Commentary: Why did Spurs sack Mauricio Pochettino?
Besides poor results and player unrest, the Argentine may have been a victim of his own success.
SINGAPORE: The sacking of coach Mauricio Pochettino by Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday (Nov 20) caused a stir of disbelief and shock in the football world.
EARNED HIS SPURS
After all, the Argentine had led Spurs to one of its most successful periods in the club’s modern history.
The north London club has seen a top-four finish in four of the last five English Premier League (EPL) seasons ensuring they qualified for the prestigious and lucrative Champions League. In June, he even led Spurs to the Champions League final, the club’s first ever, only to lose to Liverpool.
In his five years at the club, Pochettino managed the team for 293 games, out of which Spurs won 159, a win rate of 53.3 per cent. Only three other managers in the club’s history had a better record.
Such was Pochettino’s impact on the club that he transformed them into serious title challengers.
When he took over in 2014, Spurs had finished sixth in the season that had just ended under Tim Sherwood and perennially languished in the top 10.
But by 2017, Spurs had propelled to a second-place finish in the league.
SENSE OF SHOCK
That a manager who had brought the club to such heights would have to depart in such an unceremonious manner drew shock and ire from the football world.
Tottenham and England legend Gary Lineker tweeted a few hours after the news broke: “He helped the club to punch massively above their weight for years. Good luck with finding a better replacement … ain’t gonna happen.”
Jermaine Jenas, who played for Spurs until the year before Pochettino joined the club, added: “Shoulda backed him not sacked him! Gutted for Mauricio.”
Even the club’s supporters expressed disbelief and dismay. In a statement issued soon after the sacking, the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust said that it was “shocked and saddened” to hear the news and that it questioned the timing of the decision.
POOR RUN OF FORM
If Señor Pochettino was a darling of many who were associated with the club, why then did Spurs say ciao to him?
The most obvious reason would be results on the pitch. Despite their fine Champions League run last season, domestically, Spurs saw a series of poor results in the last third of the season.
In the last 12 games in the EPL, the team only managed three wins, plunging them from second to fourth place on the table.
That poor form has spilled over to this season. Spurs have only won slightly more than a quarter of all their games this season – it has been 10 months and 12 games since Spurs have won an away game in the league - to make it a year to forget for Pochettino.
In 2019, Spurs have suffered 18 defeats in all competitions – the most of any Premier League club and its worse run since losing 19 games in 2008.
Embarrassingly, this run of defeats also included a 7-2 thumping at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League in October.
If critics are to be believed, then the Spurs’ on-field slide appear to have been catalysed by Pochettino’s management style and techniques.
The former Espanyol and Southampton manager belonged to an old-school management style of sticking to familiar players and formations. As a player himself, Pochettino was heavily influenced by the managerial style of his boss at Argentinian club Newell’s Old Boys, the former Argentinian national team manager Marcelo Bielsa.
Despite having no lack of attacking talent at his disposal, Pochettino loved a 4-2-3-1 formation, similar to Bielsa, often favouring England’s Harry Kane as his lone striker upfront, preferring his side to build from the back.
But his over-reliance on Kane proved to be his Achilles heel. In the Champions League final, for instance, he selected Kane, who had barely recovered from a long injury spell, over Brazilian Lucas Moura, whose hat-trick in the heroic semi-final win over Ajax Amsterdam brought them to the final in the first place. Many analysts believe that this move cost Spurs the game.
Pochettino’s reluctance to tinker formations and rotate players physically exhausted his starting eleven. It also meant that playing against Spurs became all too familiar, which their opponents used to full advantage.
Conceding five goals in the second half against Bayern showed how fatigue has led to lapses of concentration within the players.
The man’s stubbornness also cost him his relationship with the players.
Pochettino has been credited with bringing to the fore new talent, such as South Korean Son Heung-Min, and unearthing a new generation of young players such as Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Harry Winks, who have gone on to become the nucleus of England’s national team.
But of late, players have started to show signs of disenchantment. Reportedly, Pochettino’s reluctance to discuss game decisions and tactics with his players isolated them.
Several, such as English full-back Danny Rose, have issued warnings that they want to get out. Others, like Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen, who unsuccessfully courted Real Madrid in the summer, begrudgingly stay on despite being benched more often than not in favour of Alli.
These elements have caused disharmony in the Tottenham dressing room.
VICTIM OF OWN SUCCESS
The final nail in the coffin for Pochettino’s Tottenham career is one that he has to take full responsibility for.
It is no secret that the manager never got the financial support of Spurs chairman Daniel Levy when it came to signing new players.
Pochettino’s net transfer spend of £95 million (US$122.8 million) at the club, 17th highest among current EPL teams, helped Tottenham earn a world record profit of £112.9 million for the 2017 to 2018 season and helped Levy remain the highest-paid club executive in the EPL. The profits also helped Spurs move to a new swanky stadium.
That Pochettino managed what he did with Spurs despite not spending a penny in the last three transfer windows is remarkable.
But it is also this achievement that proved his undoing. After a successful spell, he had created expectations that he could do more with less – a phenomenon that he could not sustain and a myth bound to be debunked eventually.
READY TO LEAVE
Perhaps it is little surprise then that Pochettino himself saw his end at Spurs coming. Just before the Champions League final in June he said that he would leave if the club lifted the trophy – a point he reiterated before this season started.
Famously, Manchester United was rumoured to be wooing the Argentine to Old Trafford over the past year.
He has been also linked with Real Madrid and Juventus.
Perhaps a severance package of up to £12.5 million, 18 months after signing a new lucrative five-year contract, is not all bad news in the Pochettino household, especially since he apparently has no lack of suitors.
The Special One
Whatever is in store for Pochettino next, Spurs have gone ahead and sealed their fate as they announced on Wednesday that former Manchester United and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho will take over as manager.
Spurs fans will be hoping that the “Special One”, widely regarded as one of the most successful managers in the world, cand help restore some dignity to the club in helping it climb the league from its current 14th spot. His defensive-minded game could help the club grind out results.
Another question on the minds of those involved at Tottenham would be how the high-spending Mourinho will square-off against the thrifty Levy.
As importantly, will the Tottenham players, who were growing tired of Pochettino’s non-consultative style, respond well to the authoritative Mourinho?
The answers to these questions could significantly impact the club’s fortunes and determine if it can match or exceed the era created under Pochettino.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.