When Mauricio Pochettino quit Southampton for Spurs in the summer of 2014, he inherited a bloated squad that had struggled to finish sixth in the Premier League the season before, featuring the likes of Roberto Soldado, Emmanuel Adebayor and Paulinho. Five years later, and Pochettino had steered the club to a Champions League final.
If Tottenham’s rise under Pochettino was rapid, their fall was positively breakneck. Having lost the biggest match of the club’s history to Liverpool in Madrid, Spurs made an appalling start to this season, winning just three of their opening 12 Premier League matches and losing 7-2 to Bayern Munich at home.
Yesterday, 2002 days after he was appointed, Pochettino was sacked by Daniel Levy. And in the early hours of Wednesday morning, José Mourinho was appointed to replace him.
Having invested close to £1bn of the club’s money in their stunning new 62,062 capacity stadium, appointing Mourinho in this current moment is arguably the biggest decision Levy will ever make in his role as Tottenham chairman. This is also a crucial moment for Mourinho, once regarded as one of the best coaches in the world but whose star faded during his troubled reign at Manchester United.
Here, we examine the new Tottenham manager’s in-tray.
Work out who is on side
Over the painful past few weeks and months, Pochettino lost the Tottenham dressing room. That much is obvious. First-team players grew increasingly frustrated with his apparently mercurial team selections and unexplained absences from training sessions. Now, Mourinho must work out which players are on side, and which aren’t. He must first be quick. And then ruthless.
“I always felt the biggest investment Tottenham could do is what they did in previous seasons – which was keeping their best players,” Mourinho remarked earlier this season. “Some clubs, they can do both, they can keep their best players and buy other top players. I think they showed clearly the group is fantastic with lots of young and English players.”
Damningly, the Tottenham dressing room was in a similar mess when Pochettino replaced Sherwood five years ago. The Argentine built himself a platform for success by quickly determining his allies and casting aside those he felt were not willing to unquestioning subscribe to his vision. The likes of Harry Kane and Ryan Mason were immediately promoted. The likes of Benoît Assou-Ekotto, Sandro and — later — Paulinho, Étienne Capoue and Younes Kaboul unceremoniously sold.
Pochettino led with a cult of personality. It was his way or the highway — and he remained popular with a number of players right until the bitter end. Mourinho must act fast to establish a relationship with those players whose loyalty to Pochettino was unwavering. He could do worse than starting with Tottenham’s captain. “I am very committed to the club but even more to the manager,” Hugo Lloris commented just two years ago. “If he leaves, it will put everything into question, everything. To be happy at Tottenham I need him.”
And then there are the players who grew tired with Pochettino, the players who felt his ideas had become repetitive and his philosophy stale. Mourinho must assert himself. The players who winked and nudged their agents to brief against Pochettino in recent weeks must quickly be brought into line.
Reinvigorate the contract rebels
And then there are the players who have a problem with Levy more than Pochettino. In the short-term, they will likely prove even more difficult to control.
Danny Rose is one. The full-back’s relationship with Pochettino was once so strong that he was mocked as ‘the manager’s son’ in the Tottenham dressing room. But it frayed over the past two seasons and Rose — one of the Premier League’s most honest and unwavering personalities — knew precisely what he was doing when he sought out the media last week.
“I’m telling you right now that I’m not going anywhere until my contract is finished,” Rose said, airing the club’s dirty laundry in public and laying bare the deep divisions in the Tottenham dressing room. “Daniel Levy told me in the summer there was no new contract for me at Tottenham, which is fine. I respect that. We move on.”
Belgian centre-backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will also be difficult to manage. Mourinho may insist he has little interest working with players who do not want to play for the club — but Spurs are currently embroiled in five or six costly contract stand-offs with players. It is likely Mourinho will deploy Eric Dier in midfield and so, in the short-term at least, he must find out a way of bringing at least one of Alderweireld or Vertonghen on side.
Christian Eriksen will be even more difficult to motivate and seems the most certain to leave the club imminently. But Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele are still adjusting to their surroundings and the sudden departure of Pochettino will do little to help them in this regard. Can Mourinho afford to simply show Eriksen the door?
Get back to basics...
Over the summer, the rumours first began to swirl that the Tottenham dressing room was a more disgruntled place than at any other time since the dying days of Sherwood’s madcap reign. But it was at the beginning of the season that the reasons why began to be known.
For Tottenham’s opening game of the season, at home to Aston Villa, Jan Vertonghen was surprisingly dropped from the starting XI. Some sources close to the club began briefing that Pochettino was unimpressed with the defender’s fitness levels — despite the fact he started all of the club’s pre-season friendlies. In reality there had been a dressing room disagreement, with Vertonghen openly questioning Pochettino’s tactics.
The disharmony has endured. A source close to one Tottenham player recently remarked that the squad had been startled by Pochettino’s sudden aversion to attending training sessions. After the miserable 3-0 defeat by Brighton, meanwhile, the dressing room was reportedly silent immediately after the match, with Pochettino seemingly at a loss how to motivate his squad.
Mourinho therefore must lift a squad short of confidence and energy and he could do worse than simply getting back to basics. In recent weeks, Pochettino had relentlessly tweaked his formation and starting line-up, as he desperately sought to rediscover a winning formula. This instability has not helped Tottenham. Mourinho needs to pick a team and a formation — and stick with it.
... and embrace the club
Pochettino’s popularity at Tottenham had a lot to do with the kind of football he got the team playing. Spurs are a proud club with a reputation for expansive, attacking football. For the majority of his time in north London, Pochettino delivered that.
Mourinho’s first task is to stop the rot. He must shore up the club’s defence and lead them back up the table before the top four are already out of sight. That is entirely understandable.
But, if he intends to build a legacy at Tottenham, Mourinho must fully embrace the club and refrain from indulging his worst impulses. The club’s shiny new stadium has already shown that it can be just as neurotic as White Hart Lane and overwhelmingly defensive football will not be tolerated for long — especially when a significant proportion of the crowd will still be hankering for Pochettino.
Given how poor Spurs have been in recent weeks, Mourinho will be afforded some slack. But not for very long. Tottenham have shown great ambition in sacking Pochettino and they will hold Mourinho to even higher standards — fairly or otherwise.
Keep Kane sweet
Tottenham have just lost the best manager of a generation. They cannot afford to lose the best player of a generation, too. Harry Kane is a consummate professional who loves the club and remains passionately grateful for how they signed him after he had been released by Arsenal at the age of 8. Spurs cannot risk straining this selflessness to breaking point.
Give him a pay rise. Make him captain. Hell, make his assistant manager too if it keeps him happy. Just don’t make him question his commitment to the club.