TALKING POINT: After one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, Daniel Levy must fight his instincts and keep faith with a young and progressive manager
By Jay Jaffa
Given the amount of money Tottenham have spent on reshaping their squad in the last 12 months, the high-profile nature of their dealings and their obsessive quest to break the Champions League hegemony, the club find themselves perpetually in a sort of footballing purgatory.
They boast genuine top-class talent in their ranks with the likes of Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen, yet the football world is all too keenly aware that anyone is available if the price is right. The Tottenham board earmark a top-four assault every year, with Champions League qualification the golden chalice, but continually shoot themselves in the foot in pursuit of that goal.
The most recent debacle was more a prolonged shellacking than a one-off assault and lasted well over a season. A mess from start to finish, Gareth Bale was sold, seven internationals were brought in and poorly integrated, Tottenham’s traditionally flimsy backbone was exposed time and time again, Andre Villas-Boas paid for his side's implosions with his job and Tim Sherwood used the second half of the season to disenfranchise an entire fanbase.
In short, most fans will remember the 2013-14 campaign as one of the least enjoyable years since the fabled mid-table mediocrity that defined 1990s Tottenham.
Consequently, it seems as if everything has reset. The foundations laid by Martin Jol were advanced by Harry Redknapp as Spurs slowly and steadily built a side capable of upsetting the Premier League's oligarchy and, whatever the opinion is of the now-QPR boss, he gave Tottenham their best years for generations. But all that was wiped out with only a special relationship to show for it.
Redknapp's now infamous "they've never had it so good" barb might have alienated a portion of the fanbase but if you overlook that childish swipe Spurs were on to a good thing. Bale had emerged, Luka Modric was orchestrating entire games and Rafael van der Vaart added final third ingenuity that is so hard to find.
The sum of this remarkable aligning of the stars was one thrill-packed run to the Champions League quarter-finals before every diamond was auctioned off. First Modric, then Van der Vaart, Redknapp was sacked in 2012 and Bale left last year.
For a team that professes to have such lofty ambitions, recent seasons have proved anything but. Yes, money has been spent but the net figure remains in profit given the cash recouped through the likes of Bale, while a stadium promised almost a decade ago remains some way off.
All this has left the club’s supporters at odds with the board’s ambitions. Look through the Premier League and there aren’t many scenarios where fan expectations tally with the expectations of a club’s hierarchy, and fewer still with supporters more pessimistic than the owners, yet most Tottenham fans have slipped into this state.
There are fewer star names these days at Spurs. The squad is arguably weaker than the 2011-12 collection - especially when last season is used as evidence - while rivals for the top four have all strengthened this summer.
Perhaps more important is the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, a relative rookie in the managerial game. That shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a negative - Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez are still in their formative managerial years - but the Argentine only has a year-and-a-half of Premier League experience behind him and there is a sense that he represents another ideal the Tottenham board have become ensnared by, though may not necessarily have the stomach to see through.
Then again, that he has been handed a five-year contract assumes that Daniel Levy has decided to forgo his habit of pulling the trigger (the Spurs chairman has gone through eight permanent managers in 13-and-a-half years now) and put his faith in Pochettino, even if that does feel eerily similar to the noises surrounding Villas-Boas’s appointment and the two-year deal that was handed to Sherwood, a mere caretaker.
Concerns over Pochettino do run deeper than inexperience. While he is rightfully hailed as a fine coach and the man who pushed Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert to international recognition, his start at Southampton in January 2013 was awful. They won just four of 16 matches, and endured a significant dip in form in the run up to Christmas last year that reportedly saw senior players beg then chairman Nicola Cortese not to fire him.
Pre-season has been positive at Spurs though. Goals have been easy to come by (14 in four matches) and Erik Lamela has returned to the fold following a calamitous injury-hit first season in north London. He is, as Pochettino says, “an unbelievable player” and someone “we expect a lot from.” Could he yet replace Bale?
Many of Tottenham’s key players have had a full summer of rest - Eriksen, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue and Lamela seem fresh and aside from Everton, who had seven representatives in Brazil, Spurs had fewer (8) than Arsenal (14), Chelsea (15), Liverpool (13) and Manchester City (11). It’s an advantage, however small.
Since being appointed in May, Pochettino has delivered the same message all summer; 'embrace my style of football, work hard and we’ll succeed'. Though Spurs are still looking to fine-tune the squad, with Mateo Musacchio and Morgan Schneiderlin long-term targets, he has not been shy to emphasise the importance of embracing his methods while keeping expectations manageable.
"I think the challenge for all managers is to win trophies but I'm focused on developing our style at Tottenham," he said on Thursday.
Obvious weaknesses in the squad have been addressed by the signings of defenders Ben Davies and Eric Dier, while on the whole Pochettino should be excited at the prospect of working with a higher calibre of player to those at Southampton.
With all this in mind and the uncertainty surrounding Europa League fixtures and the effect it has on subsequent Premier League fixtures - particularly with such a high-tempo style - would a repeat finish of sixth be a reasonable expectation?
Levy spoke of Pochettino’s “high energy, attacking football” and a “proven ability to develop each player as an individual, whilst building great team spirit and a winning mentality.”
It didn't speak as though pressure had been placed on the 42-year-old to breach the top four and Levy neglected to place emphasis on specific targets for 2014-15 season. Meanwhile Pochettino himself has repeatedly stated that nothing has been asked of him this season. Perhaps the board’s expectations are falling more in line with the supporters this year.
And it makes sense. Last year the club lost a great deal of their identity. A feeling of apathy hung over White Hart Lane from the moment the wheels fell off Villas-Boas’s reign and that in all likelihood permeated the boardroom. If Spurs can put together a cup run, maybe even win a trophy, all the while adopting a defined style and closing the gap on the top four, many will be happy in 10 months time even if Spurs do wind up in sixth again.
The long-term has been identified though. Pochettino may not have set targets this season but he has openly aimed for the stars, with the Premier League title mentioned on more than one occasion. His Southampton side relished their tussles with the league's bigger fish, and the Argentine is ready to instil a fearlessness and boldness that perhaps did not even exist under Redknapp, who was quick to highlight the enormous task Spurs faced merely in challenging the elite.
Ambition is welcome, particularly in a team not part of England's upper echelons, but it is the formative months of Pochettino's reign that will tell us everything about the direction are headed and whether he can compete at the top table.
Levy has cycled through managers as if it is a game but in giving Pochettino a five-year contract it is now time to buck a trend and keep faith. Tottenham have a young and progressive manager, schooled in attacking, high-energy football - deriving directly from the club's traditions. That box is ticked.
Champions League might be the ultimate goal, but right now it isn't a realistic aim, not with the rise of Liverpool, Louis van Gaal's seemingly inevitable impact at Old Trafford and Arsenal's shrewd purchases. As ever, the foundations are there but Levy must avoid the temptation to blow the walls down at the slightest hint of panic.