Mauricio Pochettino’s name was chanted by the Tottenham fans in the away end at Goodison Park early and late in their draw with Everton. The failure to win the game when a goal and a man up will only hasten their appetite for his return.
Never go back. That is what Tottenham fans are told when the name of Pochettino is evoked. But no matter the identity of the club’s next manager, Spurs must put their missteps behind them and recapture those feelings of optimism and possibility.
This is a club that has lost its way. Sixty years without a title and twenty without a trophy, the supporters are used to hearing all about that. More pertinent is that it is four years without a plan. There had been a clear identity. It has been abandoned.
It might be the saddest part of the Pochettino story at Spurs. The absence of silverware should be a regret, of course. But it is the sense of a legacy squandered that is harder to accept. Spurs have shied away from a formula that was the envy of Europe.
A defence of Pochettino’s time there should hardly be necessary but in a world where it can be dismissed in 280 characters perhaps it is required. A trio of top-three finishes for the first time since the 1960s. A Champions League final for the first time ever.
It was achieved by playing a style of football that felt like the future. Tottenham’s pressing was intense. There was an urgency to their play but it was highly organised too. What might have seemed chaotic to opponents was actually controlled. Ice and fire.
As any coach would tell you, the front-foot approach, the attacking patterns that come with it, that is the hardest part of the game to master. Which is what makes the subsequent retreat, the dramatic change of direction that has followed, so inexplicable.
If Pochettino really had to leave in 2019 – and with Christian Eriksen gone and Dele Alli in decline, a rebuild was certainly required – the search should have been on for the next Pochettino. Instead, Daniel Levy was seduced by the need for a so-called winner.
“Daniel Levy’s decisions in the last three or four years have been driven by the desperate need, because of the stadium debt, because of the training-ground investment,” said Gary Neville, speaking before the game against Everton on Monday Night Football.
“They have the best training ground in the country, in my opinion, and the best stadium. But that has cost them a lot, so he needs to get into the Champions League. That has led him to go for ruthless hard-nosed killers when it comes to managers, like Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. With that comes suffering as well.”
Tottenham fans will bristle at the contrast with their north London neighbours but it is irresistible given that Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta just weeks after Mourinho took over. One club accepted the need for a long-term vision. The other did not.
Frustrated after years of near misses, they were persuaded to believe that all that was missing was that special someone to nudge them over the line. Keep all the best bits but just add that big-game nous. The experience of ‘a winner’ would make the difference.
That thinking has brought change – but not the change that Levy sought. The team still has not won a trophy but the style of play is certainly different.
It is worse.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s 17 games are barely worth mentioning but for the fact that it means Spurs have now employed three consecutive coaches who all prefer a reactive game. Low blocks and lower-risk football. Intensity, no more. The future has become the past.
Bathwater gone. Baby departed with it.
From Mourinho to Conte, the idea took hold that this team had to be set up to cope with the handful of games in which they might be outgunned rather than revel in the vast majority of matches they could reasonably expect to dominate with a swagger.
Games became something to endure rather than enjoy.
It has always been a false dichotomy. Spurs supporters have been gaslit into believing they must choose between entertaining and winning. George Graham and Juande Ramos lifted more trophies than Pochettino. It does not make it a basis on which to build.
That the journey can be as important as the destination is an observation best left to the backpackers’ hostel bar four hours past midnight but there is veritas in that there vino. For all the talk of needing to suffer to succeed, the process itself should be fun.
Instead, a paucity of ambition has sapped players as well as supporters. A club with a space-age stadium being told not to shoot for the moon. A series of coaches set on painting a picture of a club out of ammunition – and going on to blame the soldiers.
Conte, with his particular brand of he not we, lost trust. Throughout his time at Tottenham, he had the demeanour of a man on a date who was eyeing the exit before he had finished reading the menu.
He will point to the fact that he finished fourth in his first season and left them there in his second and that will have some sway with future employers. But it was not the table that troubled Tottenham fans. It was how they felt when watching their team.
They could see this was going nowhere.
Now they need a new vision. A process must start and, ideally, be allowed to finish, under a coach who wants to embrace a more expansive brand of football and stick around to see it through. It could take time. But the quick fixes have only broken Tottenham.
“I do not understand why Antonio Conte ever went there because Conte is a manager who wants to win in the first year or two and that is it – and that is why he has gone right now,” said Jamie Carragher, speaking on Monday Night Football.
“The top six, if you are Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, you can have a bad season and then rectify it in the summer. Tottenham are not.
“Tottenham are like Liverpool and Arsenal where you have to build. So Arteta has built and built and they are where they are. Jurgen Klopp did the same at Liverpool. Pochettino did the same at Spurs. Conte was never going to do that.”
There is a chance now to end the cycle of divisive doom-mongers and aim for something more. Returning to Pochettino? Perhaps not. Returning to that feeling? The supporters are quite right to crave that. It is a course correction that is long overdue.