Tottenham Hotspur sacked manager Mauricio Pochettino on Tuesday, and didn’t wait long to find his replacement.
The club announced the hiring of José Mourinho as head coach early Wednesday, less than 24 hours later. Mourinho, who has won everywhere he has managed, replaces a man who didn’t win a single trophy with Tottenham.
But the circumstances of Mourinho’s career, and those of his predecessor’s time at Tottenham, make the 56-year-old’s appointment a puzzling one.
Pochettino oversaw the club’s greatest run in decades, leading Tottenham to four straight top-four finishes and winning more games than any manager since the legendary Bill Nicholson. Tottenham also struggled throughout 2019, miracle run to the UEFA Champions League Final in Madrid aside.
18 - No ever-present Premier League club has lost more games in all competitions during 2019 than Tottenham Hotspur have under Mauricio Pochettino (18). Dismissed. pic.twitter.com/Qmg8pCy47a— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 19, 2019
Ultimately, Pochettino fell victim to his own success. Perennial Champions League contention is Tottenham’s new reality, and Spurs right now are closer to the drop than they are the top four.
Pochettino was on record saying he wanted to refresh his squad, desiring a “painful” rebuild as the Lilywhites brought in fresh blood. But clubs around the country and the continent failed to meet stingy chairman Daniel Levy’s demands, leaving the likes of Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to run out the last year of their contracts this season.
Tottenham’s failure to purchase a single player for two consecutive windows ultimately cost Pochettino his job. Lacking subsequent reinforcements behind splash summer signings Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon, Spurs have looked stale since the 2019-20 season kicked off, with the players reportedly tiring of Pochettino’s demeanor and demanding training sessions.
If anything, Tottenham’s troubles have highlighted just how difficult Pochettino’s job was last season in guiding a patchwork squad -- playing most of it away from its long-delayed new home, no less -- to the cusp of a European title in June.
Spurs are, unquestionably, in a better position now than when Pochettino took over in May 2014. But that position is still a step down from what Mourinho is used to, as the difficult circumstances Pochettino had to navigate through parts of six seasons illustrate.
Mourinho has managed established long-time domestic giants (FC Porto, Inter Milan), mega-clubs with massive financial might (twice at Roman Abrahamovich-owned Chelsea and most recently at Manchester United) and Real Madrid, which fits both bills. Tottenham wants to keep company with those clubs, but they aren’t there yet.
Spurs’ new stadium is Levy’s boldest step into building a sustainable contender, yet their net-spend during Pochettino’s entire tenure is much smaller than what Mourinho’s was during parts of four seasons in Manchester. Levy reportedly has long admired Mourinho from afar, but the Spurs chairman a notorious penny-pincher and Mourinho’s previous clubs have spent enough for him to dive into a pool of pennies, a la Scrooge McDuck.
There also is the matter of squad construction and tactics. Tottenham under Pochettino were associated with aggressive pressing and attacking football, living up to Spurs’ “To Dare is To Do.” The ultra-defensive Mourinho’s managerial credo might as well be “To Dare is To Don’t.”
Their fundamentally different nature makes Mourinho and Spurs the oddest of odd couples, and begs one question: Who is going to change?
Will Levy open up the purse strings in January, backing his new manager? If not, why hire Mourinho in the first place?
Will Mourinho -- who once complained of Manchester United’s lack of financial support -- accept Tottenham’s financial reality? If not, why take the job in the first place?
Mourinho, tellingly, pointed to Tottenham’s “quality in both the squad and the academy” in his hiring announcement. Given Spurs’ real inability to refresh their squad until the January transfer window at the earliest, Mourinho’s appointment feels like a decision made with their current core in mind.
There are the aforementioned veterans in the last year of their contracts, while attacking staples Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min are in their late 20s. Dele Alli is in the midst of a down, injury-riddled campaign, but the 23-year-old is approaching his peak years. Mourinho has not managed a club for four full seasons, but this Spurs squad as currently constructed surely doesn’t have four seasons left together, anyway.
“If you’re looking long-term, Mourinho doesn’t work,” a source “with links to Spurs” told The Athletic. “If you’re looking for two years, he does.”
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A short tenure would be par for the course for Levy’s leadership, as Pochettino was the longest-serving manager he hired. Mourinho’s contract lasts until 2023, and seeing it out could mark his longest managerial stint, depending upon how many matches Tottenham plays with him at the helm.
Levy is betting on Mourinho to squeeze some last-ditch glory out of an aging squad, while Mourinho is betting on Tottenham to reclaim his place as one of Europe’s elite coaches. They’ve each, essentially, wagered their reputations on this being a match made in heaven.
Yet there are plenty of signs pointing to it being anything but.