Perhaps Mauricio Pochettino’s mistake was being too honest. Between them, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola made 27 changes to their sides for their EFL Cup ties this week. The suggestion that this competition is anything but a sideshow to the season’s main storylines is difficult to maintain.
Still, it is one thing to rest an entire first team for a cup game, but another entirely to publicly admit your lack of interest in these competitions. It sent a message to the squad, deliberately or otherwise, that they did not need to be at 100%. It was a basic motivational mistake.
“Our objective is to try to win the Premier League and the Champions League. For me, two real trophies,” said Pochettino on Monday, ahead of Tottenham’s tie against West Ham. “That can really change your life. And then the FA Cup, of course, I would like to win. I would like to win the Carabao Cup. But I think it will not change the life of Tottenham.”
Pochettino is both right and wrong. His honesty does not come from a sense of arrogance or entitlement that the EFL Cup and FA Cup are somehow beneath the manager and his team; Pochettino was clearly detailing the hierarchy that exists in the mind of every elite club manager in the Premier League. And a squad that proved itself incapable of fighting on three fronts last season has already struggled to compete on four during 2017/18.
Even if Pochettino might be judged from the outside on how many individual trophies he has won, including the EFL Cup, it is not how he will judge his own tenure. Only the Premier League and Champions League will define him. For all the outrage at Pochettino from those who find his apparent disdain distasteful, he is right.
Yet to overlook the mutual inclusivity of cup success and league progress is foolish. Think back to the words of Vincent Kompany after Manchester City’s FA Cup final victory over Stoke in 2011: “We’ve laid down the foundation, I feel, not only with this but with the qualification for the Champions League. Those are foundations for us and we’re going build a house on it now.”
It might only have been the FA Cup, but that campaign – in which City beat Manchester United in the semi-final – gave City’s squad the taste of success, albeit on a smaller scale than their lofty ambitions. There was a chorus of players describing it as part of the journey, not some meaningless prelude.
That’s certainly the mindset of Pochettino’s opposite number on Saturday lunchtime. Once it became clear that Manchester United were not going to win the Premier League title last season, Mourinho prioritised cup competitions and won two; Tottenham fell meekly out of both.
“We, Manchester United, for us it is more important to win titles than to finish top four,” Mourinho said before the Europa League final. “So if we can win a third title [including the Community Shield], or like you like to say a second title, if we can do that it would be magnificent for us because we know that it’s a big objective.”
For Mourinho, a managerial magpie, cups are something to be hoarded greedily. As tiresome as it is to hear ‘but what has he won?’ directed at anyone who dares to praise Pochettino’s achievements, people do tend to remember finals and trophies.
There is a growing rivalry between Pochettino and Mourinho, although not through any clash of personalities. The two are friends and Pochettino has regularly stressed his admiration for Mourinho, his glittering CV and his managerial style. Yet Pochettino is increasingly viewed, even among United supporters, as Mourinho’s likely heir. That’s both in a literal sense at Old Trafford and as the next member of the super-manager club. It is unlikely to sit well with Manchester United’s current manager.
‘Ask me who is the best coach in the English league and I would say Jose Mourinho,’ wrote Gary Neville for the Daily Telegraph in November 2015. ‘But ask me who I would model myself on as an aspiring coach right now and in a flash I would give you the name of Mauricio Pochettino.’
In the two years since, the addition of Pep Guardiola may have shifted Neville’s opinion slightly, but you suspect that the gist would be the same. If Mourinho is the master manager and Guardiola the master coach, Pochettino is forging a reputation as someone who has combined the best of both.
Yet there is a catch. Mourinho and Pochettino will both know that the former has enjoyed a strange hold over the latter. In six non-home games (away and at neutral venues) against Mourinho, Pochettino’s teams have lost all six and scored just once, conceding 17 times.
At Espanyol and Southampton (against Real Madrid and Chelsea) that is forgivable, but less so for Tottenham against Chelsea and Manchester United. Since Jay Rodriguez scored after 13 seconds for Southampton at Stamford Bridge in 2013, Pochettino has conceded nine unanswered away goals to Mourinho teams.
Last season, this fixture took place with the two clubs and managers similarly positioned. Tottenham went to Old Trafford six points ahead of their opposition, while Manchester United had drawn three successive league games against Arsenal, West Ham and Everton. Questions were being asked of Mourinho.
Tottenham were mightily disappointing that day. They lost 1-0 and were held at arm’s length by a Manchester United team that chose to cede possession and territory at home and wait for a defensive mistake. When Mourinho spoke after the 0-0 at Anfield about Liverpool failing to “leave open the door”, it evoked that victory over Tottenham. Harry Kane played a loose pass, Ander Herrera played in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and United had their lead to defend.
There is a suspicion that Pochettino could really do without this match against this manager. The fixture list has crammed several important dates into the space of a month. Having emphatically dismissed any notion of the Wembley curse by dismantling Liverpool but facing Real Madrid again on Wednesday, a gentle league fixture would have been appreciated.
Instead, Tottenham face potentially the biggest league game of their season, particularly if local rivalry is put to one side. Having too often been brushed aside in his contests with Mourinho, Pochettino knows that now is the perfect time to defeat his good friend.
Pull it off and the swell of opinion that he is the heir to the throne will grow further. Lose once again and the goodwill Tottenham and Pochettino garnered last weekend will quickly be lost on the breeze. When you choose to dismiss interest in domestic cups, the spotlight only shines brighter on your results in search of real trophies.