Has MoPo’s gift expired?



Mauricio Pochettino was so upset after the Champions League final that he jumped on a train and went straight to his home in Barcelona. He would later confess to wallowing indoors for the next 10 days, imprisoned by the memory of slipping at the finish line. A few days in, he tried to drive a few golf balls in frustration but his distracted swings didn’t do much to help.

It’s easy to picture him whacking at the green angrily again this week. Tottenham Hotspur have been awful. What an indictment it is that mentioning the 7-2 loss to Bayern Munich and 3-0 humbling by Brighton doesn’t feel sufficient to convey their level of ineptitude.

No one is playing like they want to be there. The rumour-mongers and “insiders” would tell you that the squad wasn’t too impressed by Pochettino’s little train ride. Others might insist his rigorous training regimens have finally bought him disfavour. Yet, it’s hard to buy into the idea that he’s lost the dressing room. There’s no hard evidence the players are questioning his leadership.

But where there once was ceaseless pressing, there now sits lethargy. Hustle has turned to ambivalence. This same group of players that tore defenders’ shins and ankles to force them into a mistake are now handing out hall passes. Spurs have been able to overachieve over the last half-decade on the back of that ethic. Now that it’s evaporated they look lost.

Pochettino shares the observation.

“Collectively, we need to press better,” he has said. “I was talking with some players — it’s like when you go with friends to play five-a-side. No one wants to go in goal. You want to play with the ball. You don’t want to be chasing people and running in behind. Maybe we lose this balance.

“There is another part to the game — having the will to recover the ball, this aggressivity, and we drop a little bit in this collectively. This is the key point we need to fix.”

Given that those comments were made two weeks ago, it’s obvious that the Argentine hasn’t figured out what to prescribe to address his own diagnosis. It’s unlikely he will anytime soon, too. Even to an outsider, the issues the club is facing appear to run far deeper than anything a tweak in tactics could resolve.

Pochettino is now navigating his sixth year at the club. In that time he has overseen the same core group of players — we’d like to believe that this is by choice but with Spurs living frugally and financing their own stadium he hasn’t been given too many options. That he’s been able to push his charges to stretch every sinew to its limit is already a minor miracle. It was only going to be a matter of time until it expired.

It’s hard to blame the coach. How does one keep an outfit firing at 100% for five gruelling years? Five years that have regrettably not produced anything tangible and offered wages lower than those elsewhere. Meanwhile, Kyle Walker is showing his old teammates the alluring profits that can be turned from trading in the Lilywhite shirt.

So is Pochettino primed for the sack? Is there any other way to reverse the decline? You have to imagine these are the questions he’s pondering this break.

The bookies certainly think it’s the only option. He now tops many of their spreadsheets as the likeliest to lose his job next in the league.

Although the solution is not apparent, watching one of the league’s longest-serving managers bow out in these circumstances will feel inescapably dirty. As low as Spurs might be right now, there is no denying that the club has been set up beautifully for the long term.

Right now, Tottenham, with one of the grandest stadiums in the land and a healthy balance sheet, are set up for the future. Much of the credit goes to the mastermind, chairperson Daniel Levy, but the parallel on-field progression would not have been possible without Pochettino.

Which all brings us right back to where we started. Just how long will Levy be willing to wait before swinging the axe? Everybody has a limit. The good news for Pochettino is that the international break offers an opportunity to reset attitudes and refresh minds. He should be praying for no less as he angrily swings at his golf balls.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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