Farewell then, Poch. After the hugs and the backslaps, time now for a last wave goodbye.
It says a great deal about the strangeness of modern football that the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino by Tottenham on Tuesday night felt startling, brutal but also oddly inevitable.
This is a period of Spurs success that has for some time been feasting on itself. Something had to give. As ever it turned out to be the most visible target, another example of the truism that all managerial reigns – except those of Alex Ferguson – end in disappointment, and that all Tottenham reigns end with being sacked, late on a weekday, by Daniel Levy.
There will be an urge now for some to carve up the carcass of Pochettino’s Spurs, to belittle its successes, to linger only on the failings of the endgame. Those who have watched closely will know the truth. Five years on from his appointment in succession to Tim Sherwood, Pochettino has overseen the most successful period in the club’s modern history.
The chief gains are obvious enough: four straight seasons in the Champions League, a second place Premier League finish and the creation of a team, a system and a way of playing that has been thrilling at times.
But the key metrics are, of course, economic and financial. Pochettino managed all this while spending just £95m net on transfers, 17th among current Premier League teams, all the while juggling the logistics of a transformational stadium move. This will remain his once-in-a-lifetime gift to his successor, and indeed to the private fortunes of the club ownership that has now shown him the door.
And yet, for all this, his departure also feels like the natural final act in this process. You do not need a weather man to see which way the wind blows and Pochettino has been issuing his own warning of ominous fronts and depressions for some time now, most notably before the Champions League final. Looking back, that night in Madrid was a watershed for this Tottenham team, an occasion that had a feeling of end times and last things.
Pochettino argued for aggressive recruitment. Instead, lacking the will and the means, Tottenham have spent the last five months as a part-zombified entity, a squad of putrefied parts. The only victories since September have been a two-stage 9-0 shellacking of a Red Star Belgrade team so poor Billy Bragg’s uncle may well have still been lurking among the subs.
Worse has been the feeling of entropy, of human relationships worn thin and a team grown weary of itself. There is always a natural lifespan to these things. Pochettino comes from the Marcelo Bielsa school of strength through suffering, of football as a game of running, victory a function of physical and emotional exhaustion. Little wonder the players have simply looked tired, like a high-spec car flogged through its hundred thousand miles without a service or a change of cambelt.
In the end the thing that killed Poch-era Spurs was also the thing that made it work. The essence of the good times was the manager’s ability to conjure progress out of so little investment, the same hand played again and again. It was in the end unsustainable. Singularity of purpose became stasis.
Otherwise, we can point a finger at the new stadium, a place of wonder underpinned by anxiety and altered horizons. It will now become someone else’s stage and someone else’s burden.
And the players also deserve a share of blame.
At one stage this season it looked as though Pochettino might start dropping the refuseniks, adopting an All Blacks-style No Dickheads policy. Except, it turned out there were too many dickheads. Critical mass had been reached.
In the last week Danny Rose has announced that he will simply run down his contract and then leave, as though this is just the norm now. It felt like an unguarded glimpse behind the scenes. Mission accomplished. The players will now have a new manager. They will also have a worse manager.
Better for now to say thank you for the good times, because there were many of them. The starting point was probably New Year’s Day 2015 and the 5-3 scragging of Chelsea’s future champions, a day when Harry Kane really arrived as a high-class, high-pressure centre-forward. The run to second place in 2016-17 was the most sustained high, when Spurs were briefly the best team in the country. In isolation there was the night at Wembley two years ago when Dele Alli traumatised Real Madrid, followed by last year’s breathless sprint to the final.
In that time players like Kane, Christian Eriksen, Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-min have played at a career-high pitch. Never mind the lack of a trophy. Forget the slow, sallow death of the past 10 months. This was a Tottenham era to cherish, overseen by a manager of real pedigree. Of the two, it is perhaps Pochettino who will look to the future with more certainty.
The Guardian Sport