There are few things sadder than a football team that has come unmoored from itself. A collection of players and coaches who once supported and uplifted one another, became something greater than themselves, now strangers, staring accusingly at each other as they crash out of the League Cup.
And so the departure of
Mauricio Pochettino from Spurs, like that of Jürgen Klopp from Dortmund before him, comes as something of a relief for everybody, except possibly
Arsenal fans. There’s far too much misery in the world as it is, we don’t need Sad Dele Alli hanging around as well.
Still, not unwelcome as it may be, Pochettino’s departure, and the hiring of José Mourinho, says all sorts of interesting things about Tottenham, and about the broader state of the Premier League and elite European football. The most immediately striking fact is that Spurs, as much as they loved Pochettino, haven’t replaced him with the next Pochettino, whoever that might be.
When Pochettino went to Spurs he did so as potentially the Next Big Thing, on the back of impressive spells at Espanyol and then
Southampton, who he took to eighth in the Premier League, recording wins over
Chelsea in the process. A club like Spurs — big, but not Big, at that point — was the next point on an obviously upwards curve.
Indeed, in some ways Mourinho is the precise opposite: a huge CV, entirely front-loaded, with a spectacular downward trend in recent years. But then the field for the next Pochettino is pretty thin, at least within the Premier League. The Next Big Things are making muddled progress.
Marco Silva is embattled at
Everton; Ralph Hasenhüttl likewise at Southampton. Nuno Espírito Santo’s second Premier League season isn’t going as well as the first. Frank de Boer flamed out at
Crystal Palace. Eddie Howe is still Eddie Howe, and Bournemouth are still remarkable, in a quiet way. Maybe Howe gets the job if Mourinho faceplants and Spurs change tack?
Brendan Rodgers isn’t the next Pochettino. Don’t be silly. He’s the first and only Brendan Rodgers. And he certainly won’t be dropping 12 places in the league to prove that. Beyond England, Spurs were
reportedly interested in Julian Nagelsmann, but apparently a year too late.
In any case, it appears Spurs have decided that now, post-Pochettino, they don’t need a new Pochettino. The club is already a Serious, Title-Contesting,
Champions League contender, and it must have a Serious, Title-Contesting, Champions League manager to match. Whether Mourinho counts as one of those any more is, of course, an open question, and the entire country is looking forward to finding out that the answer is: LOL, no. But he certainly talks like one.
Mourinho: “We can’t win the league this season. We can - I’m not saying will - win the league next season.”— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney)
November 21, 2019
Thinking more broadly, something unusual is happening with England’s Big Six, and it’s not just the fact five of them are below
Leicester City, three below
Sheffield United, and one is in 12th. City and Liverpool have their excellent managers, managing their excellent teams excellently. But the other dugouts are strange places.
Manchester United and Chelsea are both overseen by men who got the jobs not on the strength of their managerial CVs, but on their playing careers. There is a gamble being made in both cases, even as one seems to be going better than the other.
Arsenal resisted this temptation —
Mikel Arteta? No thanks! — and went for Unai Emery, who was experienced, safe, and kind of underwhelming. The result is a manager who isn’t doing particularly well and isn’t particularly liked. And now Spurs have got their own gamble in Mourinho Mk. III, promising old success through new methods and humility.
Among the Premier League’s six (theoretically) elite clubs, that makes just two unarguably elite managers. Solskjaer and Lampard might get there in the end, and Mourinho might get there again. Emery might surprise us all. But as it stands: two from six.
This disparity between the stature of elite clubs and their managers can be found outside the Premier League as well. Real Madrid are back with Zinedine Zidane after Julen Lopetegui flopped. Bayern Munich spent a season pottering along under Niko Kovač, and will likely be in caretaker hands until the end of the season. Barcelona have Ernesto Valverde, and nobody seems particularly happy about that. Thomas Tuchel at PSG, ditto. Maurizio Sarri at Juventus, ditto ditto.
Indeed, with Antonio Conte fresh in at Inter and Diego Simeone still enthroned at Atlético Madrid, the process of hiring a Serious, Title-Contesting, Champions League manager at this precise moment probably runs something like this:
Step 1: Is Max Allegri interested?
Step 2: No? Sure?
Step 3: Right, fine, better give José a call.
Perhaps the top level of football has arrived at a fundamental imbalance: too many Big Clubs, not enough Big Men to go around. The relentless churn probably doesn’t help. Go back to the merry-go-round enough, and eventually you’ll have to start making some interesting choices.
Or perhaps this is just a cyclical thing. Perhaps the next generation of elite coaches — Lampard, Rodgers, Nagelsmann, Erik ten Hag, all the other promising coaches who aren’t yet being hired by the big clubs — will be here soon, and will sort themselves into their rightful dugouts. Or take their current clubs with them. Maybe Leicester are making a permanent charge into the Premier League’s Big [Number To Be Determined].
We should note that thinking about managers too hard runs the risk of reducing football down to some heroic great man psychodrama: Those Marvellous Men And Their Flying Clipboards. A great team doesn’t necessarily need an already-acknowledged-as-great manager. And a team good enough to win a few trophies here and there definitely doesn’t. More important is the right manager in the right structure. That way the individual brilliance, the squad, and the money all end up pointing in the same direction.
But if you do enjoy indulging in a big of that psychodrama, then Big Coach hiring process has just gotten a little more interesting for every elite club that isn’t Tottenham, since: hooray! Pochettino is available! Although hopefully he takes a little break first. Spends some time with his family. Catches up on his reading. It’s a tough gig, management. And then comes the summer and the job offers.
(Maybe even earlier, if the Solskjaer experiment goes wrong again. You suspect Pochettino would be a fool to go and work for United in their current state, but equally, United would be fools not to see if he could be swayed.)
Perhaps Pochettino’s likely popularity is evidence itself of the imbalanced managerial market. His mantelpiece is empty, bar some Manager of the Month awards, a couple of silver medals, and several Arsène Wenger awards for Champions League qualification.
But in his time at Spurs he made average players good, good players great, and for a couple of years he had them playing aggressive, attacking football of the very highest quality. Everybody wants all of that. And when there isn’t enough proven greatness to go around, the sense of greatness to come will have to do.
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