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Pochettino Needed a Trophy for Spurs this Year as Top-Four Battle Gets Tighter

Pochettino Needed a Trophy for Spurs this Year as Top-Four Battle Gets Tighter

Saturday, 2 February, 2019 - 09:15
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. (Getty Images)
London - Paul Wilson
Perhaps the kindest thing to say about Mauricio Pochettino’s honesty in excusing Tottenham’s removal from two cups in four days is that he cannot be accused of self-interest or personal promotion.

If it is true, and it seems widely accepted, that the Spurs manager’s name is on some very short lists for consideration at some of the most select clubs around Europe, there will be people at those clubs pointing out that for all his personable promise Pochettino has won precisely nothing yet, and furthermore his team have regained a reputation for choking when the important tests come along.

Pochettino could have done with some silverware this season just to shut off that background noise. He may well be right in that putting Brasso on the shopping list for the first time in 11 years is not as solid a sign of progress as maintaining Champions League status for the foreseeable future, but supporters tend to take a different view. When Pochettino said cups were only good for egos, presumably he meant the egos of the manager and his players. A top-four club with only a League Cup to its name in the 19 years of the present millennium probably ought to be taking the egos of its paying customers into account.

The general feeling in football is that success of any kind makes everyone at the club feel a little better about themselves. Times might have changed since Sir Alex Ferguson saved himself from an ignominious end to his Old Trafford career by winning the FA Cup in 1990 – that was pre-Champions League and priorities have unquestionably shifted in the last couple of decades – but what a manager usually strives to do is foster a winning mentality within the dressing room.

For a club such as Spurs, still trying to shake off the charge of mental flimsiness that Ferguson himself helped bring to everyone’s attention, a tangible reward becomes even more critical. Prizes such as the Carabao Cup and these days even the FA Cup may be relatively small beer for a club that will be fighting it out with the best in Europe next month, but elite clubs ought to have the squad depth to at least give the impression they are interested in extending their honors list. If you would like winning to become a habit then it has to start somewhere, and realistically Spurs are unlikely to go from zero to a Premier League or Champions League crown any time soon.

Pochettino must know that, though merely to accuse him of sour grapes, an unromantic attitude or a slavish devotion to the financial necessity of remaining in the Champions League elite is to ignore the fact that he found himself in a difficult situation. He has an injury crisis, for a start, highlighting the fact his squad is on the small side, the whole Wembley arrangement has gone on far longer than anyone anticipated, and before the cup exits Spurs were beaten at home by Manchester United. A week ago everyone was being beaten by Manchester United, they were the form team in Europe and the possibility still exists that Ole Gunnar Solksjær will lead his club back into the top four by the end of the season. No one was expecting that.

At the midway point of the season in early January, Spurs were second in the table and United 13 points behind. United have cut that gap impressively. Suddenly retaining Champions League status is no longer just about staying close to Liverpool and Manchester City and doing enough to frustrate Arsenal or Chelsea. If United are back in the mix then two big names are going to miss out, and one can fully understand Pochettino, just like Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri, doing everything possible to try to make sure they end up on the right side of the cut.

Arsenal and Chelsea missed out on the Champions League last season, and Emery and Sarri were both hired with the brief to return their clubs to the top four. Pochettino is not as new, but his priorities are exactly the same, and events since the turn of the year have demonstrated that Spurs cannot take a top-four finish for granted. Hence the casual attitude to competitions seen as distractions. That is modern football, and Pochettino seems comfortable with it, even to the extent of joking that Spurs’ glory, glory period was so long ago that the pictures are all in black and white. That is true, if a little near the knuckle, because what it means is that a couple of generations of supporters have grown up in the meantime wondering when it might be their turn for league success. Only cups of various shapes and sizes have sustained Spurs since 1961 and, in the 58 years that followed the double, 13 different teams have claimed the title, including Leicester, Blackburn and Nottingham Forest.

All things considered, Pochettino is perfectly within his rights to view the cups as disposable – no one is giving Emery or Jürgen Klopp too much grief about it after all. The difference is that Arsenal have won titles in recent memory, while Klopp is presently looking a reasonable bet to end Liverpool’s long Premier League wait. For most teams the difficulty with distancing yourself from the domestic cups is that the season then becomes a plateau, and before you know it several seasons have done the same thing.

History may come to view Pochettino’s entire time at Spurs as just that. The sunlit uplands, undoubtedly, but still a fairly featureless plateau. Of course it is an achievement to reach the Champions League every year – as Arsène Wenger used to point out it makes money and helps the club grow – but it is not like winning a trophy. No one takes pictures of a top-four finish, not even in black and white.

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