Some people think that being a football manager is like being the curator at a museum. You find the pieces, source them and bring them in from overseas to a budget. You align them for aesthetic beauty. You turn on the lights in the morning and your public are amazed.
But football is obviously not like that. Football is more like being a teacher; nurturing everyone in your class to be at the same level. And some managers pride themselves on being educators, on getting every last drop of ability out of each and every one of their players. For some, two points dropped is at least a lesson for their players to learn. Some managers believe in assembling eleven superheroes for a blockbuster; others invest in origins stories.
Mauricio Pochettino has never signed a world class player for Tottenham Hotspur. When he eased Harry Kane into the Spurs side, he wasn’t the Premier League’s top scorer. Dele Alli was a lower league youngster; Toby Alderweireld an accomplished footballer, but nowhere near the defensive titan that he is now. As his North London counterpart Arsène has been trumpeting for two decades now, Poch doesn’t buy top players, he makes them.
Pochettino spent a season developing these youngsters and finished fifth in the league as a result of persisting with them, and that’s not a failure in the slightest; Man United look to the development of Rashford and Martial and can tell you that taking a year out of the top four isn’t such a bad thing if you can build on your squad, give young players good experience and come back stronger the following season. That’s what Spurs did. It was impressive for Pochettino to promote a young, hungry first team with the desire to grab a spot in the Europa League and start the following season with the same gusto. It was admirable that in the summer of 2015, he managed to ship the likes of Roberto Soldado, Younès Kaboul, Paulinho, Andros Townsend and Étienne Capoue, bring in the likes of Wimmer, Alderweireld, £22m Heung Min Son, and still have about £12m to spare. But since then, the superlatives have continued to unravel.
Érik Lamela seemed a £25m flop at the start of his Spurs career: fellow Argentine Pochettino turned his form around by giving him the trust to express himself freely. Eric Dier, who at one stage seemed like a John Stones-style defender became a linchpin at the base of the Spurs midfield. Christian Eriksen would disappear for large chunks of games, but is now comfortable dictating play for 90 minutes, either out wide or centrally. Mousa Dembélé used to infuriate fans with his lack of a final ball; now, his boss jokes that the club “doesn’t exist” without him.
But while it takes a good manager to get each member of the team performing, Poch’s comments about Dembélé are a particular disservice to his own management. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tottenham since he took over is how little they seem to miss players who aren’t there. Harry Kane was ruled out with ligament damage: Son stepped into the vacant striker’s role to notch consecutive away braces. Alli has missed games through suspension: the midfield has adjusted. It seemed like Vertonghen’s injury woes last season would threaten Tottenham’s waterproof defence, though replacement Kevin Wimmer was somewhat unlucky to lose his place once the captain returned.
So much has been made about the high press that Tottenham operate these days, but it’s tip of the iceberg in terms of the manager’s philosophy. Pochettino demands nothing but commitment: if you’re Harry Kane, it’s commitment to unsettle centre-halves in possession, if you’re Mousa Dembélé, it’s the commitment to provide enough strength in midfield to force the opposition out wide. Pochettino recruits youth, homegrown players if possible, and these are the ones most likely to remain loyal. He puts faith in players that other managers don’t and he has absolute conviction in his system; Tottenham play exquisite football whether Alli acts as counter-attacking a raumdeuter through the middle, or Walker and Rose are linking the midfield to Kane and Son in attack. The confidence that flows through White Hart Lane is astounding; even after an end-of-season capitulation last season, they became the last unbeaten Premier League side of this.
This is what every club in the league dreams of, and it’s what every fan in the league wants in a manager at their club. Someone who will get the best out of the young players there. Someone who will make big signings, but not at the expense of the team. Someone who always has a Plan B, C and D. Someone who will play beautiful football with a concrete spine. While Pep and José face monumentally big rebuilding projects, Pochettino has provided a blueprint of how to build an ambitious Premier League side; make the best of what you have, add young, homegrown talent and recruit wisely.
Tottenham still aren’t taken seriously as a title contender for many; the experience of Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen et al still isn’t seen as enough, and ultimately, Spurs are still considered bottlers, especially after last season. But leaders often grow from underdogs, and consistency flows from momentum. It might not fall into place again this season, but Pochettino is playing the long game, and deep down, that’s what so many of us crave. More Scholeses, Adamses, Gerrards; club heroes who could walk into any club in the league but dedicate a career to one. For the first time in years, Tottenham are enviable.