The pull of Mauricio Pochettino is stronger than ever for Spurs
There were empty seats in the directors’ box and chants calling for the chairman to go. Admittedly, it is the Everton board who have to stay away from Goodison Park while it was the Tottenham Hotspur supporters chorusing “we want Levy out” and “Daniel Levy, get out of our club”. Discontent with the powerbrokers is not confined to either of these clubs.
And if Levy may be entitled to point out that Everton, with their heavy spending in the Farhad Moshiri era, would scarcely complain if they were fourth now, that would not quell the dissent. But the most pertinent part of the songbook may have been an old favourite: “He’s magic, you know, Mauricio Pochettino.” Tellingly, it was aired several times.
The Argentinian may have an innate advantage in a popularity contest: the Spurs supporters do not have prepared and rehearsed chants for Julian Nagelsmann or Luis Enrique, Roberto De Zerbi or Ruben Amorim. It may seem odd to serenade men more associated with other clubs, such as Vincent Kompany, another possible candidate to replace Antonio Conte. And, in a different way, it might feel incongruous to laud Cristian Stellini, a caretaker and a man innately associated with Conte, who had criticised virtually every element of Tottenham, from players to supporters. On their previous trip to Goodison Park, for their previous manager’s Premier League bow, the Spurs fans sang “Antonio”. On a return, they reached back into their past.
But Pochettino represents much of what they crave. His Tottenham blazed a trail to win 6-2 at Goodison Park; Stellini’s drew 1-1 despite having a one-goal lead and, for half an hour, a one-man advantage. And if that is a selective interpretation of the past, as the Argentine’s Spurs also had three 1-1 draws on this side of Stanley Park, nostalgia can kick in. Pochettino’s Tottenham brought the promise of excitement. The Conte / Stellini team have become increasingly prosaic, their pragmatism looking unpragmatic amid some indifferent results. They are fourth largely due to Harry Kane: since the start of November, they have only taken points in one game when he did not score. And if Pochettino’s Spurs were infamously branded “the Harry Kane team” by Pep Guardiola, it is truer now than it ever was. If Tottenham get into the Champions League, it may be down to a player more than a plan.
Where Conte had a strategy, he left a straitjacket: Spurs seemed flat in his 3-4-3 formation in his final games. They did again in the first match after his departure. The football in the Pochettino era was often enterprising and entertaining, more fluent and free-flowing. A shortcoming of Conte’s system is a shortage of players in the centre of midfield and, whatever the shape, Pochettino was rarely outnumbered there, lending Spurs more control and a more proactive, progressive feel. Tottenham may be in the hunt for a second successive top-four finish but the last three-and-a-half years feel like a failure to build on his achievements.
There was a sad postscript to the Pochettino era. Everton are now the parent club of one of his success stories: Dele Alli is now loaned out to Besiktas and out of their squad. He was the seeming £100m player Spurs ended up giving away. Four years ago, Alli got two assists in Pochettino’s greatest night at Tottenham. Both were for the same player. Four years after his Champions League semi-final hat-trick against Ajax, Lucas Moura has not scored this season. He came off the bench on Merseyside and was sent off six minutes later for a desperate lunge. The man who sparked celebrations that made Pochettino cry in Amsterdam exited Goodison with his shirt pulled over his head in disappointment. He is leaving in the summer, his Spurs career ending in anti-climax.
It will be another reminder that the glory days under Pochettino are increasingly distant. Only Hugo Lloris and Son Heung-Min started both the Ajax game and Stellini’s draw on Merseyside. Yet with Tottenham’s 2023 short of highlights, with a team lacking the inspiration, energy and creativity Pochettino’s both sides possessed, it is tempting to hark back to the past.
Pochettino has a symbolic value. The reality may be different; returns are usually less successful and his final few months were fraught. He would have to confront the question of how to work with Levy again. He would inherit a squad that has been ‘Contefied’ and a host of signings who bear the look of misfits. Bringing back Pochettino is no guarantee it would restore the Tottenham their supporters loved. But, with magic in short supply in the modern-day Spurs, it is easy to see why the idea of Pochettino is so seductive.