Pochettino Hands Spurs Shopping List to Levy and Counts on Him to Deliver
Mauricio Pochettino is back in Barcelona – the city he calls home – and he is waiting. The Tottenham manager is waiting to see whether the chairman, Daniel Levy, and the club’s recruitment staff can deliver on any of his transfer targets, who include Tanguy Ndombélé, Donny van de Beek, Nicolò Zaniolo and Ryan Sessesgnon.
Pochettino has made it plain he wants to refresh at Spurs and a part of that means introducing new players for the first time since January 2018. There has even been the subtext that he would consider his position if Levy were to disappoint him.
The Argentinian does not intend to return to England until the beginning of pre-season training – the players will report in the week of 8 July – and the wait could be a testing one. Yet, as things stand, Pochettino appears to have accepted a fundamental point, which is that the club’s outlook will not change radically.
Levy will continue to balance incoming and departing player business as he meets the bank repayment deadlines on the stadium project, and that means Pochettino being denied the chance to attack the market with the gusto he might like.
It is not easy for Pochettino. He has maintained the impression of progress at the club despite a clutch of problems, some of which were linked to the lack of signings last season. The squad came to look stretched and it was unusual to note that each of the 25 players who began the campaign last August started at least two games in the Premier League, including the back-up goalkeepers Paulo Gazzaniga and Michel Vorm.
In the end, though, Pochettino is a company employee and the good news for Spurs fans is he and his staff are continuing to act like diligent staff. They are planning for next season with optimism, despite knowing they cannot compete in financial terms with their domestic top-six rivals – particularly the Manchester clubs and Liverpool. In short, Pochettino is digging in at Spurs for the next phase. He has the resources he has and it is about making the best of them.
Pochettino and his inner circle have reflected on every detail of the past season, which ended with the 2-0 defeat by Liverpool in the Champions League final on 1 June. To them, a particular low came in the 2-1 win over Watford on 30 January, when only 29,000 came to watch them at Wembley. Pochettino would sometimes think when the club’s temporary home was full it was only because neutrals and tourists were able to buy tickets. The feel of Wembley was all wrong and Spurs’ exile from Tottenham could not end soon enough.
Pochettino has never hidden his view that the league represents the true measure of a team’s level and it worries him that Spurs’ trends are negative. Yes, they finished in the top four again to make it four Champions League qualifications in a row but their points tally of 71 compared unfavourably with the 77 in 2017-18 and the 86 in 2016-17.
The low return could be explained in part by the run to the Champions League final but that merely heightens the sense the squad is not deep enough or equipped to fight on multiple fronts. And that, once again, shines an unforgiving light on Levy’s recruitment policy.
One of the main conversations to have taken place involves the team’s minimum level and how it may be raised. Pochettino and his staff believe the key to success over a long season is being able to get results on the bad days. To their minds Liverpool were very poor in the Champions League final whereas Spurs were about average and yet Jürgen Klopp’s team won with a measure of comfort.
The thinking is that if a team’s minimum level is relatively high, it does not take much for them to jump to their very best. But if it is low, there is always the danger of non-performances and unacceptable defeats – such as the ones that Spurs suffered at Watford, Burnley and Southampton last season. Pochettino’s team can hammer Chelsea at home, for example, and they feel on their day they can beat anyone. But while there is a huge disparity between their top and bottom levels, there will be problems.
Pochettino’s mission to find out why his players can sometimes plumb the depths is ongoing. To him, mentality is everything and he relished the work he oversaw on the psychological side with his squad in the three-week countdown to the Champions League final. He felt they were perfectly focused for the game, even though it would get away from them after the blow of an early penalty concession. The challenge for them is to maintain that focus over a 10-month period.
Pochettino knows he cannot highlight, say, three weaknesses in his squad and simply go out to get three new players to solve them, and he is mindful his signings have tended to need six months to settle. He must adapt to what he has and that can mean tweaking his tactics. For example, he has come to realise Lucas Moura performs to his best as a second striker rather than a pure winger. Hence the move to incorporate a 4-4-2 diamond system.
Pochettino is obsessed with driving improvement in every player, even if it is only small details, and that will remain his focus this summer. The approach extends to his support staff, who number 25 and include the medics and analysts. What worked in the various areas last season and what did not? How can they be more productive? Every year, Pochettino changes the organisation, the dynamics.
It will be transfers that dominate the news agenda in the coming weeks and it is noticeable how Spurs have targeted young talent with the potential to grow. It is the trend across the board in the Premier League and, moreover, Pochettino might like to admit that his squad is not such a young one any more.
There is an acceptance at the club that unwanted players may be difficult to shift. They have contracts, after all, and where could they go that would be an upgrade? What is more difficult to digest is how expensive the incoming targets may prove. Lyon, for example, want €75m (£67m) for Ndombélé, a hugely gifted midfielder.
Christian Eriksen could hold the key to Spurs’ summer business. There was no surprise at the club when he announced he wanted to leave and the money his sale would generate could power the recruitment drive.
And so back to the waiting. It can feel a little edgy, at times, with Pochettino, and everybody knows how quickly things can change in football. One thing is clear. Pochettino is counting on Levy to deliver something.
The Guardian Sport