Sun. May 26th, 2019

Tottenham owe it all to priceless manager Mauricio Pochettino

At regular intervals during this season — sometimes on a Sunday morning — Daniel Levy and fellow Tottenham directors Matthew Collecott and Donna-Maria Cullen would gather at the site of the club’s new stadium for an update on progress.

It was not always an enjoyable experience. As delay followed delay and the club sought new ways to reassure disenchanted supporters, Levy and colleagues began to wonder just how the 2018-19 season would end.

However it ends now — with Tottenham in a Champions League final against Liverpool — will feel a million miles from those sombre weekend mornings among the cranes and the concrete. 

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino couldn’t contain his emotions on Wednesday night

Central to a remarkable and unexpected achievement is their charismatic manager Mauricio Pochettino. Strikingly, one thing that did not worry the Spurs board was Manchester United’s interest in their manager following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho last December.

While Spurs fans and even some members of the dressing room began to ruminate on the prospect of life without Pochettino, Levy never did.

‘We knew he wouldn’t go,’ said a well-placed Tottenham source. ‘It was not even a conversation we needed to have with him.’

Pochettino’s influence on Tottenham has been so profound that a move to United would have represented only a marginal step forward in terms of prestige.

In his way — through inspired coaching and a devotion to developing young players — Pochettino has balanced the scales in English football but it has not come easy.

Spurs overcame a huge deficit to beat Ajax and reach the Champions League final next month

Spurs overcame a huge deficit to beat Ajax and reach the Champions League final next month

Pochettino wept when the final whistle blew in Amsterdam. Only he knows why. He is an emotional man, so it’s a safe bet what we saw was the release of years of tension caused by forever feeling as though he was punching upwards — the reaching of another staging post on his journey towards the pinnacle of European football.

There are two great influences in Pochettino’s life — his wife Karina and his assistant manager Jesus Perez. Both told him, when he was daunted by the thought, that he must move to England when Southampton posed the question in 2012. Both told him a year and a half later that he must leave Hampshire for Tottenham when loyalty was tugging him hard. 

Pochettino can be stubborn but he listens, too. So Wednesday’s achievement was as much for those who stand by his side as it was for himself.

Life at Tottenham has not always been straightforward for the 47-year-old. The publication of his book Brave New World last season was not received with unbridled enthusiasm by Levy, given it contained details of their relationship and the workings of the club. Pochettino believed it to be indicative of a trust between the two men that he could be so open, while Levy viewed it differently.

Equally, the issue of money at Tottenham is pertinent and always will be while Pochettino remains at the club.

Mauricio Pochettino has become absolutely priceless to Tottenham Hotspur in recent times

Mauricio Pochettino has become absolutely priceless to Tottenham Hotspur in recent times

Pochettino has worked under marked restrictions in the transfer market when compared to rivals at the top end of the Premier League, but the notion Tottenham never have any money to spend is a myth. 

His attitude to building a squad is clearly defined. He likes it to be small, never completely trusting the mental and emotional machinations of those not regularly involved on the field. He also likes it to comprise players he would take as first, second or third pick from a position-by-position wish list.

This is why he has prevaricated, probably correctly, over buying players such as Ross Barkley — favoured by Perez — and Jack Grealish in recent seasons and feels he had his fingers burned by gambling on players such as the centre forward Vincent Janssen, who he never really wanted.

So, those who talk of Tottenham lacking strength in depth should also consider the manager’s preferences. Last summer, for example, he expected to sell Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld after losing faith in their levels of commitment. Yet both proved their worth in Amsterdam this week and have done so routinely this season. 

He has worked to advance the likes of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Harry Winks

He has worked to advance the likes of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Harry Winks

The beauty of Pochettino and his work is to be found in the wonderful advancement of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Harry Winks. Kane and Son know what it is like to be privately criticised by Pochettino — Son for having too many hangers-on — but equally to benefit from the faith and wisdom of someone who has only been a manager for a decade.

The Tottenham manager’s belief in young footballers is probably unrivalled in the Premier League. Improving raw talent is what drives him most in the game, more even than winning trophies. He remains sensitive about the latter point, probably because he knows it’s pertinent.

He was tetchy when asked about Kane’s fitness on Wednesday because he resents the suggestion — first proposed, then retracted, by Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola — that Tottenham are a one-man team. Kane will indeed be fit for Madrid and Winks may be, too.

Yet as Tottenham prepare to attempt one more European assault and take down favourites Liverpool in three weeks’ time, their best hope remains the man in the dark suit on the touchline. Bricks and mortar have their value but Pochettino’s worth is off the scale. 

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