Mauricio Pochettino has never failed. Never initially, at least, with the revolutionary scent of his teachings still fresh.
Before the Tottenham project, before the Champions League run, and before his Tuesday sacking brought widespread criticism of the club rather than of him, Pochettino had dragged Espanyol to safety on a shoestring budget. He’d propelled recently promoted Southampton to eighth place in the Premier League. He was, back then and as recently as two months ago, the consummate overachiever, able to accomplish more with less.
And as he ascended, from La Liga to the Prem, from Saints to Spurs, his reputation followed. Success multiplied. Rumors of interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United, the two richest clubs in the world, validated him.
But implied by the constant links to superpowers was an uncomfortable truth: No legendary manager has ever cemented his legendary status at a club like Tottenham. The greats don’t spend entire careers outperforming relatively scant resources. They earn more resources, and by extension more exceptions, and outperform those as well.
This is Pochettino’s next step, to a club where trophies, multiple, are not only desired but required. And it’s entirely fair to wonder whether he’ll continue to ascend among the elite.
Pochettino and Spurs: the perfect match
Pochettino was perfect for Spurs, and Spurs perfect for Pochettino, because they weren’t elite. They were several tiers below when he arrived, and still at least one tier below when he departed. The inferiority, however, was not a drawback, but rather a reason the marriage made so much sense.
Pochettino inherited players who were young and hungry. He fortified the squad, but never corrupted its spirit. He rarely shelled out for overpriced, perhaps apathetic veterans. Because that hunger was necessary fuel for the style he was implementing. Pochettino Ball demands unceasing commitment, an almost cult-like adherence to both tactical principles and unglamorous work. Players like Dele Alli, for years without fail, committed and adhered to it.
They ran themselves into the ground, and simultaneously soared to improbable levels, because they were talented enough to do so but neither established nor entitled enough to question the grunt work. Few, if any, had succeeded at elite clubs previously. Few, if any, prioritized themselves above the collective. The results were two title challenges, the second most points in the Prem over a three-season stretch beginning in 2015, and a Champions League final.
But never a trophy.
Tottenham’s sub-elite status was both a reason Pochettino Ball worked and a reason it never brought a coveted prize. In title races and finals, the Argentine’s genius couldn’t quite compensate for his squad’s shortcomings. So he’ll have to verify that genius elsewhere.
Can Pochettino emulate Klopp?
Tottenham was to Pochettino what Borussia Dortmund was to Jurgen Klopp – a platform for resounding success, but a stepping stone to the ultimate proving ground.
Klopp was magical at Dortmund in a similar situation, for roughly a half-decade, in the shadow of a financial giant, with young, hungry, moldable minds of his own. Whereas Pochettino had to beat five giants to a league title, Klopp only had to beat Bayern Munich, and he did. He also made a Champions League final, like Pochettino. And eventually split with his club after a disappointing campaign, his message having lost its edge.
Klopp left beloved, but not yet widely regarded as a top-five coach worldwide. To reach his profession’s summit, he went to Liverpool, a historic club willing to submit to his philosophies and supplement them with money. The hundreds of millions of pounds, and the players they bought, meshed with his “heavy-metal football.” The yield, so far, has been two Champions League final appearances, one European crown, and the club’s best-ever domestic season. An elusive Premier League title could soon join the list.
But for every Klopp, there are several Unai Emerys and Niko Kovacs and Manuel Pellegrinis and David Moyeses and Andre Villas-Boases – overachievers at sub-elite clubs whose success doesn’t translate to the elite.
That’s because overachieving on an ordinary budget and achieving on a gargantuan one are very different tasks. In elite European soccer, spending often brings diminishing returns. For some managers, the return on a dollar spent holds steady. For others, the benefits completely evaporate. And for a few, at a certain point, the relationship between resources and success actually becomes an inverse one. Late-prime stars on Mesut Ozil- or Alexis Sanchez-sized contracts often aren’t willing to grind, to commit wholeheartedly to the approach that made the manager an overachiever in the first place.
Will this be Pochettino? Or will he be able to emulate Klopp?
Soon enough, Man United or Real Madrid will surely come calling, and we’ll find out.
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