During times of crisis — and I think it’s fair to call this a crisis now — the minds of football fans immediately drift towards firing the manager. It’s a neat little flow diagram for us to follow; everything packaged within a box. Poor run of league form? Yes. Proceed to next box. Embarrassing cup exit? Yes. Proceed to next box. Heaviest home defeat in 137 years? BIG OLD YES. Proceed to next box. Realistic chance of turn-around? And this is where we struggle; it’s rarely quite so clear cut.
Because, in Spurs’ case, there are both mitigating factors and reasons why things should start to improve. Mauricio Pochettino clearly identified some of his squad’s issues in the summer. He sold Kieran Trippier, who had had a poor season at right-back but still held value despite being about to turn 29. He tried to move on Danny Rose, whose declining form had been apparent for at least eighteen months. He tried to sell Victor Wanyama (a shadow of his former self) and Serge Aurier (the club’s most unreliable defender since Vlad Chiricheș).
Both moves fell through. He tried to allow Christian Eriksen to leave gracefully but the offers never came. He signed Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, two ideal reinforcements. He finally tied up the Ryan Sessegnon deal. He tried to bring in Paulo Dybala too.
Ultimately these ‘nearly’ ins and outs have left him with an unbalanced squad of unsettled players. We can blame Daniel Levy for some of this, and I think that is reasonable given what we know about his record in the transfer market. But Pochettino is the ‘Manager’ these days and not the ‘Head Coach’.
He requested that job title, he is a powerful member of the ‘transfer committee’, and, therefore, he has to take some ownership of the situation, particularly as the current state of play is the result of a number of years of poor squad-building rather than just one poor window.
And then there’s the injury record. Not just that Giovani Lo Celso was injured on international duty before he could even start a match. Not just the fact that Ryan Sessegnon’s ongoing hamstring injury has meant that he has not yet played a minute in a Spurs shirt. But the rotten luck with injuries in 2019 generally. Again, though, one could argue that Pochettino could be doing more here. We seem to suffer with a lot of similar injuries; is that through over-work and a lack of rotation? And perhaps Pochettino needs to take a leaf out of the Sir Alex Ferguson book and be a little more selective when sending players off on international duty.
It would be remiss not to recognise that there have been tactical question marks in 2019 as a whole. Pochettino has changed the way Spurs play to accommodate for the loss of Mousa Dembele, using Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko (and Christian Eriksen as a deeper, auxiliary midfielder) in a patched-up midfield that does not allow him to 1, press effectively and 2, exert anything like the same kind of control in matches that he had with the Dembele and one of Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama.
He could have signed a central midfielder in January but chose not to, reportedly personally turning down the option of signing Youri Tielemans. That he is still trotting out both Sissoko and Winks in midfield all these months later is, at best, unfortunate, and, at worse, largely due to his own poor decision-making. Once Lo Celso is fit, this should help, but we still have both Wanyama and Eric Dier within the squad and neither are fancied; there are issues there.
Then we look at right-back. Selling Trippier was the right thing to do, but Pochettino should also have moved on Serge Aurier and he should absolutely have brought in a top-class replacement (or even two if he did not trust Kyle Walker-Peters). Youcef Atal was the man oft linked, and he would have been ideal. Pochettino previously passed on Ricardo Pereira prior to his signing for Leicester. We cannot make this mistake again, and a new right-back is a key priority for January, whatever the cost.
The recent concern is that the squad seem to have stopped responding to Pochettino’s methods. Aside from a wonderful defensive performance against Southampton and the opening half an hour against Bayern, the team look disorganised, demotivated, and reliant on flashes of brilliance from the best players in the team.
That is clearly unsustainable.
So Daniel Levy is left with a decision to make. Does he hit the reset switch in the most extreme possible way and remove Pochettino and his team? Or does he give them an opportunity to hit the reset switch themselves?
The main reason for sacking Pochettino would be an acceptance that he can no longer motivate the team; to restart the cycle, to get a new voice in who can bring more from the squad. The big issue with that is that — as discussed — the squad is so imbalanced that it’s difficult to imagine another coach being able to squeeze more out of what’s there.
We have a lot of great attacking talent; there are very few teams in world football that would not want any of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Christian Eriksen or Dele. We have one of the most exciting young midfielders around in Tanguy Ndombele. We have one of the best centre-backs in Europe in Toby Alderweireld. But we are tremendously weak at full-back, our other midfield options are limited, and our ‘next in line’ players are largely a considerable drop-off from the front-line stars.
That’s not to say that another manager could not have motivated this same set of players to beat Colchester United or a poor Newcastle team or to not lose 7-2 (SEVEN-TWO!) to Bayern Munich. But the issues that have muddied the team’s focus cannot be fixed immediately. There is disharmony in the squad that cannot easily be rectified until January.
There are injuries which will heal when they heal.
The sensible option would seem to be to stick with Pochettino until January and allow him to correct some of his mistakes. Perhaps, as he did when he initially took charge, he needs to side-line the dissenting voices, whatever the material cost to the club. Perhaps he needs to look at his own use of language in press conferences and post-match; his communication has become grumpier, blame-ridden, negative. It’s easy to see how this in itself could influence squad harmony.
Perhaps he also needs a Director of Football to work with Levy — or should that be work *on* Levy?
Someone like that might make some of these mooted transfers actually happen next time.
Pochettino needs to change, but he has shown that he is able to learn and adapt in the past. He is a highly intelligent man, who has a great understanding of the needs of the modern player.
But right now he seems to have lost sight of the bigger picture — the squad as a whole — and is getting dragged down by squabbles, personalities and pettiness. We do need a change, but it needn’t be as extreme as a change in manager.