Don't do it, Poch! A Spurs comeback could end in tears
Never go back. That is what they say in football. Mauricio Pochettino would be wise to remember that if he is tempted to return to Tottenham Hotspur. Don’t do it, Poch. All parties need to move on. Comebacks are usually more romantic than logical.
Pochettino may see Spurs as the best chance to return to the Premier League. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy could curry favour with the supporters by re-appointing a popular ex-manager. They must know how rarely old magic is recreated in football.
There are recent examples where reunions have worked. Look at Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, a Champions League winner again. Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea and won the Premier League, although it was a short-lived return. But Real Madrid and Chelsea are clubs built to win. Whoever is the coach in Madrid has a great chance to be instantly successful, and Chelsea won or competed for trophies every year in the Roman Abramovich era.
So Ancelotti and Mourinho are exceptions in replicating previous triumphs. As a young Everton supporter I remember Howard Kendall returning to Goodison Park in 1990. It was never the same. I see Massimiliano Allegri at Juventus struggling in his second stint in Turin.
Louis van Gaal failed after returning to Barcelona, and even one of the all-time greats, Arrigo Sacchi, will not dwell on his unhappy AC Milan comeback.
Pochettino returning to Spurs would be like Kevin Keegan going back to Newcastle United. Like Keegan’s Newcastle in the mid-Nineties, Pochettino’s Tottenham charmed neutrals without winning trophies. Keegan’s re-appointment in 2008 was greeted like the second coming, but he walked into different conditions and was gone eight months later.
Levy made a misguided and expensive decision sacking Pochettino. I described it as ‘out of order’ at the time.
Conte will surely leave Spurs and so might Harry Kane
I loved watching Pochettino’s first Tottenham side, and have always admired him. The manager deserved more help when he was one or two elite players short of winning the biggest titles between 2016–2019. Spurs didn’t make a signing in the two of the three transfer windows preceding his departure. He built a team around a young Harry Kane, and takes some credit for helping the England captain to become the striker he is. Inheriting Kane at the end of his career – when he must be considering his future – would be a tougher challenge. Whoever takes over at Spurs will surely be overseeing Kane’s exit.
Kane toyed with leaving two years ago. He was in danger of damaging his legacy by forcing his way out to Manchester City. It will be a different story this time. He has been let down by the promise of his club competing for trophies. If Manchester United bid anywhere between £80-100 million, it makes sense to sell, otherwise he will leave for free at the end of his contract. Kane turns 30 this summer. He is no longer Spurs’ future.
Nor is Antonio Conte, his time nearly up. Just as with Mourinho, Conte’s style of football is such that support is conditional on winning. The era of big clubs accepting pragmatic football without trophies is over. The fanbase demands more. Where I am torn is on whether the blame for Spurs’ predicament is Conte’s or those above him. My conclusion is both.
Levy knew his post-Pochettino managerial appointments would bring a radical tactical change. After Mourinho left in 2021, Levy said this: "We are acutely aware of the need to select someone whose values reflect those of our great club and return to playing football with the style for which we are known – free-flowing, attacking and entertaining.”
He then recruited Nuno Espirito Santo, who was arguably more defensive then Mourinho, and then Conte, who has never been a club builder and was always going to demand the tools to compete for titles, not accept finishing fourth as the priority. There was going to be an explosion sooner rather than later because the modern Spurs are not built to win championships.
It is not correct that Conte has not been backed by the Spurs board
I have some sympathy for Conte because to pip Arsenal to the fourth Champions League spot in his first season was a considerable achievement, and there is a chance he will knock Liverpool out of a Champions League spot this time. Given Spurs’ recent history, is their ceiling any higher than that? Where does the idea they ‘must qualify for the Champions League’ come from? When we talk about the ‘top six’, Spurs should currently be sixth.
What I will not buy is the argument that Levy and the Spurs board have failed to back Conte manager since appointing him.
Spurs went into pre-season having just finished above Arsenal. Then they paid £60 million for Richarlison, the man who plays No 9 for Brazil, to be a back-up striker. Arsenal bought his international understudy Gabriel Jesus for £45 million. Who made the smarter purchase? Spurs have fallen way behind Arsenal because of poor football decisions and erratic performances, not lack of investment.
Conte also signed Yves Bissouma and Ivan Perišić as part of a £172 million spree, the third highest in the Premier League last summer. In the previous window he signed Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski, both excellent additions. Last January they committed £39 million by bringing in Pedro Porro on loan with an obligation to buy.
However it is dressed up, that is solid backing by the Spurs board. Enough to demand competing for the Premier League in Conte's first full season? No, but certainly enough to anticipate more consistency and a sense the team was growing and could challenge in the domestic cups.
Spurs' meek exits from cups are equally damning
Although the performance to AC Milan was shockingly poor, it is Spurs’ exit from domestic cup competitions which are most damning. It is unforgivable that the FA Cup runs have ended in such meek exits, defeats against Championship clubs Sheffield United and Middlesbrough accounting for Spurs’ last two eliminations. They were also beaten by Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup. Those are the nights when fans lose faith and patience. It is one thing to argue about needing the tools to compete with Manchester City over 38 games, but another to keep losing winnable cup ties.
The relationship will come to a natural end with Conte’s contract. On a personal level he has endured a difficult few months, tragically losing close friends and suffering illness and looks like he would benefit from a break. We should never overlook the human side of this story.
Now Spurs must look to the future with their replacement, seeking a coach who will deliver on Levy’s promise to play with the style supporters crave. When you see the impact of Roberto de Zerbi at Brighton, there are obvious echoes of Pochettino at Southampton: a young, hungry coach making an instant impact with an exciting brand of football.
The fact reappointing Pochettino is under consideration is a damning indictment on how Spurs have operated since he left. Going back would be an acknowledgement of the mistake sacking him. He would have to restart in north London, and every setback would inevitably lead to comparisons to when he initially took over.
It is with a heavy heart that I cannot see how Pochettino can represent Tottenham’s future when he is a symbol of the ‘what might have been’ in the past.