Even as he dismissed Tim Sherwood—thanks for the efforts, Tim, but you really aren’t what we want—at the conclusion of the season, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy made it clear what he wanted from his next manager.
“We have a talented squad and exciting young players coming through,” Levy said in the announcement of Sherwood’s departure, following the usual conciliatory remarks about the departed manager's service to the club.
“We need to build on this season, develop our potential and inspire the kind of performances that we associate with our great Club."
Now, a matter of weeks later, Levy believes he finally has his man to achieve those aims, handing former Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino a five-year contract to finally bring attacking football, and regular top-four finishes, to White Hart Lane.
“In Mauricio I believe we have a head coach who, with his high energy, attacking football, will embrace the style of play we associate with our Club,” Levy said in Tuesday’s statement.
“He has a proven ability to develop each player as an individual, whilst building great team spirit and a winning mentality.”
This was the problem all last season for Spurs. After revamping their squad in the wake of Gareth Bale’s record-breaking departure (a departure that, following Real Madrid’s Champions League victory, will now see an extra windfall due to one of the clauses), the club clearly had a group of players with the requisite quality to do very well, but both Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood failed to get the most out of them.
The results were reasonable, if perhaps not quite up to scratch for a board that (justifiably, especially once it became clear Manchester United would struggle) felt Champions League qualification was realistic.
Villas-Boas paid the price for that, especially as his style of football erred more towards the pragmatic than the inventive (although, considering the summer churn to his squad, he could rightfully argue that a longer "bedding-in" period was needed).
Sherwood’s willingness to bring Emmanuel Adebayor back into the fold immediately improved the side in attack, but the Englishman’s own tactical inexperience was glaringly exposed whenever Spurs came up against a top side.
Now Pochettino steps in, tasked with molding a squad with potential into one that delivers exciting performances to White Hart Lane and acceptable results over the course of a Premier League campaign.
"There is an abundance of top-class talent at the club and I am looking forward to starting work with the squad,” Pochettino added, after describing the “honour” it was to take over such a club.
"We are determined to give the supporters the kind of attacking football and success that we are all looking to achieve."
As part of that longer-term vision, Pochettino has a five-year deal. It’s intent is obvious—to demonstrate publicly the backing the board has for their new man—but while there are no doubt break clauses inserted somewhere, it seems an unnecessary over-commitment for a board that has shown itself to be trigger-happy over the years.
Pochettino would certainly be bucking the trend if he saw out those five years, let alone earned himself an extension.
The last Spurs boss to spend at least five years at the club was Keith Burkinshaw, who left after eight years’ service in 1984. Since then they have been through 17 managers (two of those, Doug Livermore and Ray Clemence, serving as a partnership)—and that does not even include the eight occasions when they asked a caretaker (or pair of them) to step in on a temporary basis.
Since Levy took over as chairman in February 2001, he has dismissed eight different managers, with Pochettino becoming his eighth permanent appointment (if you count Sherwood as such).
The club is crying out for longevity, a manager who will spend five years at the club and deliberately and assuredly lead them to where they want to be. Two questions remain: Is Pochettino that man, and will the board even let him be?
The price for failure at White Hart Lane is swift, after all.
"The expectation at this club is far greater than they have at Southampton,” as Sherwood warned Pochettino back in January.
Pochettino, it is worth noting, is just over five years into his managerial career, having spent nearly four years at Espanyol and 18 months at Southampton. In that time he has demonstrated the characteristics that have so attracted Tottenham: strong leadership, a willingness to blood young talent, attacking principles, the implementation of a pressing game and, most importantly of all, a tangible record of results.
"Pochettino had great charisma in the dressing room," Paco Flores, coach of Pochettino and Espanyol in 2000, told Sid Lowe of the Guardian in 2013. "He never, ever accepted defeat and there was a huge amount of respect for him.”
As Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse said to the Guardian's Paul Doyle this season: “The manager's quite keen that when you get in the final third you should cause a bit of havoc.
"He's given us a belief that no matter who the team is in front of us, whether it's Manchester City or a lower-league team, we can go out and beat them."
