Before the collapse against Bayern Munich or poignant defeat at Brighton; before the pile-up of bad results that led to a narrative that Tottenham have run out of steam, there was a telling moment in mid-September that revealed the first hints of their deep-seated problems.
After a 2-2 draw with Olympiacos, Harry Kane spoke with an unusual weariness of his frustration that Spurs were “making similar mistakes to the ones we were in [Pochettino’s] first year”. Rather than talk in banal clichés of optimism, the ‘onwards and upwards’ shtick, Kane was referring to the past and looking back on the Mauricio Pochettino era as a whole. When you start musing on the journey – where you’ve been, not where you’re going – it’s clear that endings are on the mind.
Few still hold hope of a comeback; of Pochettino having the energy to rebuild the club from the bottom up. As senior players run down their contracts – one eye already elsewhere – and others battle on with the knowledge that Pochettino wanted them gone in the summer, all of a sudden the Champions League finalists look historic.
It is a side that has aged together. Six of their regular starters have been at the club since 2013. Ten of the starters at Brighton have been there since at least 2016. As Adam Bate highlighted for Sky Sports, Spurs are now the fourth-oldest team in the Premier League, their average age shifting from 24 to 27 within six years.
Football clubs grow stale. Managers need to refresh the team for their ideas to still be heard. Motivation subconsciously slips when instructions sound tired - when you’ve heard it all before – and that’s especially true when there is no mountain left to climb.
Pochettino knows this, which is why he's been desperate for Daniel Levy to release more funds over the last few years. And so as the Pochettino years fade to black, perhaps now is the time to look back, like Kane, on the era as a whole and wonder if Levy’s brinkmanship has cost the club a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Levy has performed wonders at Spurs since his appointment in 2001, and yet recently his talents have perhaps been exaggerated. In terms of financial income or transfer spend, Tottenham are not naturally a Big Six club. Levy has not carried them to these heights, but rather Pochettino has massively overachieved year after year.
The club’s surge from middle class to borderline aristocracy is thanks to the work of their world-class manager, not some perfect business model that could be copied elsewhere. The healthy profits don’t come from Levy, they come from Poch’s consistent and remarkable Champions League qualifications on a humble budget.
When Pochettino leaves, it could all disappear. A truly elite football club is defined by regular Champions League revenue, global merchandising appeal and gate receipts. The first of these is far from secure in the coming years, the second doesn't yet apply to a newly-successful club like Spurs, and the third? The new ground is impressive, but barely bigger than West Ham’s or Newcastle’s, and possibly smaller than Everton’s proposed new home for 2023.
In years to come, we may look back on the Pochettino era as a vital missed opportunity; a unique moment when a world-class manager at his peak had the ambition to take the club to the top. Becoming Champions League regulars is one thing, but to take that final step into the highest echelons takes something – or rather someone – extra special. Spurs had it – still have it – but Levy has failed to seize the opportunity.
So often with Spurs, it feels as though Levy loves the game of a transfer; the thrill of a bargain hunt over the feeling of actually getting what’s needed. Taking deals right to transfer deadline day has consistently disrupted Pochettino’s tactical plan, and failing to make key signings has consistently blunted the manager’s ambition to challenge for the title. Meanwhile, asking too much for transfer-listed players has consistently left the Argentine with a divided dressing room.
This has been precisely the wrong moment to play games and squeeze every penny from a transfer. The extraordinary gift of a man like Pochettino means this is a time for getting deals done, for paying slightly over the odds and taking the hit; long-term, as Spurs become branded as a global super-club, the benefits would have massively outstripped the costs.
Tottenham may well stay part of a Big Six post-Pochettino, but the club’s foundations at this level aren’t anywhere near as solid as the manager has made them appear. This was perhaps their one chance to make a leap to the top tier, and – judging by the current malaise; by the sense of endings hanging over them – Levy might just have missed it.
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