The night Tottenham introduced itself to Amsterdam
Considered as undeniably the most extraordinary competition in world football, the Champions League is known for producing eternal moments of magic and miracles. The 8th of May 2019 was no exception, when Pochettino’s resilient men produced one of the most spirited comebacks to leave the always vibrant city of Amsterdam in utter shock and despair.
3-0 up with 45 minutes left, one wouldn’t blame Ajax for preparing a Madrid trip to meet Liverpool in the final. As they finished their traditional half-time rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, Pochettino began masterminding a comeback that maybe not even his players believed was possible. In an interview, left-back Danny Rose gave an insight into how the Argentinian reminded his players to ‘believe in themselves and this moment’. He dictated everyone to pick themselves up and show character, something which had been lacking across the entire tie.
Often considered as a surplus to requirements, Mauricio turned to Fernando Llorente and threw his final round of dice. The Spaniard was brought on as a single point of target for long balls, so that he could hold up play, while others gathered in attacking positions. In hindsight, who knew, except maybe Pochettino himself, that this decision would help lead Spurs to the first European cup final in their history?
45 minutes later and deep into stoppage time, Lucas Moura completed his hat-trick and defied all odds to send Spurs and their supporters worldwide into jubilation. Miracles do happen, and as Pochettino gave one of the most emotional post-match interviews to BT Sport, the whole Tottenham fan base cried with him. “My players are heroes, you know” is what he said, while the Spurs fanbase echoed “He’s magic you know, he’s Mauricio Pochettino.”
“Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur” became the chant that echoed all around London. For a change, London wasn’t red or blue, but it had been whitewashed. As uncertain and practical as the game of football can be, who knew in that moment that the final would be the start of the end of Pochettino’s illustrious reign. The seemingly untouchable would be dethroned from an empire, which many suggest he had built himself from scratch.
Despite the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, Spurs and their manager had hit the pinnacle of a Champions League final appearance. Yet, something changed as the page turned ending the magical chapter of the Lilywhites Champions League campaign. The Spurs boss stated that he would have resigned had his team lifted the trophy, completing the core objective laid out across his 5-year project. The objective being the transition from a mid-table outfit to a European force to reckon with. In hindsight, with the turn of events that followed, maybe the Argentinian should have resigned irrespective of the result, with his status immortalised and never to be questioned.
The chairman’s ‘very honest’ statement
19 November 2019, a date which many Spurs fans will never be able to forget. In a statement released by the chairman on behalf of the board, Daniel Levy revealed that “Mauricio Pochettino had been relieved of his duties.” His statement followed with a brief but clear explanation of just why the board had decided to reach this decision.
Expressing how reluctant the board was to make this change, based on the many memorable moments and the fan following that Pochettino had established amongst the Tottenham faithful’s, chairman Levy firmly highlighted “that domestic results at the end of last season and during this season, had been extremely disappointing.”
Furthermore, making no attempt to disguise the ruthless decision behind the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino, the chairman stated that keeping the clubs bests interests as a priority, this was a sacking and in no ways a decision reached after mutual consent.
If not the sacking itself, the choicest of words used within the statement would have left the supporters heartbroken, with many echoing the same feeling that their godfather: witnessed at the stadium, through the swarm of Argentinian flags showcasing Pochettino in the centre as a godly figure with his arms raised, was deserving of lot more respect if not more time.
Why Pochettino got the sack – the numbers
Chairman Daniel Levy made it very clear that ‘domestically, Tottenham had been dreadful.’ Last season’s under achievements during the final part of the Premier League campaign were overlooked as Spurs still managed to qualify for next seasons Champions League. This was largely down to both nearest rivals, Manchester United and Arsenal, under-performing themselves, allowing Spurs to secure 4th spot.
Unfortunately, the new season didn’t bring any change in fortune. At the time of sacking, Spurs were placed in 14th place, 11 points behind fourth place Manchester City and six points above the relegation zone. Winning only three of their first 12 top-flight games, Tottenham had managed just 25 points across their last 24 games across the end of last season and the start of this season, leaving the Lilywhites in relegation-battling form across the last nine months.
It is these nine months that were highlighted by chairman Levy, while stating the lack of form being the reason behind the sack. During the 2019 calendar year, no Premier League side had lost more matches in all competitions than Pochettino’s side (18). Throughout the campaign, Spurs looked like a side short on inspiration, reflected through several performances but none greater than the 7-2 humiliating defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in front of 55,000 home supporters. The result going down in history as the first time Spurs conceded seven goals at home in their 137-year history.
The change in demeanour was clear to see in the way Pochettino addressed the media. The ever vibrant and charismatic Argentinian cut a very disheartened and distant figure at times. There were instances where he felt compelled to express concerns regarding his own players. “Different agendas” is how he described certain players while highlighting why Tottenham lost 2-1 to League two side Colchester United in the League Cup.
Reasons were outlined by the board, as to why Pochettino was sacked. It just goes to show, anything can happen in the practical world of the football business, where results are everything irrespective of the memories made. For all the countless memories and achievements, Pochettino cemented himself as a legend in the club’s history. In retrospect, everything now seems so distant and long gone with his sacking just seven months later from that famous night in Amsterdam.
