Making the emotional case from the heat for a Pochettino-Spurs reunion is easy. But what about from the head?
It’s no great surprise that Mauricio Pochettino looks set to lose his job as PSG manager.
Having failed to win the Champions League, not even romping home to the Ligue 1 title was ever going to save him. Even so, the speed with which the Parisiens have apparently set about binning him off is a brutal old business.
It’s been a strange spell in Paris for Pochettino. It has, predictably, brought the trophies his CV lacked. It has, just as predictably, exposed the disingenuous nature of the previous arguments against his coaching talents because he hadn’t won trophies.
Because it was never really about the trophies; it never is. It’s just using whatever stick is available to beat the target of your criticism. Had he won a Carabao or FA Cup with his magnificent Spurs side, the ‘no trophies’ argument would simply have become ‘only a Carabao’. Even winning the 2019 Champions League would simply have been memory-holed and written off as a freak occurrence.
If that sounds implausible, just have a look at what Manchester United fans were saying when people started talking up the City-Liverpool rivalry as the Premier League’s greatest. ‘Only one Premier League title’ was the cudgel against Liverpool and Klopp. Anything can be written off if it’s inconvenient.
Pochettino has done precisely as well as anyone could have realistically expected at PSG, but inevitably that has seen his stock fall. Anyone could win Ligue 1 with PSG, it’s meaningless, as long as you ignore the fact that Thomas Tuchel could not pull it off last season. And no manager has delivered the Champions League title they crave and it remains doubtful whether any manager can overcome the disadvantage that comes from trying to level up from a weaker domestic league to the teak-tough knockout stages.
His reign in Paris has been flawed as it was always likely to be. His next job after Spurs always had to be one of the superclubs, but PSG always seemed the very worst fit despite his links to the club in its former guise as just a football club. Pochettino’s ethos is all about the collective – “you sign a contract to train, not to play” – and that was never a good fit for a club that is a branding and promotional tool first and football team second. The superstars will play, must play, and that’s that.
His detractors use his flawed spell in Paris as evidence that there remains something second tier about him, that he isn’t quite up to the biggest jobs. Really all that we know is that he wasn’t right for this specific one of the biggest jobs.
The criticism is unsurprising, but what is strange is that there also now seems to be some negative retrospective reappraisal of his time at Spurs, much of it coming from Spurs fans themselves.
Nothing that has happened to either Spurs or Pochettino since his departure appears to support this view, but it’s definitely there.
And that’s because, inevitably, the news of his imminent Paris exit sparks talk of a Spurs return. The timing is key here, because even a couple of weeks ago it would not have played out quite the same. When the Manchester United job was still available and Antonio Conte’s Spurs appeared to have struck gold by simply scoring four goals every week, the talk would have been more in the direction of United.
But Erik Ten Hag is in at Manchester United, and Spurs have gone two moribund games without a shot on target against Brighton and Brentford. Conte is once again making eyes at the exit door and uncertainty has returned. Champions League football has also gone from ‘probable’ to ‘unlikely’.
So would and should Spurs consider bringing Poch back? The case from the heart is easily made. There is without doubt unfinished business on both sides here, and Pochettino has made no secret of his desire to return to the club one day.
The appeal of just running with the energia universal vibes and bringing him back, re-signing Christian Eriksen and re-swapping Bryan Gil for Erik Lamela should be obvious even to those dreary trophy-counters turned trophy-dismissers.
But is there an argument to be made with the head? We’re saying yes. And it’s this. Antonio Conte is a better manager than Mauricio Pochettino, but is he a better Spurs manager at this moment? That’s less clear-cut.
The reports of his interest in the PSG job coming moments after news that Pochettino was likely on his way out are the key. His camp moved to brief against those reports, but the fact is that even if not true they are entirely believable and plausible. He is not a manager for the long haul at even the biggest clubs, and certainly not at Spurs. He has achieved a lot in a short space of time in the “painful rebuild” that was already overdue when Pochettino left Spurs in 2019 and became more and more urgent as Jose Mourinho huffed and sulked around the place for a year and a half.
If he were a manager Spurs could realistically keep for five years, then everything Conte has done since November would be fine and dandy. From where he found them they had no business being in Champions League contention this season. If this was stage one of a proper new five-year plan they would be ahead of schedule.
But with Conte, Spurs are always against the clock. His contract runs only to the end of next season and even that looks a long way away. The possible 12-month extension to that contract even more so. There is no escaping the sense that however things are currently going in what has been an up-and-down five months he has always had and will always have one eye on the exit door.
Spurs will always be in this curious stalled position while Conte is manager. He’s not going to instantly turn them into top-level contenders again because nobody could, but any improvements he does make – and there have been plenty – are caveated into oblivion by the near-certain knowledge that he won’t be around to finish the job. Under Conte, Spurs are far better than they were without him, but it all feels oddly directionless. He is laying solid foundations for a palace that will never be built.
Under Pochettino, Spurs would at the very least have the prospect of a manager who might still be around to finish what he started. And even if it did go horribly wrong, as the “never go back” truism and the fact this is Spurs suggest is quite likely, the closure that would provide – even if painful – is something both club and manager need to properly move on.
It’s not as strong as the case from the heart, admittedly, but it’s there. There’s no denying an element of Tobias Funke “but it might work for us” to it all. Yet it’s hardly damp-eyed delusion to look at Conte and Pochettino and conclude that both men are probably better suited to the other’s job. And even then, wanting to stick with Conte is a perfectly viable position that it should be entirely possible for Spurs fans or anyone else to hold without having to denigrate what Pochettino achieved and could still offer.
At the very, very least, Pochettino’s likely availability and keenness given the closing-off of alternative avenues offers the security of a better and cheaper back-up option than Spurs could realistically hope for should Conte’s wandering eye take him elsewhere.