No new chapter for Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, the best he can hope for is the same old story
Manager struggling to lift a side that seems to be suffering from mental and physical fatigue
Go back to May and Mauricio Pochettino was dreaming of a happy ending. He saw success not as a springboard as much as an exit strategy. "Winning the Champions League? It should be fantastic, no? Close the five-year chapter and go home,” he said.
Pochettino was one comeback away from a perfect goodbye. Now, as an end-of-an-era feel pervades around Tottenham, the chances have risen that his eventual farewell will feel more anticlimactic.
A manager who seemed aware of the risks of overstaying his welcome may do that, overseeing first Spurs’ rise and then their fall. The Champions League, scene of his greatest feats, hosted his biggest humiliation, the 7-2 defeat to Bayern Munich.
Pochettino has long been a manager who has promoted a sense of a greater narrative and his language reflects that. “The club need to start a new chapter,” he said after Spurs’ record home defeat.
A quest for renewal is understandable, but it has two problems. Tottenham’s summer overhaul was botched and compounded by newcomers’ injuries, and they feel increasingly old.
Continuity has been enforced, problems backloaded by their failure to strengthen in the 2018-19 season.
There is a theory that Pochettino is at his best with young players: partly because he can mould them, but also as they bring the energy levels he requires. Now only Watford, Crystal Palace, Manchester City and Burnley have fielded an older starting 11 than Spurs this season.
Brighton ran 7km further than Spurs in Pochettino’s last setback, 3-0 in Sussex. Tottenham used to outrun opponents; now other teams often cover more distance.
They are completing more passes before losing possession, a sign Spurs’ closing down is not as effective and pressing, like running, formed part of their identity.
Harry Kane is only 26, but he does not harry defenders like he once did. But he has also had ankle injuries and has 371 games under his belt, often for teams defined by their intensity.
Christian Eriksen is 27, but has 532 matches to his name. Dele Alli is just 23 but has 339. It is no coincidence that Spurs’ best performers, such as Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura last season, are often those who look the freshest.
And perhaps age is not merely biological. Danny Rose, in stark decline and a player Tottenham tried to offload in three successive summers, feels the oldest 29 year old in the game. Spurs’ dynamism once came from the full-backs.
Their inability to replace Kieran Trippier stripped them of another dimension on the right. Nor are the wide men even fulfilling their defensive functions, while inside them Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have started to look 30 and 32 respectively; Alderweireld, backing off Serge Gnabry and Aaron Connolly when each scored, looked worried by younger players’ pace. Bayern exploited a high defensive line better suited to younger, quicker defenders.
And Spurs can seem both old and tired. There seems to be both mental and physical fatigue. Pochettino’s football can be exhausting, but so can the environment.
It is partly the way that, with Tottenham pricing some players out of moves and others not finding takers, they have been kept together for too long, past the four-year cycle Sir Alex Ferguson used to say teams had and to a point when some, like Alderweireld, Eriksen and Rose, expected to be playing elsewhere.
Retaining a relentless focus is harder in those circumstances, especially as some know they are underpaid. But there is also the psychological element.
Tottenham have driven themselves so far and, in some respects, achieved so much and yet won nothing. It must be a draining realisation that the best they can probably do is overachieve without securing any silverware again. The best-case scenario is not a new chapter, but the same one.
Updated: October 17, 2019 11:22 AM