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The long view: Why Tottenham should be happy they're out of the cups

Mauricio Pochettino Manchester United

Relax, Spurs fans, it’s all going exactly to plan.

In one of those quotes that gets spun into credo, Danny Blanchflower said the game is about glory. In a turnaround that Blanchflower would surely see as self-defeating in-fighting, this phrase is repeated whenever a rotated Tottenham team goes out of a cup.

True, Mauricio Pochettino’s attitude and selection aren’t above reproach, and Blanchflower wouldn’t have been happy to see Spurs beaten by Chelsea and Palace in successive cup ties. But then, the Ulsterman was from a different age: he cost Tottenham £30,000, and he left them before the League Cup was even invented.

To get glory in the top competitions, you need income. Correlation isn’t always causation but the Premier League’s table of wage expenditure matches the final finishing position with unerring accuracy. Well, almost: it errs in that Spurs pay less and get more.

According to each club’s most recent accounts, Liverpool’s wage bill is £208m, Arsenal’s £223m, Chelsea’s £244m, Manchester City’s £260m, Manchester United’s £296m. Tottenham’s is further down, below Everton, just above Palace, Southampton and Leicester: Spurs pay £127m.

That’s largely because of their manager. It's always worth repeating: Mauricio Pochettino has the north Londoners overachieving, especially when you look at the bloated cost base of a club like Manchester United, who may well wish to appoint him in May.

Kieran Tripper Crystal Palace

Meanwhile in Manchester

They may, and they may not. There won’t be a job in May if United reach the Champions League final on the first day of June. Over at Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is doing a great job by the apparently simple expedient of smiling a lot and not telling most of his players they’re knobheads.

Meanwhile, Spurs are having what might be termed a wobble, which isn’t what Blanchflower would have wanted, but it’s an eminently understandable blip given the absence of three of their four key creatives – Harry Kane with ankle knack, Dele Alli with hamstring ping and Son Heung-min with a different sort of national service.

Although questions are inevitably being asked about squad depth, any first team would miss that sort of trio. And while successive cup defeats may be injurious to momentum and bragging rights, they’re still comfortably third behind the hottest pace-setters in recent memory.  

Harry Kane

Looking longer-term, it’s also taking some of the shine off Pochettino, who is looking a little Mourinho-morose in comparison to the nice Norwegian blue-eyed boy currently warming what was supposed to be the Argentine’s seat at Old Trafford.

Every Manchester United win under Solskjaer adds to the idea that the interim manager should get the full-time gig. The players will back him, much as school children will take a shine to a nice substitute teacher. The denizens of the fourth estate are enjoying his fresh-faced optimism, recently reeling him into countering Pochettino’s Wengeresque insistence that a top-four finish is like a trophy.

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Ole vs Poch

“We are about winning trophies – of course we are – and we can’t win the league this year,” said Solskjaer, ‘responding’ to Pochettino (or rather a carefully-phrased confrontational question). “We are still in the cup, we are going to try to win the FA Cup, of course.

“If you win trophies, that’s a fantastic day for everyone in the club,” he continued. “It’s just the best time of your life is that day when you win, because you never know when the next one is going to come. The manager (Sir Alex Ferguson) always said, ‘Enjoy this, whatever trophy you win, you’ve just got to enjoy it.’”

Those quotes were much more widely recycled and top-spun than Solskjaer’s careful, well-mannered caveats, which included, “I am not here to discuss what Pochettino says and what other managers say,” “I think every manager wants to win every game, so I don’t think that is the point he was making” and “again, it’s not up to me to discuss whatever anyone else says”. Nor was it widely pointed out that “the manager” pioneered the deprioritisation of cups with his youthful selections in the League Cup: United 0-3 York City, anyone?

But it’s rude to carp at someone’s party. As far as Spurs fans are concerned, let United win the FA Cup – which they may well do: if they can overcome Chelsea in the next round, their only other surviving serious rivals in the grand old trophy are Manchester City, with all other options 10/1 or longer.

Mauricio Pochettino, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Let Ollie’s enthusiasm sweep United to a final and even into the top four, presumably safely behind Spurs. In an perversion of the old concentrate-on-the-league mantra, Bluetones guitarist Adam Devlin tweeted that instead of not winning four trophies, Spurs can now focus on not winning two trophies – but the bristling Brentford-supporting Britpopper has a point buried below the sarcasm.

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If Spurs can finish in the top three for a fourth successive season – a feat only achieved since 2005 by Fergie’s United and petrodollars’ Chelsea and Manchester City – it would represent outstanding consistency on the pitch and the balance sheet. It would be nice if they could also reach the Champions League quarter-finals for only the second time since before the Beatles started releasing records, but few would criticise a loss to Bundesliga-trampling Dortmund without key players.

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Romance vs finance

And let’s not forget that this is all happening while playing almost an entire season on the road. With the White Hart Lane redevelopment overrunning, Spurs have been forced to lodge at Wembley (remember when that was a hoodoo venue?). As with any episode of Grand Designs, the protagonists find themselves struggling to keep smiling as they spend unforeseen extra months cramped in a caravan and trying not to snipe at one another.

A few years ago, Spurs fans were mocked for concentrating on the cups, caricatured as a Chas & Dave-spouting bunch of romantics obsessed with grand days out seeking shiny gewgaws. These days, that’s a description perhaps more befitting of Manchester United, except soundtracked by the Stone Roses rather than Chas & Dave.

No, let Ollie bring United the FA Cup and let them go off the idea of Pochettino. Even if many a Manc would still prefer the long-termism of the Argentine’s quite outstanding youth development and budget-balancing – and among those many might well be Edward Woodward – remember that Daniel Levy will not give up Pochettino on the cheap, even if Spurs’ manager seeks the exit.

As long as Solskjaer remains a populist alternative, all Levy needs to do is hardball his inexperienced opponent past the point at which it seems like a price worth paying when there’s an alternative that ticks the emotional, fiscal and PR boxes.

Then Spurs, with their new stadium and extended hinterland of Champions League qualification, will not have lost the magnificent manager who could truly take them to the next level – and that’s not winning the Worthington Cup.

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