The press releases for these things are always a little bit ambiguous. Hardly anyone gets fired. When a big-name manager leaves a club, it is typically “by mutual consent,” which is to say the guy has been terminated but it would be rude to say as much. The contract still pays out and the ousted skipper retains as much dignity as he can fit into his valise. It’s all very polite, or at least that’s how it plays out in public.
Which is why it’s remarkable that Tottenham Hotspur, after five-and-a-half seasons of unusually steady success with Mauricio Pochettino, tersely disclosed in a Tuesday press release that Poch and his staff had been “relieved of their duties.” The statement doesn’t pile on or cast aspersions, but it is kind of cold. “Mauricio and his coaching staff will always be part of our history” reads more like a generic bit of flavor text from a sideways Football Manager playthrough than fond admiration for all that Poch has accomplished at a club that’s been rather short on accomplishments over the past, say, 50 years.
That all of those accomplishments need to be qualified doesn’t diminish them. Spurs exist in a peculiar space in the European soccer hierarchy. They don’t have Manchester City’s wealth, Liverpool’s history, or United’s combination of both. They are not exactly like Atletico Madrid, who have greater buying power, or Borussia Dortmund, who are impeccably operated and constantly flush with academy talents. They’re far from poor and they have a sizable London fanbase, but you have to get it just right at Tottenham in order to compete for anything more ambitious than a Europa League place or the Carabao Cup.
Though Pochettino never won any silverware with Spurs, he made them about as good as they could be year after year. What this meant in a particular season varied significantly—making Chelsea sweat out their league title in 2017, a distant third place finish in 2018—but there was, throughout Pochettino’s tenure, an underlying competence. He drilled his players well; he got them organized. If they came up short in the end, it was bad luck, or maybe just the competition playing at a level they couldn’t quite match. The consensus was that he was a great manager at a good club. Maybe one day, under his capable stewardship, they would break through.
Except for the past year, give or take, either Poch had been losing his touch or his players were failing him. Spurs’ exceedingly fortunate Champions League final run papered over a horrendous dip in their domestic form, which hadn’t improved much after an offseason during which the board spent handsomely on midfield talents Tanguy NDombele and Giovani Lo Celso. The team’s EPL record since late February: six wins, 11 losses, and seven draws. They’re 14th in the table at the moment and longtimers like Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld are clearly already thinking about where they’re going to play next season. Poch had reportedly become embittered in the weeks before his sacking. Players didn’t want to speak to him and avoided eye contact on the training ground.
So maybe it was time to move on, painful as it might be and as oddly peevish as Levy and the suits in the Spurs executive suite are being about it. The curious thing is that they’ve hired José Mourinho as Pochettino’s replacement. (And it’s not a temporary, see-out-the-season move; they’ve given him a multi-year deal that pays him twice what Poch was making.) If Levy had grown disenchanted with his manager’s sour attitude behind the scenes, he’s going to have a hell of a time tolerating Mou’s penchant for delivering his misery direct-to-camera. Spurs have problems that likely won’t be sorted out until after the season is over, and in the meantime, Mourinho won’t be shy about commenting on them. He’s a genius, and simply by virtue of being a new face with an impressive resume, he’ll give the team a boost, but the ways in which this can break bad are obvious. Mou either competes for trophies or destroys his players’ confidence as if he were a double agent sent by a rival. Sometimes he does both in the space of six months.
If predicting what will happen with Mourinho in North London is somewhat foolish, the hire is easy to interpret. He’s meant, not just to improve on Poch’s woeful start to the 2019-20 season, but to correct the until recent upward trajectory of the club. Levy wants Tottenham to stand level with and occasionally exceed Atleti and Dortmund, and if not right this second, to in the very near future be able to put a scare into City and Liverpool. He could have sacked Poch and installed a caretaker manager like Ryan Mason or gone after a respected tactician like Quique Setién. Instead he went with the biggest name on the market. You don’t bring Mourinho aboard to improve incrementally or oversee a patient youth movement. It’s a bold maneuver, the sort that communicates you feel that your 14th-place squad should actually be third, and that another deep Champions League run in the spring isn’t out of the question.
Whether this feeling lines up with reality or not, Mourinho’s hiring is the opposite of capitulation, a bet that the past year has represented a step backward rather than the beginning of a protracted decline. Daniel Levy is in most aspects a cautious and rational operator, but you can’t argue he’s completely sane here. He figures the realization of a grand vision requires a grand figure. That might be true. José and Tottenham will certainly make history together, either way.