A time can come when idiosyncrasies that initially fanned the flames of a relationship turn into the deepest sources of irritation. The cute high-pitched sneeze is now a sharp, headache-inducing nuisance; the dinner-time melding of mash and peas isn’t adorable, it’s childish; and, for God’s sake, please hang the toilet roll the right way. Few unions survive such resentment.
For a while, it seemed Mauricio Pochettino cherished Daniel Levy’s austerity in his role as Tottenham Hotspur chairman. It was them against the world. They would show those Manchester Citys and Liverpools; their players would be invested in the project rather than the pay packet. They’d save up and get themselves a bigger place.
Except the optimism after the stadium move hasn’t lasted. Following last weekend’s unfortunate VAR-tinged defeat to Leicester City, Spurs were shamefully eliminated from the League Cup by fourth-tier Colchester United on Tuesday. It was a performance blighted by a batch of off-the-pace players bunched into an unnecessarily conservative shape. It didn’t feel like Pochettino-era Spurs, and it may have been the on-field result of a festering discord between the manager and chairman.
Pochettino and Levy seemed to surmount their rocky patch last season and were stronger for it. Tottenham didn’t broker an incoming transfer for 517 days until Tanguy Ndombele and Jack Clarke arrived on the same day in July. But, before those deals, Pochettino somehow steered his side – hamstrung with injuries and unsettled by its month-to-month Wembley tenancy – to the Champions League final. The journey was a reward for his squad management, tactical bravery, and knack of turning limited players like Moussa Sissoko into crucial, continental-grade toilers.
But now, despite Levy belatedly dipping into the club’s coffers during the summer, things appear stagnant under Pochettino, or even in recession.
“We’re not young anymore, we’re not inexperienced,” Harry Kane said earlier in September when Spurs surrendered a two-goal lead to draw at Olympiacos. “We’ve played in big games for club and country. I can see why the manager is frustrated because he’s been here for six years now and we’re still making similar mistakes to the ones we were in his first year.”
Pochettino has aired his own withering appraisals of Tottenham’s predicament. He admitted to a poor squad dynamic in the wake of August’s home loss to Newcastle United and reiterated those concerns in Colchester when he spoke of differing agendas among his players.
“January is going to be a good opportunity to fix this situation and the next one,” Pochettino shared. “That is the problem when something happens that you cannot control.”
“To keep the successful period in football you need to be different every season and find different solutions. We need to do something different and we will do that,” he added.
Pochettino expects to add players while others circle the drain, perhaps foreshadowing the “next” situation the Argentine was referring to. Levy has apparently slapped a £250-million price tag on Kane to ward off interested parties while the striker’s growing hunger for major honors goes unsatisfied in north London. Christian Eriksen is influencing matches with less frequency and cuts a despondent figure after a summer transfer from Spurs failed to materialize. Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld, and Jan Vertonghen are out of contract at the end of the season.
And will the arrivals – effectively, the ushering in of a new era – appease Pochettino? Clarke’s offseason transfer from Leeds United hinted at Pochettino and Levy’s fraying relationship and opposing outlooks. The chairman oversaw the Clarke transaction, believing a deal worth in excess of £10 million to be good business for a Championship impact sub. Levy thought he was ready for Spurs’ senior ranks.
“But Pochettino would not even look at the player in training,” the Guardian’s David Hytner reported in late August. “It is inconceivable that Pochettino did not discuss Clarke’s readiness for the Premier League with Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds manager and his mentor.”
Levy’s confidence in the youngster’s ability didn’t carry much weight, and Pochettino made sure Clarke was immediately sent back to Leeds. The winger has yet to appear in a Championship match this season while Bielsa abides by the league’s restriction of five loan players per matchday squad. Ben White, Jack Harrison, Eddie Nketiah, Helder Costa, and second-choice goalkeeper Illan Meslier are all preferred to Clarke.
Pochettino’s heavy-handed approach with Clarke demonstrated his enduring power in squad affairs, but he still used a press conference during preseason to complain about his lack of authority over transfer deals.
“The club need to change my title and description,” he bristled. “Of course I am the boss deciding the strategic play, but in another area, I don’t know. Today, I feel like I am the coach.”
And after Pochettino and Levy met for dinner before the north London derby at the start of September, the tactician’s recollection of their conversation sounded like lovers trying to reconcile on a park bench. Their alliance was unraveling.
“The most important thing is that the personal relationship is still strong,” Pochettino said after conceding their footballing philosophies can sometimes differ. “This morning, Daniel showed me a picture that we took on the last day at White Hart Lane where we are together with the coaching staff and his family, and he said: ‘Look, our personal relationship is still there.'”
Levy is entering a crucial time in his stewardship of the club. Tottenham have one of the best managers in world football, but Pochettino’s future remains in question while he feels undermined in the transfer market and the backbone of his squad is seemingly headed for the exit.
Levy’s prudence brought Spurs to where they are: a club with an elite stadium and a top-level team fueled players who were improved in-house. But Pochettino now needs the resources and trust to allow him to fully realize his and the squad’s potential, or a job offer from Real Madrid could be too much to resist.