Pochettino’s Tottenham Dilemma

Tottenham Hotspur were sent crashing out of the Champions League this week and with it came a lot of questions being asked by Spurs fans. After working so hard to qualify for the competition after an absence of five season, the exit came with a bit of a whimper. One game remains in the competition to see if Mauricio Pochettino’s team can return to their usual Europa League stomping ground.

Champions League Performance

When the draw was made it was deemed a group that Tottenham could comfortably qualify from. Especially after their performances in the Premier League the previous season. Were they ever going to win the competition? Probably not. But qualifying from the group stage was a realistic objective and thousands of Spurs fans snapped up the available ticket packages for these games before even knowing who the opponents would be.

The move to Wembley has not been an easy transition of course. Tottenham’s North London rivals similarly struggled whilst playing there during their own stadium development between 1998 and 2000. But with 85,000 Spurs fans there to witness two games so far this may have added to the pressure felt by Pochettino and his young squad of players. It will be interesting to see if Wembley gets anywhere close to capacity for the final game.

Two defeats at “home” to AS Monaco and Bayer Leverkeusen had left Tottenham with a mountain to climb and it seems the precipice was out of reach for them. The performances in all five games so far have been tepid at best. Add to this a recent winless streak in the Premier League and fan unease is suddenly becoming more vocal. Pochettino’s team selection and tactics have also been called into question. Especially as he appeared to leave two of his first string defenders on the bench for the must win game away to Monaco last Tuesday. Probably with one eye on this evenings game with Chelsea.

A Step Up

Expectancy for the Champions league was high for the club. But history tells us that there is an acclimation period needed before teams adjust not only with the quality of play in the Champions league, but also balancing this with the needs of consistent performance in the Premier League. If we look at the established Champions League qualifying teams from England over the years we can see that they didn’t fare much better early on:

  • Manchester United were knocked out in the second round in 1993/94 (before groups were introduced); they didn’t make it out of the group stage in 1994/95; and were back in the UEFA Cup in 1995/96 – losing in the first round to Rotor Volgogard!
  • Arsenal were knocked out of the group stage in 1998/99 and also 1999/2000, and whilst they made the quarter final in 2000/01, they only made the second group stage in 2001/02 and 2002/03.
  • Liverpool, after many years appearing regularly in the UEFA Cup got to the Champions League in 2001/02 and reached the quarter final. In 2002/03 however, they didn’t get out of the group stage. They were back in 2005/06 getting as far as the round of 16 until they became runners up in 2006/07.
  • Chelsea have made a better fist of it. But then with Roman Abramovich throwing millions at the club to get them established it was no surprise. A quarter final appearance in 1999/2000 was followed by three seasons of early round exits in the UEFA cup and then two successive semi final exits in the Champions League.
  • Manchester City’s inaugural season in the Champions league saw them knocked out of the group stage in 2012/13. Then two knock outs in the round of 16 in 2013/14 and 2014/15. It is true that they uncannily kept coming up against Barcelona but this was as much down to them not taking care of business as they had hoped in the group stages beforehand.

All of these teams had something that Tottenham Hotspur have not had to date. And that is successive appearances in the Champions League. That and millions of pounds to lavish on players. Something that becomes even more improbable with a new stadium to fund. In summary, early round jitters in the Champions League are not unique to Tottenham Hotspur. But that is not to say that Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t made mistakes. Although with no Champions League experience himself, this is as much a learning curve for him as it is for the whole club and the players.

Pochettino’s Balancing Act

Pochettino has often rotated his teams when balancing Premier League and European competition. The Europa League is often deemed a competition that Tottenham could conceivably win and thereby satisfy the fans thirst for silverware. However, it has been clear that the Premier League has been the priority in order to attain qualification into the premier European competition and the financial rewards that come with it. So why then did Pochettino seem to employ the same strategy in the Champions League this season?

In truth, Spurs were unlikely to win the competition. No one can argue against this. But it was important for a squad that has the lowest average age in the Premier League to have exposure on this stage. Aside from Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, and Christian Eriksen it was all new to this team.

It seems clear that Pochettino recognises that like the teams that appear regularly in the Champions League, he still needs to cement Tottenham in to a regular top four contenders in the Premier League. Appearing once every few season in that select group is not going to provide the club with the platform they need upon which to build. And Pochettino needs to do this without the financial resources that the teams around him have. It is a precarious position to be in. Especially when Daniel Levy has a tight rein on the purse strings.

Spurs seemingly strengthened their squad in the summer. Bringing in a much needed second striker in Vincent Janssen and appearing to upgrade in certain positions. Victor Wanyama over Ryan Mason. Mousa Sissoko over Nabil Bentaleb. George Kevin N’koudou over Clinton N’Jie. The loss of Nacer Chadli was the only move that perhaps wasn’t anticipated. It is clear though that aside from Wanyama, all the other signings have failed to live up to expectations so far. And with prolonged absences of key players at various times of the season (Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose, Moussa Dembele, Harry Kane and Erik Lamela) Spurs have struggled to find their form from last season. Aside from the home fixture against Manchester City and the away fixture at Stoke City, Spurs haven’t blazed any kind of trail. That said they are still unbeaten in the Premier League although that record looks in jeopardy today as they face a high flying Chelsea team.

Pochettino Must Learn Quickly

That Pochettino is still learning is not in question. He is as new to the Champions League as his players are. He will make mistakes and fans must accept this no matter how hard it may be to do so. The 2010/11 Champions League journey may have set an unrealistic barometer for the club. Not all qualifications will be that cavalier in performance.

The disappointing thing though is that Pochettino’s side have failed to ignite at all in the competition and this is worrying. Perhaps that is down to the change of venue but it is also down to team selection and tactics. Tottenham need to show that they CAN win at the national stadium in their final Champions League group game against CSKA Moscow on the 7th December just to get that particular monkey off their backs. And whilst the Europa League may not be welcome, the club needs to be in that competition for two reasons.

Firstly because it is another route back in to the Champions League and the clubs potential further development. Secondly because they need to make Wembley feel like home. Three games alone there will not ready them for a full season of Premier League games, which is what they will have in 2017/18. The club is right to insist that the Europa League games will be played at Wembley should Spurs qualify. Even if they don’t fill the stadium.

All the good work that Pochettino has done with this team cannot be forgotten. But fans can be fickle of course. It is all about immediacy and doing things now. But if Tottenham Hotspur are looking at the bigger picture then regular top four Premier League finishes are a must. As are the regular Champions League appearances that will follow. And then Spurs may build a squad good enough to challenge on two highly demanding fronts. Particularly as this current squad matures.


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