At some point you need to stop looking at the milk and wonder whether the fridge itself is faulty. Jose Mourinho and Tottenham have gone off.
Since moving house before Christmas, there’s been an issue that’s repeatedly caused annoyance. At least a week before its expiration date, milk has been turning bad in the fridge. Not once or twice, but perhaps four or five times – and it seemed to always be me that found it. The house is new, the fridge is new, and everything else has stayed perfectly cold and fresh within it. Yet when it came to spill a drop in my tea, I’ve had cottage cheese rather than milk without warning or reason. It’s a waste of a tea bag, a waste of my time, and usually around half a bottle of wasted milk.
At first, we blamed where we were getting the milk from. Several times I could be heard to exclaim: “I’m not f**king buying their milk anymore.” But, fate would have it, the shop wasn’t to blame. We bought our milk from a different place and…same thing. Now, because milk has a reputation for going bad, that was what was blamed. And once milk has turned, there’s no saving it; you need another bottle of milk. Yet the milk wasn’t to blame, our fridge was. Since moving in, we’d never turned the temperature dial. It had been sat on the lowest setting for months, putting our milk in the perfect position to spoil. Once we’d fixed the fridge, the milk was no longer the problem.
Tottenham are now on their 11th manager in 20 years under ENIC ownership, and the fridge isn’t just on the wrong setting. It’s broken.
It’s easy to solely blame Mourinho for Tottenham’s struggles because, much like milk, he has a well-earned reputation for turning sour and ruining your day. But we’re talking about the milk again, and not looking hard enough at the bloody fridge.
The truth is, Tottenham are a victim of their own success and, almost single-handedly, that is down to the ludicrous overachievement of Mauricio Pochettino in his time at the club. Now most folk will look at the lack of silverware and scoff at the mention of ‘success’ but, if you’re able to not be wilfully obtuse for just a moment, you can see where the glory is for Tottenham – even if there hasn’t been any trophies gained along the way.
As a gammon divorced dad on Twitter will only be too happy to tell you, stadiums and training grounds do not win football matches. We can, of course, agree on that. But if that’s where your thinking on the matter stops, you’re probably the type of person who blames a perishable item for being perishable, rather than engaging your brain and taking a closer look at the environment in which its being kept. The comparison between what Tottenham were as a club before ENIC bought them and where they are now is impressive enough on its own, but when compared with the clubs who’ve attempted to do the same in tandem and fallen away, it’s damn near miraculous.
Daniel Levy had a roadmap and master plan for Tottenham that married both on-field and off-field success, that converged within the new stadium and ushered in a brand new dawn for the football club. And then Pochettino happened. The on-field dynamism of the club outpaced the off-field ability to keep up with it to the extent that, before long, the club were in no position to facilitate the kind of ambition he and his players had earned the right to have. The plan was stadium first, book the events, bank the profit and then build a team that’s capable of competing at the highest level.
Pochettino skipped several steps and the club just couldn’t keep up.
Tottenham are not a poor club. Far from it, in fact. But the stadium doesn’t pay for itself, and neither does the increasingly high wage bill that comes with keeping the best players in it. The only option Levy had – without risking the financial security of his business – was to ask his manager to make the most of what he had, because there’s no point in trying to get in to a pissing contest in the transfer market when you’ve just saddled yourself with a £1bn catheter. It’s not like buying for the sake of buying was going to make much difference anyway.
In the world as Levy imagined it, Tottenham would flit between the Champions League and Europa League knockout rounds, be a mainstay of the top six in the Premier League and challenge for the odd domestic cup. Then with the new stadium and increased financial power behind them, they would kick on to not only look like a powerhouse, but play like one too. Nobody seemed to give Pochettino that memo, though, and with legitimate league challenges under his belt and a Champions League final contested, he wanted more. And so did we, the fans.
As far as fanbases go, ours isn’t the most unreasonable out there. But experiencing what we had with Pochettino, it’s unrealistic to expect our anticipation levels to have not risen in the manner they did. The things we ask for, our club non-negotiables (effort, flair, attacking potency and a sense of aspiration) were not only being matched, but exceeded. Unfortunately, it had all come too soon, and was built on temporary foundations. With a squad run into the ground, a freshness in both legs and minds missing, a time came – and passed – for that beloved team to be broken up and started anew.
That dial on the fridge wasn’t turned, and things turned sour.
There are still lots of people who dislike Levy and ENIC for prioritising infrastructure and putting the club in a position to compete long-term without risking financial ruin over spending more in the transfer market and maybe sneaking a few more cups and possibly a league title. Tottenham is a club that advertises the game being about glory, and to some, there is more glory in punching up than there is taking the time to make it a fairer fight.
A battle of ideology, it’s not a simple conundrum to solve and essentially boils down to this: are you the type of person who just wants the chance to win one title now, or do you have the willing to indulge the ownership in exchange for sustained success in the future? But that isn’t an argument we’re going to be able to settle now.
Tottenham are, for the most part, still reeling from those missed opportunities and false starts. Levy made a bet that Mourinho would be able to get more from his squad than Pochettino seemed willing to attempt to any longer, and what happened happened. The wrong horse was backed, it seems.
Non-performances in matches like Arsenal away and losing 3-0 in spectacularly bad fashion against seemingly poor opposition in the Europa League are wholly unacceptable regardless of the situation, and Mourinho deserves to take his share of the blame for that. The result and performance against Zagreb was so bad that, in truth, he should answer for it with his job. Levy is a man who has sacked many, many men for much, much less.
But will that fix Tottenham overnight? No, it won’t. Nor will a new manager with this same set of players. That’s just another bottle of milk waiting to turn in a fridge that isn’t cold enough.
With no disrespect to clubs further down the pyramid fighting for their futures and purely in the prism of top-flight elite football, safe in the knowledge that this comes with a healthy serving of first-world problems: Tottenham have had their legs cut out from underneath them more than most during the pandemic. That masterplan Levy had devised for his new money-spinning stadium – what with concerts, multiple NFL events, Anthony Joshua fights, weddings, bar mitzvahs, Sky Walks and stadium tours – has been sat in abeyance for over a year. His chance to take all of that and let loose in the transfer market in a manner Pochettino could only have dreamt of has been robbed from him and, as a result, his club are in a holding pattern of misery.
Tottenham have a squad that needs to be culled in a ruthless, emotionless manner, and they need reinvestment, fresh faces and a new sense of purpose and project that has been beyond them since Moussa Sissoko dared to have limbs in the Champions League final. As a result of the current malaise, they are in serious risk of losing their most important players, and finding themselves in a position of almost pre-Pochettino level existential crisis.
Levy will not risk the financial security of his business to achieve this, but he might want to toe that line much closer and push those boundaries much harder than he has done previously. If not, he risks finding the ready-made superclub for sale he’s dedicated two decades to building a much more difficult proposition to shift than it might’ve been otherwise.
Raj Bains is on Twitter