Reflecting on former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s unique ability to read the mindset of a dressing room in his 2014 autobiography The Second Half, retired captain Roy Keane offers the example of the manner in which Ferguson readied his side for a home fixture against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.
“I thought I knew what the group might need, that we didn’t need a big team talk,” Keane said. “It was Tottenham at home. I thought ‘please don’t go on about Tottenham, we all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll do them. He came in and said: ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’, and that was it. Brilliant.”
Ferguson’s team talk offers a precise distillation of the manner in which Tottenham have traditionally been viewed in the Premier League era: a club as much associated with silky, attacking football as they were with imploding on the big occasion. But since Sir Alex retired as Manchester United manager in the summer of 2013, a year before Mauricio Pochettino departed Southampton in order to take charge at White Hart Lane, the tables have begun to turn.
Although Tottenham have only once finished above United in the Premier League (2013/14) and have still not featured in the Champions League since 2010/11, they have won two and drawn three of their last seven matches against the Old Trafford club, with all competitions having previously gone winless through 26 against United over 11 years.
Furthermore, only six points separated fifth-place Tottenham from fourth-place Manchester United at the end of last season’s Premier League, and where Louis van Gaal’s side labored to a bore draw at home against a poor Chelsea side at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon (their eighth consecutive winless match), Spurs ground out an 89th-minute winner away against in-form Watford to pull five points clear of the Red Devils in third in the table.
On current form, it is difficult to envision United leapfrogging Tottenham into the top four, and the pressure on Van Gaal has grown to the extent that he is an odds-on favorite with most bookmakers to be the next Premier League manager sacked. The newfound availability of the former Chelsea boss, Jose Mourinho, as well as Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, has done little to strengthen Van Gaal’s job security. The Dutchman’s assistant at Old Trafford, Ryan Giggs, is favored as a successor by many of the more romantic United faithful.
But if, as the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor suggests, the United board regard Mourinho as too unstable to manage at Old Trafford, and if the “Guardiola to Manchester City” rumor is as done a deal as has been made out, Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward would do well to consider appointing Pochettino as Van Gaal’s successor.
Such a move would, of course, be a gamble for United.
The fact that Pochettino only managed at Espanyol and Southampton before taking over at Spurs means that he has no experience coaching in the Champions League and it seems unlikely that the Argentine would command the instant respect of a star-studded dressing room in the manner of Mourinho or Guardiola.
However, the nature of United’s demise over the last three seasons, combined with the rapid improvement of clubs like Leicester City, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Everton, and Spurs (not mention a Jurgen Klopp inspired Liverpool), means that it would be presumptions to envisage Pochettino taking charge at Old Trafford with the club in the Champions League.
Furthermore, the absence of any star quality in the United dressing room is an important part of the reason why the club finds itself in its present predicament. While Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Juan Mata, for example, are bigger names than Pochettino has ever previously managed, they are no performing at a level commensurate with their reputations, and form suggests that no one in the United squad would get anywhere near the starting side at Spurs at present.
The scale of Pochettino’s achievements at White Hart Lane should not be underestimated. The 43-year-old inherited a deeply unbalanced and unmotivated squad hastily thrown together by two different managers in the season which followed the world-record sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in 2013.
Pochettino has succeeded in purging the squad of overpaid and underperforming deadwood such as Roberto Soldado and Paulinho at the same time as developing academy players such as Harry Kane, Tom Carroll, and Danny Rose. He has reduced the team’s age profile and successfully instituted the kind of high-energy, pressing system that managers such as Guardiola, Klopp, and Diego Simeone have employed to great effect in the Champions League.
Tottenham now possess a squad full of young, fit, hungry, and ambitious footballers prepared to outrun their opponents from minute one to minute 90 in the search for three points. They have the tightest defense in the league (15 conceded in 19 matches), the joint-second most prolific attack (33 goals), and a front two who many see as the future of English football in Kane and Delle Ali.
Put simply, Pochettino has catalyzed a cultural transformation at White Hart Lane. In 18 months under his management, Tottenham have gone from being a fair-weather football club to one of the hardest sides to beat in any of Europe’s five major leagues. Their clutch victory at Vicarage Road yesterday typified this development.
With Chelsea and Manchester United struggling and Liverpool in transition, the Champions League is beckoning for Spurs, the big question now is whether Pochettino will still be at White Hart Lane to lead the club into Europe next season should a more illustrious rival, such as United or Chelsea, make an approach in the interim.
[Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images]