To understand how it has come to this for Mauricio Pochettino, why his Tottenham team have flatlined in the Premier League and why he has now been sacked as the manager, it is necessary to consider a concept that he holds dear. It involves the natural cycle of an elite player’s development.
When the player is young, he is grateful for opportunity and he seizes it with everything he has. He becomes a regular, a star, a full international. He wants more money. Then, in many cases, he wants an opportunity at another club, a bigger club, perhaps. He thinks he deserves even more money.
At this point it is decision time and – for Pochettino – it often makes sense to sell that player, ideally at a profit, and either reinvest the proceeds on a player at a higher starting level or create new pathways for others, possibly from the academy.
There is no recrimination towards the want-away player, merely realism. This is how football’s ecosystem works, certainly at a club like Spurs. It should be noted, too, that rather like the parenting of children, the management of players must evolve at each new stage.
The problem comes when the order of things is stunted and this is what has happened for various reasons at Spurs over the past 18 months. The club have been unable to move on players that either want to leave or have become surplus to requirements and the result has been stalemates. The players have sat on their contracts, running them down, heightening tensions.
Remember the criticism that Arsenal received a couple of seasons ago when some of their key players were stalling on re-signing with the club? The situation is just as bad now at Spurs, with Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen approaching the final six months on their deals. Danny Rose, who is out of contract in the summer of 2021, has said he will not sign a new one.
For Pochettino the frustrations boiled over this summer, leading to his departure on Tuesday night. At the end of the 2017-18 season he had called for decisive action in the club’s transfer business only for nothing to happen. And when he returned this July, after spending time at his home in Barcelona after the Champions League final defeat against Liverpool, he was furious to see that outgoing business was once again slow.
Spurs would sell Kieran Trippier to Atlético Madrid for a cut-price £20m in an attempt to get things moving while they added three young players – Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon.
The renewal was not what Pochettino had in mind and this season he was left to use essentially the same names – though in some cases they were different people – with a little less zest for the project. It follows that they were more difficult to manage; the dynamics of the squad heavier, more testing.
Pochettino’s summer was pockmarked by conflict with the chairman, Daniel Levy, which was fired by his decision to go straight from the Champions League final in Madrid to Barcelona and let it be known that, if Levy wanted him, he could come to see him there.
Pochettino was devastated by the defeat to Liverpool and there are those at Spurs who think that his “head went” after it. In terms of the summer he made it clear to Levy it was over to him to reshape the squad and define the next chapter. It was a fraught period, with Levy the immovable object to Pochettino’s irresistible force. The relationship between the pair seemed to have returned to a more stable footing since the closure of the European transfer window at the start of September, with them sharing a private jet to Milan for the Fifa Best Awards later that month. Also on board were Pochettino’s wife, Karina, his assistant manager, Jesús Pérez, and the club’s chief scout, Steve Hitchen.
But the question came to be asked with increasing desperation: could Pochettino drag himself and the club out of the quicksand? The hierarchy’s view was something had to give and that was Pochettino’s job because results in the league could not continue like this. They have taken 14 points from 12 matches this season and, in a larger sample size back to February, 25 from 24 games – in other words, relegation form. Performances have been flat and fragile.
What was known was that Pochettino would not walk away. He has had the opportunities in better times to think about offers from rival clubs after they put out feelers for him but he remained loyal. He was never going to fall on his sword.
It is worth considering that the Spurs fans never turned on him and Levy made it clear in his statement that it was a hugely difficult decision to sack him, mainly because of the good times they had enjoyed together.
But in his heart Pochettino knew that he was not immune to the realities of football. He had described himself as being in the throes of a rebuilding job but, with everything seemingly jammed, he had said recently that “we will see if we have the time to build what we want”.
There was the sense at Spurs that everybody was praying for an upturn, beginning at West Ham on Saturday, which might have allowed them to battle on until the summer when a full reboot could take place, possibly under Pochettino. He and his friends at the club have been unceremoniously disabused of that notion.