It’s worth remembering that Pochettino’s appointment at Southampton back in 2013 was not well-received. His predecessor, Nigel Adkins, had been sacked despite keeping the side just above the relegation zone after leading them to promotion from the Championship.
Many thought it a harsh decision.
“It seems to be the way the club's being run under the chairman [Nicola Cortese],” Matt Le Tissier, the Saints icon, remarked to Sky Sports. “Nothing's surprising and it's a bit of a laughing stock."
Southampton are far from laughing stocks now, although it remains to be seen how closely their fortunes end up being tied to those of Pochettino. It is hard to escape the sense that the former Argentina international feels the best has already come; that he is cashing in his chips while the going is good.
Many of Southampton’s best players—Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren—may well leave this summer, while Pochettino’s closest ally at the club, Cortese, left suddenly in the middle of last season.
Pochettino considered following Cortese out the door at the time, such was his relationship with the Italian, but ultimately committed to at least seeing out the season. Now, however, with a record eighth-place finish burnishing his CV, he has landed one of the plum jobs on the market.
Whoever replaces him at St Mary’s may be fighting an uphill battle—if Shaw and Lallana depart, finishing as high as eighth again will be a seriously impressive effort.
If Pochettino is being slightly opportunistic in the timing of his new job, then doubts also must remain about his longevity—the exact quality Tottenham perhaps most require.
At Espanyol he was sacked early in the 2009-10 season, as results finally cratered at the Barcelona club. He also left amid suggestions that his methods had grown stale, that the players were no longer responding to him in the same way.
“The first season was fine: he'd been a player and he understood, he connected with us well. But then things changed,” Moises Hurtado, who played with and then under Pochettino, told Lowe. “He seemed to see conspiracy where there was none and some good people had to leave out the back door, and not just players.
“He wanted everyone to dance to his tune, people entirely committed to him. The atmosphere ended up not being so good.”
At Southampton there have only been hints to that effect, although good results tend to gloss over most squabbles. Pochettino has acknowledged that his relationships with owner Katharina Liebherr and new chairman Ralph Krueger were not as close as with Cortese (not that such an acknowledgement means things were necessarily poor), while the departure of academy coaches Jason Dodd and Paul Williams earlier this month caught many by surprise, and led to suggestions of power struggles.
Pochettino may well have had nothing to do with those decisions, but it nevertheless speaks to a behind-the-scenes atmosphere at the club that is unsettled, still adjusting to the reshuffle that occurred in mid-season.
In that light, it is little surprise he took Spurs up on their offer—it has long been one of the most exciting jobs in the country, with huge potential for improvement and growth. Unfortunately, bar the odd season of enlightenment, no manager has been able to find the right recipe.
Maybe Pochettino will do that, but he still has much to prove. His “trick” of taking all press conferences in Spanish—claiming his English is not good enough for him to give the precise quotes he wants—will surely not wash forever, while he will now have to work with a squad of more established players, with the different pressures and requirements that entails.
The jump from a club that aspires, at a minimum level, simply to stay in the top flight (as Espanyol and Southampton did) to one that wants European football is a significant one. Some managers make the jump with ease, but a lot do not.
Then again, it is hardly a chance he could turn down. With one of the best training complexes in the world, a great infrastructure and money to spend in the market, the possibility is there to achieve great things. There is little point in going into management if you are not going to back yourself to make all that happen when the opportunity arises.
Tottenham have had a lot of saviours over the years, and all ultimately failed to deliver what was asked of them. There is nothing obvious to suggest that Pochettino will succeed where managers of similar or superior track records failed.
Levy, however, is (yet again) confident he has made the right appointment. At some point, he surely has to be proven correct, and Pochettino goes with glowing recommendations from many who have worked with him.
If what Spurs really need is a leader, a motivator, someone to round up egos and get everyone pulling (or pressing) in the same direction, then Pochettino might be the man.
But if the club’s issues go deeper than that he might be doomed to failure—after however many seasons he might be given—just like his predecessors.