Mauricio Pochettino is certainly playing his part. His family home remains in north London; and so might his heart.
The brief sojourn in Paris was nothing but a rebound, passion that extinguished itself to reveal a core of nothingness.
When still manager of Paris Saint-Germain, Pochettino was asked about his Tottenham sacking and responded as if mourning the loss of his greatest love. “In two days it is the anniversary, the two years since we left Tottenham,” he said. “It’s in my mind. It’s really painful.”
This is not, by any general measure of football’s normality, typical. The great trick of the industry is to mould yourself around – and allow yourself to be moulded by – each club that comes along. Some may take the Robbie Keane route, where every club was your boyhood favourite, but not many. The rest understand the perfect balance: get attached enough to use that attachment as a tool, but not so attached that it defines you.
For Pochettino, the enduring love makes sense because it is reciprocated by many of those he used to serve. It is, incredibly, closing in on three-and-a-half years since he left Tottenham, that time shrunk by the mind because of the continued connection that exists. Among their support, there are so very many who crave the return of Pochettino. This one’s all about love.
Ostensibly, Tottenham’s great yearning for a former manager reflects what happened after he left. For all Pochettino’s strengths, he became defined by an inability to drag a club over the line that already owned a reputation for collapsing under pressure. Under Pochettino, Spurs lost three semi-finals and two finals. The logic was clear: the squad has been assembled, now we just need a born winner to govern them.
Tottenham attempted exactly that. They appointed two of the most infamous win-at-all-costs managers in the modern game in Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte (OK, they also appointed Nuno Espirito Santo, but that went so badly so rapidly that we’ll move on from him quicker than even Spurs did). And those warriors, those snarling personifications of glory… didn’t win.
At which point, thoughts inevitably jump to the same place: if we still aren’t going to win stuff, might we be as well to try and enjoy the journey? The one thing you can say about Spurs under Antonio Conte this season is that precisely nobody looks like they are having fun. They are the huff-and-puff champions, every victory seems predicated upon an internal conflict (this week Emerson Royal is king. You may remember him from such things as “Emerson Royal is the worst wing-back ever”) and achieved in spite of themselves. Every loss sinks them deeper into their own syrupy toxic waste.
The one tenet these “winner” managers share is an ability to fracture a club’s fanbase when things go south. Mourinho is the grandaddy of the artform, but Conte is pushing him admirably close now. Some base their loyalty on the simple formula: if the winner isn’t winning, it must be the players’ fault. Others may suggest, in Conte’s case, that him emotionally blackmailing the club and talking up a desire to go back to Italy might not be a foolproof motivational tool. For that second cohort, the solidarity and fellowship of another Pochettino era would be a welcome salve.
With Pochettino, there’s also an element of unfinished business syndrome at play. Here, time often acts as a healer (You can’t really ask “How would it have ended under Pochettino?” when we pretty much saw how it ended under Pochettino). But the regret – and thus the motivation to atone – lies in Tottenham’s comparative austerity during Pochettino’s time. During his five-and-a-half year tenure, Spurs spent roughly £30m net on transfer fees. In the three-and-a-half years since, they have spent over £300m net on transfer fees. The question jumps out so fast that it slaps you in the face: what might Pochettino have done with this money?
It’s worth saying at this point: this may all be a terrible idea. Pochettino succeeded at Tottenham because he inherited – and assembled – a squad that was low on experience and high on potential that needed a manager, coach and mentor and a community that was begging to be united. In 2015-16, Pochettino’s second season, Spurs had comfortably the youngest team in the division. The list of players aged 25 or under: Walker, Rose, Trippier, Davies, Lamela, Dier, Alli, Eriksen, Son, Kane. It worked because Pochettino, the club, the supporters and the situation fitted snugly.
Is that really the case now? Despite all the investment, Tottenham now have the third oldest average starting XI in the Premier League this season. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are not ancient, but they must surely be weary from the years spent carrying the club on their backs.
What you’re picturing is Dele Alli on the training ground, with Pochettino’s arm around his shoulder, sharing a smile and a joke as love and respect passes between them via emotional osmosis. The reality: Alli isn’t starting every week for Besiktas. And as for the limp cup exit with a weakened team that started the latest fire; Pochettino did that here too.
But then that’s the point. This isn’t about logic, but unashamed, still fervent emotion. Pochettino’s tenure is a reminder (and a very handy, available reminder, given he’s out of work and living around the corner) of what it means to support a football club and what it is to fall in love with a particular interaction of your football team. The one problem with being allowed to dream is that you then can’t stop dreaming.
Of course they would want it to work out this time – that would equal salvation. Of course they would weep if it went sour again, especially if this time the end wasn’t preceded by a gloriously extended middle. But the yearning for Pochettino is the hardwired – and entirely understandable – response to everything Tottenham fans now see before them.
They are grasping in the air where something that got replaced by nothing used to be, clutching at the fading fragments of a dream that was left out in the rain.