch reportedly not being satisfied with any of his options, and refusing to compromise. That, combined with his preference to not work with a director of football, means that he gets the final say, which at times led to he and Levy butting heads over incomings.
While Poch is not averse to playing young players, you could say that he did a bad job at developing them, especially players just outside or on the fringes of the first team. Pochettino notably preferred to keep young developing players in-house, training within his system at the training ground instead of sending them out on loan; players that did get loans were often cut or sold shortly afterwards. It’s a strange blind spot in his mindset, and one hopes he’d change that particular tendency, as there are plenty of very talented young players in the U21s that need playing time.
Poch won’t have too many egos like what he had in Paris if he comes back to Tottenham, and there’s been a lot written about how lessons were learned on both sides after his sacking. But the danger is that he could slip back into old patterns that led to his first sacking, should he return. And if it goes badly this time around, it may permanently sour his relationship with the club.
Likeliness of being hired
Depends on who you ask. Pochettino reportedly would crawl through broken glass (or walk on hot coals?) to come back to Spurs, but while some at the club would love to give him another go, he’s not a universal favorite and all accounts suggest Spurs will do their due diligence with a number of other managerial targets. He’s the bookies’ favorite for a reason, though.
Grade if Hired: B+
There’s a lot to be said for Spurs trying to roll back the clock. Spurs have tried two big-name “win-now” defensive first managers in Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho (along with the Nuno Interregnum) and all have essentially failed spectacularly. Poch is project manager, has a proven record of success at Spurs, and we know he’s a fan favorite who would be (mostly) welcomed back with open arms. The vibes have been so, SO bad at Spurs for years now, and there’s a feeling that fans would be okay with a hopefully temporary step backwards in exchange for not actively hating watching their team play football. Poch would also have the benefit of a Tottenham that’s in a much stronger financial position than when he left, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
However if he comes, this time around Poch won’t have a young, generational striker like Harry Kane to lean on, at least not for long, and the old saying “you can’t go home again” exists for a reason. As strong as the argument is for bringing Poch back, there’s an equally strong argument that it’d be better to cut the cord entirely and move on to to a new chapter. In addition, the Premier League landscape has changed since Pochettino left and there are more financially-doped teams to compete with. It might be a significantly bigger challenge for Pochettino to recreate his success on his second tour of North London, but at least the football — and the vibes — would be good.