Mauricio Pochettino remains at Tottenham Hotspur, but he is not happy.
Each passing season feels more important than the last in terms of Spurs’ development into a regular Champions League qualifier and member of the elite but this coming one perhaps is the real crunch. The new stadium is up and functional from the start of the season while there is a sense that the squad that got Spurs to the Champions League final last season is in need of fresh blood.
Tanguy Ndombele has arrived, and will bolster a midfield that had been looking short since Mousa Dembele left in January, but Pochettino clearly wants more, particularly given that right-back Kieran Tripper departed, while there is uncertainty over the futures of left-back Danny Rose and midfielder Christian Eriksen. The center-back Toby Alderweireld, meanwhile, is into the last year of his contract, but a clause that would have allowed him to leave for $30 million has now expired suggesting he is likely to stay.
Pochettino had suggested before the Champions League final that he was thinking of leaving—albeit in a slightly confusing way, seeming to say he would lose if Tottenham won and then that he might go anyway. There was no consistency and little coherence in what he said, but the general impression was of a man contemplating his future.
Tottenham has had a broadly impressive preseason, beating Juventus and Real Madrid, although it lost to Manchester United, but Pochettino still does not seem settled. He seemed notably tetchy after the win over Madrid, snapping at a journalist who had suggested Erik Lamela looked sharp and responding with obvious frustration to a question about Rose’s future.
“I am not in charge and I know nothing about the situation of my players,” he said. “I am only coaching them and trying to get the best from them. Sell, buy players, sign contract, not sign contract—I think it is not in my hands, it’s in the club’s hands and [the chairman] Daniel Levy. The club need to change my title and description. 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.”
Levy is renowned as a tough negotiator and tends to do his business late in the window, so it’s not fair to judge him until the transfer deadline passes Thursday. Mooted deals for the full-back Ryan Sessegnon and the midfielder Giovani Lo Celso have seemingly stalled, which may be part of Levy’s negotiating strategy. But the fact is that if Tottenham, having not signed a player last season, sign only one senior player this season, it’s likely to be problematic for two reasons.
First of all, this is a squad that, for all its achievements last season, has started to feel a little stale, that lacks a little depth, and could probably do with an improvement of quality in a couple of key areas.
But perhaps more significant is what a lack of signings would say about Tottenham’s potential. Pochettino only has to look across north London to Arsenal to see the damage a new stadium can do, the drain it can place on resources. If there isn’t the money for reasonably significant investment, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Pochettino deciding he can take Spurs no further and moving on. There’d be plenty of suitors, with Manchester United and Madrid having already shown signs of interest. And if Pochettino goes, that’s a potentially hugely damaging blow to the Tottenham project.
As it is, with three of the other members of the Big Six suffering problems of their own, this should be Tottenham’s chance to make a regular top four slot their own and guarantee themselves the revenue and the improved exposure regular Champions League football can bring. Levy has been instrumental to Tottenham’s ascent with his firm control of Spurs’ finances but this feels like a vital moment: this is an opportunity to be seized and that means taking a risk.
Pochettino is an astute player of the media game. His comments after the Madrid game will not have been born only of grouchiness. He will have known the impact they would have. He needs new players, needs more investment, and needs guarantees there will be more to come. If they are not forthcoming, then there is a real danger of stagnation at White Hart Lane.
For Tottenham, all the infrastructure is in place. The issue now is to take advantage of it.