“Ah, I am so disappointed,” said Mauricio Pochettino, reflecting on the season. “I think all the people are not happy with the way it finished.”
Tottenham’s Premier League season did end poorly, with eight losses in their last 12. However, the Argentine coach was not referring to his side’s 2018-19 campaign in the quote above. He was talking about the conclusion of “Game of Thrones”.
Despite their domestic downturn during the run-in, Spurs’ season climax has been a fantasy epic of a very different sort — and one which has garnered much more favorable reviews. It looked as if the North Londoners would fail to clear the Champions League group stages when they took only a single point from their first three matches, but the Lilywhites somehow conspired to book their spot in their first-ever Champions League final.
At the start of the campaign, Spurs were 20/1 to win the biggest prize in club soccer, but they have beaten the favorites Manchester City and the darlings of the competition, Ajax, to reach the summit.
Pochettino’s thoughts on the conclusion of “Game of Thrones” suggests he is keen to see a story reach a satisfactory conclusion. In the coming days, he will have the opportunity to construct a perfect story arc, with an underdog victory over Liverpool.
If Poch wins, he will break the wheel of Tottenham’s also-ran reputation. He will have the perfect exit point.
But will he take it?
Pochettino’s managerial career began in 2009 at Espanyol, for whom he made over 200 appearances as a center back. After inheriting a side in the relegation zone, he guided them to a 10th-place finish, taking four points from Pep Guardiola’s local rivals Barcelona in the process.
The former Argentina international moved to the Premier League in 2013, where his poor command of English didn’t stop him leading Southampton to their highest-ever Premier League finish.
Poch’s growing reputation, and the exciting brand of high-pressing soccer he masterminded, led him to a five-year contract at Tottenham in May 2014. He was the North London side’s seventh full-time manager in 10 years and succeeded “supply teacher” Tim Sherwood. The famously frugal side had sold Gareth Bale for a world-record £85.3m fee the previous summer, but had squandered the funds on the likes of Paulinho, Roberto Soldado and Nacer Chadli.
But a disjointed and rudderless side were quickly transformed with Pochettino at the helm. He promptly imposed his style and promoted several youth team players to first-team roles. One such youngster was a striker named Harry Kane, who had been sent on a series of unsuccessful loans under previous managers. Less than two weeks after arriving at Spurs, Poch gave Kane his very first Premier League start, after the forward had been on the books at the club for nearly five years by that point.
In addition to spotting the potential within the ranks, Pochettino also conducted some extremely shrewd business: Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier were both bought from lower league sides for around £5m each, while Eric Dier was brought in from Sporting Lisbon for only €5m.
On a shoestring budget, Pochettino has transformed the weakest “Big Six” side into one of the strongest. More significantly for the fans, he has given them the upper hand in their bitter rivalry with neighbors Arsenal. St Totteringham’s Day, the annual day on which Spurs could no longer mathematically finish above the Gunners, has become a thing of the past.
A Champions League victory would be the perfect bookend for his Tottenham tenure. He has vastly overachieved, given the financial constraints placed upon him, and would have nowhere else to take the team after reaching the highest possible point.
Accordingly, the 47-year-old is keeping his cards close to his chest.
“I will not make decisions about my future [until] after the final,” Pochettino recently told Spanish outlet El Partidazo de Cope. “If we want to return to the Champions League final next year and fight with Manchester City and Liverpool for the Premier League title, we need reinforcements.”
A lack of spending is clearly Pochettino’s biggest gripe with life in North London. He has made repeated requests for reinforcements via the media – which is perfectly understandable for a manager who was last able to buy a player in January 2018.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as if chairman Daniel Levy will be sanctioning any big-money moves anytime soon. The club’s new stadium went around £600m over its initial £400m budget and will impose a heavy financial burden in the coming seasons. Arsenal underwent a similar period of lean transfer windows when they opened the Emirates Stadium in 2006, and Arsene Wenger worked wonders to keep the club competitive during that time.
It is not clear whether Pochettino will remain as loyal as Wenger during this fallow period. He has been linked with high-profile jobs at Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United and Barcelona (although the latter is highly unlikely for a former Espanyol servant). At any of those storied destinations, he would enjoy a far greater budget with which to compete at the highest level.
If he wins the Champions League and has the opportunity to drop the mic and start a new adventure in Turin, why would he pass it up? He is entering the circle of elite managers along with Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Max Allegri, and should rightfully choose a club to match his ambitions.
With that in mind, it may also make sense for Poch to leave if Spurs lose the Champions League Final. Success may be measured in silverware in this game, but a defeat to Liverpool wouldn’t change the amount of high-profile suitors, or the temptation to join a club with greater means.
In summary: If he wins, he has the perfect moment to walk away. If he loses, he still has a valid mandate to move on.
Of course, there are many who believe that he will stay; that he would be a fool to leave the fantastic squad he has assembled. “I think he has got a great job there and I'd be very surprised if he looked elsewhere,” said former Spurs boss Harry Redknapp. “He surely knows when he is well off and he is well off at Tottenham.”
Spurs are an exceptionally well-run club, who have never outspent their means. Levy is owed an awful lot of credit for creating an environment in which a manager of Pochettino’s caliber can thrive.
However, it is Pochettino to whom the fans owe the biggest thanks. Whatever happens at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, he has achieved something that the majority of Lilywhites fans never thought would be remotely possible.
The season may end perfectly for Tottenham, or it may give the manager the same feeling of disappointment he had when watching the conclusion of a certain Westeros-based TV show. Either way, he has more than enough credit in the bank to walk away with head held high after the season finale.
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