The section of supporters that disagree: Pochettino deserved time
The decision of the sacking was greeted by shock by many outsiders, and an additional grief when it came to Spurs supporters. For a manager who had taken the club to within 90 mins of Europe’s most prized trophy and achieved top four finishes in four of his five seasons in charge, his overachievements deserved more time.
Numbers explain one side of the story and clearly, they weren’t in Pochettino’s favour. But what about the other side to the story, the cracks beneath the surface. Sir Alex Ferguson used to talk about “the four-year cycle” at Manchester United, mentioning it as the crucial time after which the club needs a fresh of breath air in terms idea implementations and new voices in the dressing room. How? By bringing in new players at the expense of those who needed moving on. What about Pochettino? What happened at the end of his four-year cycle?
Instead of freshness, Pochettino had his hands tied behind his back. On the backdrop of the club’s fancy new £1 bn stadium, the Argentinian was unable to work in the transfer market, leaving him with the same set of players. Having the same set of quality players would not have been an issue for Pochettino, had some of them been willing to sign new contracts.
With Danny Rose, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld voicing opinions that they wanted to move on and not extend their contracts, not getting sold in the summer cancelled all expectations. Pochettino was not going to be able to finance the restructuring of his squad.
With players having ambitions, which didn’t align 100% with Tottenham anymore, it was inevitable that there was going to be instability within the squad. Forced to play such players because of lack of depth in the squad, this was the exact reason behind Pochettino’s “players having different agendas” quote after the Colchester defeat.
To summarise, in the 2019-20 season, Pochettino performed as a stale manager in charge of a stale squad. The board didn’t invest in bringing in new players and instead built a new stadium, which they believed would be the best in the world and bring in far greater revenue. Arsenal expressed the same notion while moving to the Emirates but were never able to sustain the same levels of success as Highbury. They had to sell their best players in order to try and restructure the squad.
Silverware should have been the target for Spurs who unlike their North London rivals, haven’t won a single trophy in over a decade. They had the squad, built by a manager who had overseen the change in perception towards Tottenham with the attacking style of football he introduced. Instead, Mauricio Pochettino left the club with the feeling of what could have been expressed mutually amongst both fans and outsiders.
Past event but a present verdict
Dust had not even settled in on Pochettino’s sacking, when Daniel Levy announced Jose Mourinho as the new manager, all in a span of 24 hours. Despite debates as to whether the sacking should have happened, no one could argue why Mourinho was chosen. Having won a staggering number of trophies (25 across six clubs), something Spurs was not accustomed to, his success at delivering silverware was the reason behind his swift appointment.
His first words as Tottenham boss expressed ‘bringing back passion to the Lane, working in the world class facilities with his talented boys’ and even calling the new stadium, ‘the world’s best.’ He acknowledged the team’s position in the league but showcased a gush of confidence while claiming that they would be in a much better position come end of the season. The special one was back, with a point to prove after a slightly dismal tenure by his sky-high standards, at Manchester United.
Mourinho began well, picking up wins against West Ham, Bournemouth and Burnley. He rejuvenated the likes of Dele Alli, whom he didn’t recognise and claimed that ‘he was the brother of the talented young scarlet.’ He galvanised the squad, secured the services of Toby Alderweireld past this season and reduced dependency on Christian Eriksen, after being made clear that the Dane was going to move on in the winter transfer window. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, until the cracks began to re-emerge.
Long term injury to Harry Kane annihilated Mourinho’s bulletproof plan of a target man up front, holding the ball while others pushed forward. Further injuries to Son Heung-min and Moussa Sissoko left Mourinho depleted across both ends of the field, attack and defence. With a lack in squad depth, something existing from when his predecessor was in charge, Tottenham began playing like a wounded soldier, who had lost the ability to battle. This was exposed in no greater capacity, than the second leg at RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League – Round of 16. The runners-up of 2018 were smashed 4-0 on aggregate, with no recognised striker playing for Spurs.
As for the numbers, the defeat was the Portuguese’s heaviest ever Champions League aggregate defeat and the first six-game winless streak in his 935-game managerial career.
After 17 league games in charge, Mourinho holds a 44 per cent win ratio, making him rank below the likes of Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas Boas and of course, his predecessor. Although improvements in league position, Tottenham lie nine points behind fourth-place Chelsea (at the time of writing), and require another miracle to make it into next year’s Champions League. Manchester City’s potential two-year ban could act as the catalyst for that miracle, but Spurs would still require to extraordinarily win all their remaining games to have a chance.
With Mourinho expressing the likelihood of very little activity in the summer transfer window, the “four-year cycle” Sir Alex mentioned, could potentially stretch to six in the case of Tottenham Hotspur. The only hope of optimism lies in the fact that the unfortunate pandemic has helped strengthen the squad with players returning back to action after recovering from long term injuries.
Whether the special one can deliver, while having a financial straitjacket to deal with just like his predecessor, only time will tell. Loan deal for Gedson Fernandes and usage of Christian Eriksen money to bring in Steven Bergwijn have brought back a slight optimism to fans. Eventually, it will come down to whether Mourinho can be able to add his 26th trophy whilst at the Lane, the only outcome that will hold him in higher regard than his predecessor.
Sometimes, it is always great just to delve deep into the archives and look at the former glory days...