At some point this week, someone on a radio show, your television or social media will patronisingly advise Tottenham supporters to “Look at the league table”. Spurs are fourth, you see, exactly where they would be happy to stay.
So what’s the problem? Which is true, if you deliberately avoid the happiness of the players and supporters, the style of play and the fact that the manager was out of contract in three months, had shown no desire to stay and had just set fire to every bridge that stood between him and the club.
Still, you do see the point. What was it about Antonio Conte, the superclub coach who falls out with owners and chairpersons over a perceived lack of ambition and investment, who calls out his players in public, who gets teams to where they want to be while persuading everyone that this will end badly eventually did they not expect? If Daniel Levy was a little flummoxed by a manager questioning his competence in public, only to row back upon it in private before repeating exactly the same trick, he didn’t take enough notice of the portfolio.
Tottenham have now made three bad managerial appointments in a row. Or, at least: Tottenham have made three appointments in a row that haven’t worked out, which spreads the blame a little more but ultimately produces the same sour taste. They opted for two tactically pragmatic (yes, that’s a euphemism), winning-obsessed coaches who scorch the earth around them when things begin to go awry. In the middle of the sandwich, just for a change, they went for another tactical pragmatist. You know what this quattro formaggi pizza is missing? A healthy dusting of parmesan.
Some clubs (and some clubs Tottenham would like to be) are insured against repeated strategic missteps because of their wealth or size. Manchester United could afford to run through Mourinho, Solskjaer, Rangnick and the great fix still began under a capable coach even amid takeover uncertainty and the suffocation of the Glazers’ smog. Chelsea sacked managers liberally for two decades because sacking managers was their culture. The money? Don’t worry about the money.
At Tottenham, the same is not true. Errors have lasting consequences: the cost of hiring and firing, the investment that each manager demands, the risk of ostracising or deflating your most valuable assets. At Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea, they can afford to swing and miss on expensive players. The same is not quite true at Spurs, at least not while they were building or admiring a new stadium. What would be really handy now is to rip up the last three years and start again; they cannot afford to do that.
As a result this is not, it should be said, a hugely attractive job bar the obvious financial reward. Harry Kane’s future will again be open to feverish discussion this summer. Son Heung-min has struggled this season. The two goalkeepers are aged 36 and 35. The squad includes players signed under four different managers. Tanguy Ndombele, the most expensive signing in the club’s history is out on loan, along with another £ 120m worth – in transfer fees alone – of players. They spent almost £250m on new players under Conte and yet the squad seems in need of investment and five of the eight players with more than 20 league appearances this season will be 30 or above by the start of next season.
What Tottenham need is a detox. The cry for Mauricio Pochettino’s return is not just because supporters see the work he did minus the investment subsequent managers received as an act of grossly unrequited love. Pochettino provided that detox, after Tottenham were plunged into existential crisis by Andre Villas-Boas’s nothingness and Tim Sherwood’s bizarre bravado that came after the Harry Redknapp years.
His greatest trick wasn’t tactical; it was making it obvious that he considered himself honoured to take on the job, responsible for the development of players and the trustee of the bond between fans and their club.
Can we honestly say the same about Mourinho and Conte? That they wanted this job as much as the club wanted them? That they were not there to try and rebuild or repair a reputation, or to puff out their chests or to score points with their critics? That, if the job had gone supremely well and attracted the interest of the super clubs, they would not have found a chance to jump ship?
You’d do well to whisper it anywhere near a Spurs supporter, but this is where Arsenal got it right with Mikel Arteta. When Arsenal missed out on the top four, there was no emergency because Arteta had put in place the other elements of that culture that are necessary when you aim to punch above your weight: culture, a style of play, connection with supporters, a young team, a growing understanding between component parts of the team. Conte was not sacked because Spurs were fourth. He was sacked because being fourth was the only reason to keep him in his job.
Julian Nagelsmann may well be an attractive proposition, but does he see Tottenham only as Paracetamol for his own reputation? Pochettino is an alluring, intoxicating option, but would they not be appointing the Pochettino of 2014 in 2023 and is that kind of emotional interdependence healthy when there are so many flickers of history that bear little relevance now?
These are the questions Levy must now reckon with. They will determine the medium-term future of this bruised, smarting football club, for better or worse. It goes without saying, but we’re saying it anyway: the only thing worse than three duds in a row is four.