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Mauricio Pochettino sacked: But his best days could still be ahead
Pochettino's dismissal may have been a shock but it would be no surprise if he returns better than ever...
Last Updated: 21/11/19 11:03am
The first instinct is to pity Mauricio Pochettino.
The man has lost his job, after all. But the outpouring of affection following his departure reveals the truth. He leaves not only with a handsome pay-off but with his reputation intact. Among Tottenham supporters, of course. But just as importantly now, among the wider public too.
The news came as a shock but the outcome can hardly be called a surprise even if that phrase 'relieved of his duties' feels deeply unsatisfactory. By his own admission prior to the Champions League final in June, Pochettino's project came to an end in the summer - a not-so-subtle reference to what has long been brewing behind the scenes.
Much of the fascination now will stem from which party fares best from this parting of the ways. Tottenham are entitled to expect an upturn in results given their measly haul of 25 points from 24 games since February, but it reveals much that it is the discarded coach who is likely to be short odds to clinch a trophy before the club that has sacked him.
Even the Spurs supporters, who have been forced to endure this winter of despair after their spring of hope, will recognise Pochettino is likely to thrive again. They are more aware than anyone the Argentine leaves their club transformed. This has been some journey they have been on together, both figurative and literal.
Under him, Tottenham became Champions League perennials, their appearance in the final coming in the third of what is now four consecutive years in the competition. As a result, turnover has doubled under his watch. With a wonderful new stadium to enjoy, the long-term future is bright.
Critics will continue to peddle the line that Juande Ramos remains Tottenham's last trophy-winning coach but that is barely an anecdote let alone the whole story. Pochettino's trio of top-three finishes - the first time Spurs have achieved that under anyone but Bill Nicholson - underlined Tottenham's metamorphosis into a very different animal.
The trip to West Ham on Saturday is an appropriate one in that sense. This fixture was the first of Pochettino's reign in August 2014 and it was a very different Tottenham team that took to the field at Upton Park that day. For all the failings of recent months, a glance at that team sheet should serve as enough of a reminder of how far they have come.
There was an early red card for Kyle Naughton to contend with for a line-up that included Younes Kaboul at the back and Emmanuel Adebayor up front. Pochettino's first substitution saw Lewis Holtby and Andros Townsend introduced. Tottenham's potential was not so obvious back then whatever hindsight might suggest. For the man from Murphy in rural Argentina, the wheat was yet to be separated from chaff.
Nevertheless, Spurs won that match and 158 more of them through five-and-a-half thrilling years. They quickly became a pressing team that played with evident enthusiasm. The club had a new identity, organised but with ambition. This was the mentality that had been lacking. One supporters had long craved.
It was widely hailed as a triumph of pure coaching. Sir Alex Ferguson called Pochettino the best manager in the country. The clarity of his ideas set Spurs apart. Often they outplayed their opponents. Almost always they outworked them.
There were many highs. A winning record against Arsenal culminating in finally finishing above their great rivals. The long wait for victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge ended in emphatic style. Even in 2019, the year that cost him his job, Pochettino delivered the dramatic elimination of Manchester City and that extraordinary evening in Amsterdam when three second-half goals turned the semi-final against Ajax on its head.
Rising expectations reveal the progress. Tottenham had never finished higher than fourth in the Premier League era prior to Pochettino's arrival. When achieving that feat last season it was something of a disappointment. Particularly after the big moment passed his players by in Madrid.
Pochettino was acutely aware of the issues. He was speaking of them even two years ago. The continuity that had been a key asset was becoming a concern as players eyed more money elsewhere. Like the fruit of the medlar, Spurs risked becoming rotten before they were ripe.
Edmund Burke once argued that "a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation" and that is surely how it must have felt for Pochettino as his much discussed rebuild failed to materialise. Talk of his team's vibrancy had switched to chatter about contracts being run down.
As a result, it is tempting to view Pochettino as the jaded figure he could sometimes appear in press conferences. Spurs' own Sisyphus forever rolling the ball up the mountain only to discover that his task was never ending. By the end, his decisions were being questioned by all and sundry though perhaps it will one day become clear just how much he was managing circumstance as much as a side.
What happens next at Tottenham could define his legacy. If Jose Mourinho, the definition of proven winner, delivers what Pochettino could not, perhaps the view will crystallise that there was a cap on what he could achieve. That the ceiling was imposed by his own merits as a manager rather than an inadequate wage bill.
But one suspects Pochettino will be given the opportunity to make a mockery of that theory elsewhere.
There will be suitors. This sticky end will not erase half a decade of quality work that saw Pochettino rated among the most in-demand coaches in the game. Manchester United will not be the only club alert to his availability. The popular view is that he represents an upgrade for a number of Europe's elite.
At 47, there is much left to prove. Prior to the 52-year-old Jurgen Klopp's success against him in last season's Champions League final, the previous eight first-time winners of Europe's premier club competition had been younger than Pochettino is already.
Perhaps more than ever, this is a young man's game and this is a manager with a particular penchant for young players too. Speaking to him in September, he was open about the fact that finding that connection with those now half his age is more challenging than it once was.
But it is a connection that he can still hope to boast. The mood music may have changed but the man-management skills cannot have disappeared and his style of football is still in the ascendancy. With the average age of signings made by the biggest clubs continuing to tumble, the ability to work with youngsters has never been more important for coaches at the highest level of the game.
A rebuilding job with the funds to see it through could be perfect for Pochettino.
Few would be surprised if he flourishes. Indeed, when even Levy and the more impatient among the Spurs support share the view that he is sure to succeed, it is a clue that this is a call that has come with a heavy heart as well as a heavy price.
Will Tottenham come to regret the decision? That remains to be seen. But for Pochettino, the disappointment really should be temporary. His days at Tottenham are over. His best days could yet be ahead of him.
Sky Sports' Nick Wright...
'Pochettino is entitled to feel aggrieved that, only a few months after steering Spurs to a Champions League final, he has not been granted more time to turn things around. That, after all, is exactly what he did when he took the job in the first place.
'The list of players he has improved is a long one. It includes almost every member of the current squad and - in Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Mousa Dembele - a decent number of the departed too. Those players have all contributed to the club's progress over the last five years, but it's Pochettino who made it all possible.'