By Andrew Warshaw
November 20 – From Champions League final to the sack – in the space of five months.
In an extraordinary double move that sent shockwaves through the footballing world and could prove to be the biggest gamble in the club’s recent history, Tottenham Hotspur have sensationally dismissed fans’ favourite Mauricio Pochettino, the man who transformed their fortunes from also-rans to respected top-four Premier League regulars, and immediately handed his job to Jose Mourinho, one of the game’s canniest operators but whose last two stints in the Premier League ended prematurely amid acrimony and failure.
Within 12 whirlwind hours, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy announced the departure of the hugely admired Pochettino and the arrival as head coach of Mourinho, the trophy-winning but notoriously provocative Portuguese who Tottenham fans loved to hate, especially during his time at Chelsea, and whose sudden appointment was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment and incredulity.
Football, they say, is a results business and Tottenham’s poor start to the current league campaign – currently in 14th position – meant Spurs lost faith with Pochettino who, in one sense, was a victim of his own success as, against all odds, Tottenham reached the all-English Champions League final in June where they lost 2-0 to Liverpool.
“It is not a decision the board have taken lightly, nor in haste,’ explained Tottenham’s famously hardball chairman. “Regrettably domestic results at the end of last season and the beginning of this season have been extremely disappointing. It falls on the board to make the difficult decisions – this one made more so given the many memorable moments we have had with Mauricio and his coaching staff.”
That may be so but there is a far bigger picture that appears to have been conveniently ignored. Were it not for Pochettino, Spurs would more than likely be where they were before he arrived on the scene five years ago – mired in mediocrity.
The fact that the club had only twice, repeat twice, finished in the top four in 22 years before his arrival speaks volumes about the questionable way the club acted, seemingly at the first sign of indifferent form.
If the dismissal of ‘Poch’, as he is affectionately known throughout English football (except perhaps at Southampton), was controversial enough, the appointment within hours of Mourinho, out of work for the last 11 months, was something of a bombshell.
In his heyday, Mourinho, who famously described himself as the ‘Special One’ when he burst into English football, was the best in the business with a terrific track record and a string of titles and trophies to his name. Every leading ambitious club wanted him, but his recent record is that he was fired from his last two jobs – a second spell at Chelsea and then at Manchester United – with many observers of the view he is yesterday’s man, a busted flush, out of touch with modern coaching techniques but in touch with the media.
Spurs clearly think otherwise, appointing him presumably to achieve the one thing Pochettino failed to deliver: silverware.
“In Jose we have one of the most successful managers in football,” Levy said in a statement. “He has a wealth of experience, can inspire teams and is a great tactician. He has won honours at every club he has coached. We believe he will bring energy and belief to the dressing room.”
Much of that is true but there is no doubt Levy’s own reputation is now on the line. Mourinho will almost certainly improve Tottenham’s fortunes in the short-term but if but when he seeks financial backing to go the ultimate step further, how will he react if the answer is no? Would Spurs have been more pro-active opting for a younger, hungrier, less demanding and less combative manager who would bring a fresh approach?
It’s a massive risk, especially given the fact that Mourinho is primarily a pragmatic coach far removed from Tottenham’s reputation for entertainment and attacking football, though to be fair that has waned in recent months under Pochettino. Whether Mourinho can strike up a rapport with the fans and bring them success in what will be a seismic change must also be in doubt given the adoration they had for Pochettino during the job he did in highly challenging circumstances.
Although most of the reaction on social media was one of astonishment, some fans welcomed the move saying the outgoing Argentine and his entire backroom staff had reached their sell-by date. Every manager has his time and there is no doubt Pochettino, the finest Spurs have had for two generations, lost his way amid all manner of stories about dressing room bust-ups, rows with Levy and player power which increased with every passing week. It would appear that for whatever reason, the enthusiasm and humour was sucked out of him. You could see it and feel it in his touchline mood and press conferences.
But some facts speak for themselves. Four straight seasons in the Champions League despite a net spend of just £95 million on transfers, 17th among current Premier League teams. And for much of the time having to play at Wembley without a permanent home while the club built its new state-of-the-art stadium.
This will remain Pochettino’s main legacy and for this more than anything, many observers and pundits believe he should have been shown more loyalty. Unless, of course, there was an irreconcilable breakdown behind-the-scenes for which he was partially responsible. That we simply don’t know.
It’s not often Mourinho has such a tough act to follow. His contract runs until 2023 and he just might pull it off in what could be his last managerial throw of the dice. After all, this time he has something to prove. If he does, fair play to him, Levy and the Spurs board. But it’s a 50-50 call at best. Mourinho will doubtless say all the right things to start with but there is a strong probability it will end in tears.
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