Why do Pochettino’s Spurs not get more credit for their fantastic season?
“All the world tried to kill us last season,” Mauricio Pochettino said at the weekend, “we fought against anyone. But now, we are focused on fighting only our opponent when we play. Now it is fair play.”
Strip away the overly dramatic (and ever so slightly misguided) language, and you’re left with the message that the Spurs manager felt that his team’s efforts in 2015/16 were somewhat undermined by the neutrals pining for the Leicester City football miracle™. This begs all sorts of questions.
Firstly, was that really the case? If so, why? Should the preference of neutrals have really made any difference on the way Tottenham finished their campaign? (At least one senior player privately blamed a very demanding training schedule for the late collapse, by the way) And thirdly, is Pochettino right to believe that neutrals are now strictly speaking neutral?
The fact that this year’s counter-party to Spurs title dreams aren’t super-cuddly Claudio Ranieri and his lovable bunch of late-bloomers but Chelsea and Antonio Conte suggests the Argentinian might be right to suspect a much more level playing field when it comes to public affections. The 45-year-old has already tried to double down in this looming PR battle and win more hearts by hinting at the “artificiality” of the Roman Abramovich-owned Blues.
Pochettino’s unusual plea for sympathy smacks of frustration, too, no doubt. Regardless of the outcome of the title race (if it in fact materialises), it’s fair to say that Spurs’ league results over the last twelve months have, for some strange reason, not attained the praise they deserved. Last year, Leicester deflected from a pretty sensational achievement - a top three finish ahead of the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and the out-of-sorts Chelsea of Mourinho and Guus Hiddink - and this season, the side’s similarly impressive consistency behind the league leaders in an altogether harder field has hardly made the headlines, either.
We’ve had the odd hagiographic Dele Alli piece, to be sure, but little analysis of the way the former Espanyol defender has shaped a talented, if not exactly star-studded side into the second-best team in England.
Contrast that (relative) silence with the adulation heaped on Antonio Conte for his tactical tweaks and wonderful man-management, or, if you will, with the amount of “José Mourinho has turned Man Utd around” stories that have come in the wake of the Red Devil’s rise from sixth to fifth position. The suspicion is that Jürgen Klopp’s travails at Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s reign at Man City might have garnered more column inches, as well. The plight of Arsène Wenger certainly has.
Why is it then, that Spurs’ unquestionable success with the weakest and most English of squads among the top clubs has flown under the radar? The answer is that their season, just like their last one, threatens to go against the agreed script.
2016/17, you’ll remember, has been billed as football’s version of Game of Thrones, a battle of the sharpest sideline minds. But already back in the summer, Pochettino was only begrudgingly crammed into that “super-coaches battle it out” narrative; he’s neither as famous, sexy or bonkers enough as his top six peers, he’s never won any trophies or poked a rival’s eye, he didn’t quite belong there.
“Poch” might have since left four of those big guns in his shade in the table, but his profile has hardly grown in the process: he is still that brooding, very serious South American guy who doesn’t give a lot of good copy, doesn’t come with a cool nick-name or divides opinion one way or the other. To put it bluntly, what he does or doesn’t do hardly resonates outside North London.
That’s partly to do with Spurs themselves, to be sure. Tottenham, one hugely exciting Champions League season with Gareth Bale aside, have not captured the imagination in the 21st century. But there’s more to it. Newspaper and online journalists have relished the chance to make this year’s PL season all about the men on the benches rather than those on the pitches because of the way they cover the game. Access to coaches is not only far greater than to players, the focus on words and manager-driven storylines in place of on-the-field events also helps counter the traditional disadvantage of working in a medium that’s really not best suited to describe a highly-complex, fast-paced spectacle.
Pochettino’s own story is simply not that interesting yet. Another second or third place will not change the equation either. If he and his men want real recognition in a league sold on the winning qualities of their coaches, he’ll have no choice but to join the club proper, with a trophy or two.