Is Mauricio Pochettino Tottenham’s Miracle-Worker?

Prior to Tottenham’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City, the Sky Sports Monday Night Football team discussed the manager’s achievements since arriving at the club. During his time, he has not delivered a trophy, but the conclusion was resounding: Pochettino is working miracles. This sounds like an outlandish claim at first, but the underlying facts and figures tell a story that is hard to ignore.

Monday’s game took place at Wembley. This should not have been the case as the clash with Liverpool in mid-September had been pencilled in as Tottenham’s opening game in their new ground, but continued delays mean that the national stadium will continue to play host to Spurs until the New Year. This is all the more embarrassing in light of the club’s advertising campaign, branding their new stadium as ‘the only place to watch the Champions League in London’.

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Having picked up just one point from their opening three group matches, Tottenham will, in all probability, be out of Europe’s elite competition by the time they move into their new home. This Champions League form does not sound like that of an overperforming manager, and yet prior to the City game Spurs were enjoying their best ever start to a league season. Not only that, they were far from outclassed by the league champions. They went behind early but stayed in the contest in a way that few teams manage against Pep’s juggernaut of a side, and in truth were only denied a draw by a poor miss from Erik Lamela. Pochettino’s men perhaps did not quite go toe-to-toe with City, but they were not far off.

Of course, no self-respecting fan of any club would claim ‘not being outclassed by City’ as an achievement in its own right. Ultimately, Spurs lost, just as they had lost in Europe to Barcelona and Inter Milan. However, it is a minor miracle that Tottenham made it to the Champions League in the first place. The issues with the stadium run far deeper than the inconvenience of having to play at a ground that many regard as little more than a neutral venue. The financial side of the move has severely hindered Pochettino’s scope to manoeuvre in the transfer market. Spurs fans need only look to their North London rivals to see the lasting monetary effects building a new stadium can have – much as it may well be a good investment for the future, in the here and now it produces debts that simply preclude major investment in players.

Tottenham disclosed their own net debt as £366 million, a scary figure in itself, but The Independent has reported that this is set to rise to in excess of £600 million as a result of the delays to the stadium. Manchester United provide a model of sorts for success in the face of incomprehensible debt, but it is naïve to think that Spurs will pursue a similar approach. Even before the idea of a new stadium had been conceived, Daniel Levy was notoriously reluctant to spend huge sums on players. As Gary Neville pointed out on MNF, it is a quality that in many respects makes him one of the best in the business. However, it also suggests that the purse-strings will be pretty tight as long as significant outstanding repayments remain – operating under these circumstances, it takes an elite manager simply to remain competitive.

The financial constraints can be illustrated by reference to the remarkable expenditure figures. Since the Argentine coach took over in May 2014, the club have spent £254 million, £132 million pounds less than the next-lowest-spending team in the big six. That team? Arsenal, who were significantly hampered by repayments on their own new stadium during that timeframe. The gap from Spurs to the fourth-highest spenders, Liverpool, is a remarkable £371 million. In a period of just over four years this is an astonishing disparity in investment between two teams who are often perceived as having similar ambitions. There is a further leap of a cool £173 million to Manchester City. It is hard to overstate the difference in these figures – simply put, Spurs have little right to be competing with the others at all. Pochettino made much the same point after the 1-0 defeat, essentially highlighting the fact that he is held to unrealistic standards.

It might be protested that expenditure has been lower because Tottenham, unlike some of their rivals, have succeeded in holding on to their best players and have therefore not needed to reinvest so heavily. This has some surface plausibility given the continued presence of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen, but the net spend figures wholly undermine such an argument. Again, Tottenham lag behind the rest of the big six in a huge way. Pochettino has been able to spend just £29 million more than he has generated in transfer fees over the course of the nine transfer windows he has overseen. That’s the equivalent of selling nobody, buying Roberto Soldado, and calling it a day.

Financial sustainability is clearly an asset, but the best way to secure this is to ensure the team is consistently in and around the very top; the reluctance by the board to make any significant investment whatsoever in four-and-a-half-years could easily have left Tottenham entirely out of touch with the rest of the top six. Over the same period, only Liverpool and Arsenal were within £200 million of Spurs’ net spend.

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Despite all of this, Tottenham have missed out on the top four just once since the arrival of Pochettino. Each of the finishes in this time bettered those of Liverpool, and in 2016/17 the manager guided Spurs to a second-place finish behind Chelsea. They currently sit just a point outside the top four, and in any other season would surely have a sufficient tally to be inside that elite group. In addition to that, they are playing nice football, something that cannot be underestimated. It has been the case for most of the Pochettino reign. This is no small feat given that he has not really been given the resources to truly shape the squad in his image.

Instead, he has squeezed every last drop of talent out of each of his players. Against City, the standout performer was Moussa Sissoko. Despite being one of the few relatively expensive signings in recent times, he is patently not one of the most technically gifted players on the books at Tottenham, but the strengths which he does possess are brought out by Pochettino.

At the risk of sounding heretical, the same is even true to a lesser extent of Harry Kane. Under Pochettino’s tutelage it might be said that he has developed into the best average player in the world. In other words, his manager has him utilising the skills which he does possess to devastating effect. He has not tried to make Kane into something which he is not, and the rewards have been reaped through the Englishman’s remarkable scoring record in the past few seasons. Perhaps this doesn’t make Pochettino a miracle-worker, but it is hard to deny that his ability to get the best out of what he has is a significant reason why Spurs have not suffered a huge drop-off as a result of investment at other clubs soaring well beyond their levels.

The big question for Tottenham is whether they can hang on to him. His recent comments suggest the stadium saga and lack of backing are finally wearing him down evidenced by his claims in the build-up to the City game that this was the “worst feeling” he has had at the club. There comes a point where even a man-manager has to concede that he simply needs new men to work with – Jurgen Klopp is of a similar mould, and when he decided he could get no more from what he had, the board backed him in moves for Alisson, van Dijk and Keita amongst others.

Pochettino, meanwhile, was unable to make any signings whatsoever in the summer and in the course of the last two windows has only brought in one player. The contrast is marked, and Tottenham’s torrid time in the Champions League is something of a warning. The current crop is not at a level to compete with the very best in Europe. Every squad has a ceiling, and even the best manager in the world cannot raise it without getting new personnel – this is the point that Pochettino has reached, and he can hardly be blamed if he is frustrated. The calm that descended on Real Madrid during Zidane’s tenure has been replaced by the more familiar swirl of chaos and uncertainty, and unless there is change at Tottenham then it may just suck Pochettino down the same road as Bale and Modric before too long.

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