History will have the last word, as it always does, but if Mauricio Pochettino’s managerial career gets any better than this, he’ll have one hell of a life. Whatever he may win in the future, sustaining Spurs in the title race is nothing short of remarkable.
I avoid sweeping statements or premature judgements. By nature I am cautious. In life as in football my dash towards a conclusion is slowed by the friction of nuance and doubt. With Poch, he’s currently receiving a great deal of credit from Spurs fans and the media, but that’s still not enough.
He’s a steadfast, reassuring presence, an anchor keeping us steady during a time of change and uncertainty. The ground’s still not ready, transfer policy lacks purpose or direction and all around us at Wembley familiar faces are replaced by tourists or empty seats. The chairman is content to fade into the shadows, Pochettino steps up and into the spotlight.
He has instilled courage and resilience into players who have come to believe they are capable of scoring at any time up to the very final kick. I had given up hope against Watford and Newcastle but the players hadn’t. We’ve run out of defensive midfielders, so let’s concentrate on players who can get the ball and get it forward quickly. Poch turns adversity into strength.
And the players. Sissoko, for over two years a waif and stray, who not so long ago approached a football with the suspicion and disdain of a toddler presented with a plate of vegetables, who could eat it but just as easily it could end up all over the place, now a dynamic, muscular deep midfielder. Vertonghen, who at the age of 31 produces against Dortmund the performance of a lifetime in a position he’s actively avoided. Son, who has played for about 18 months straight, often carrying the burden of a country’s expectations on his shoulders, and has become a better player for it instead of asking for a rest, better because he believes he has a duty to be the best he can be for his club and his country. And they say the modern professional doesn’t care. At Pochettino’s Spurs, they do.
It’s interesting how a few pundits and managers have said our top four rivals have had a bad run with injuries, unlike Spurs. It’s foolish but in reality, a compliment to players and managers that they haven’t noticed our absences.
Injuries. An absence of squad depth and player investment, the latter in stark contrast to our competitors. Playing every match away, when in the last season at the Lane we were unbeaten. Often a lack of atmosphere. These things are being said so often, they are in danger of becoming clichés, but their significance cannot be discounted. These are the disadvantages Poch deals with before he begins each day.
Pochettino and his team fashioned one of the great European nights against Dortmund with a second half performance that’s up there with anything I’ve seen Spurs produce in Europe since the late sixties, save the first half versus Feyenoord in 83. The first 45 minutes set the scene – tight, tactical and full of tension. Half-time was spent muttering about how we couldn’t see a way out of this impasse.
But Poch could. Vertonghen’s run and cross emerged from the dark depths of inertia, Son’s volley shimmered under the lights and Wembley shook. An unforgettable moment. I hope the latecomers who missed it enjoyed the popcorn and doughnuts they proudly clutched as they straggled to their seats.
We pushed up, just a little but enough to make a difference. Poch went for it, going for the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom. I followed Aurier’s cross, didn’t see that Vertonghen was there where he had no right to be, to get on the end of it. Out wide, he saw the game ahead of him, went for the space and moulded it to his wishes like a sculptor creates beauty from a lump of clay. And for goal celebrations, less is more.
Pochettino inspires his players to believe they can be better than they ever thought they would be. They don’t stop and are resilient enough to battle back when games seem lost. More than that, under pressure, knackered, running on fumes in front of our eyes, they keep thinking, keep being creative. Anyone who has done any work, of any type, when tired knows that is the most difficult feat of all.
However, Spurs’ recent success is more than that. Pochettino has upped his game too this season. Developing his in-game intelligence, he makes better use of substitutions and changes tactics mid-game, often several times a match. Given the limits of his bench, that has made a huge difference.
But no silverware. It’s a genuine shame, and at times I feel like celebrating the heady days of finishing top of the London Combination. It’s tough. Our points total might have won the league on several occasions in the last decade, but competition is fierce.
Here’s the thing though. I spend time talking with fellow fans about what it means for them to be a Spurs fan. A lot of this made its way into A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, some is for some research I’m doing. Ask people what being a Spurs fan means for them, and they talk first about how it is part of them, their identity, who they are. Being Spurs runs deep. They talk about their pride in being Spurs, even if they aren’t happy with the way the club is run, and the experience of being with fellow fans to get behind the team, whether this be in the ground or as with, say, US based supporters, in the pubs they’ve made their own. In the place they’ve made home.
It’s the experience they talk about, who they go with, the faces (seldom names) they met along the way, their pre- and post-match routine. They speak fondly of the memories, the moments that lifted them from their seats, 30 or 40 years ago sometimes yet they feel it as if it were yesterday.
It’s only then that that fans mention trophies. I’ve talked with perhaps 30 or 40 supporters, for extended periods. Nobody says, I’m a Spurs fan because I want to win something and all my memories are worthless because in the 21st century we’ve only won one League Cup.
What Spurs fans want first and foremost is pride and dignity in their team. This why so much twitter fan dialogue is instantly disposable. Being a supporter is not primarily about winning things. It’s about loyalty, about caring whether you win or lose. Success is a bonus. Anyway, playing the Pochettino way is the way to win something in the current era. It’s not one or the other.
Managers are football tourists. They come and go, although sometimes they don’t stay as long as they might like. Pochettino understands the club’s heritage. He is not in it for as long as we are, but he’s not using Spurs as a career stepping stone. He’s stayed when others would have moved on, taking their reputation to somewhere with a more generous chairman. His paternal pride in his players is deeply touching in an era where money and greed justify any expediency. In return, they exude the loyalty and the passion we fans take pride in, which is why this team are closer to the fans than ever before.
The atmosphere against Dortmund was fabulous. The singing lacked variety, though. There’s come on you Spurs and marching in. The third big chant on the night was Mauricio Pochettino’s name. That’s how much he means to Tottenham fans. He cares as much as we do.