Coaches are Coachable, Too

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

When I played gridiron football in college, Harold “Tubby” Raymond was my coach, a legend bound for the Hall of Fame. He began at my school the year before I was born.  He would tell us things like “I’ll be here long after you’re gone” and “your mommy gave you life but your butt belongs to me.”

For English football I don’t know if that would ever have worked, but it certainly wouldn’t fly in 2017. Managers today need to adapt and learn, to be a buddy to the players when they have to, and to crack the whip to satisfy the supporters and chairman when they need to. It used to be that you did what the gaffer said or you were gone. Now the player makes ten times the salary of the manager. If he’s slumping he still has his name recognition and Adidas endorsements to keep the lights on. A chairman can’t fire 20 players, but he can fire one manager. When the supporters have a walkout, nobody’s there to buy shirts, beer and scarves. Kicking one backside gets more attention than a week of hard practices before the next fixture.

It’s a hard job to master, and even the greats sometimes fail. Sir Alex Ferguson was the only manager who never failed. Manchester United is still trying to find his successor.

Spurs especially in the 21st Century is known as a place where managerial careers go to die. Since George Graham left in 2001, Pleat, Hoddle, Pleat again, Santini, Jol, Allen/Inglethorpe, Ramos, Allen/Inglethorpe again, Redknapp, Villas-Boas, Sherwood, and the current occupant Pochettino, have held the job.  At 2 1/2 seasons Pochettino has outlasted most of that list and is showing no signs of losing the confidence of our notoriously business-minded chairman, Mr. Levy, or the attention of the squad. How has he managed this?

Understand All The Expectations

Every working person has goals and objectives laid out for them by their manager.  In your day job they’re communicated to you clearly. For a football manager, it’s not so simplistic.

  • Teach such a dull style of football that everyone stays home, you make the Champions League and the team loses money.
  • Heal a fractious dressing room, but in all your ice cream and cake parties, you forget to win football games.
  • Play a wild, exciting brand of football but have to be such a martinet to make your players go at your desired tempo that the whole squad as one demand transfers to “anywhere else.”
  • The dressing room is singing and holding hands, your team is winning, the coffers are flush, but you’re on the front page of the Sun with a naked Kylie Minogue in one hand and a half-empty bottle of Old Overcoat in the other.

So you could meet your formal expectations, but you’re going to get the sack anyway because you didn’t fully understand the job.

Pochettino has needed some time to understand the full scope of the expectations upon him. His public behavior has always been exemplary and beyond reproach. That part of the job he clearly mastered from day one. He is described as a “league manager” who will put aside almost every other competition to focus on the Premier League. Spurs nevertheless made a Cup final appearance at Wembley under his watch but bowed out early in other tournaments. Last season amid a title race and match congestion on the calendar, the Europa League effort was scuttled to conserve manpower in favor of challenging Leicester.

School’s In

With Wycombe running riot through the Spurs scrub team, Pochettino finally realized that he had to take these competitions seriously. The supporters pay top dollar for tickets regardless if it’s FC Barcelona or Wrexham.  They expect to see their side win, or at least put forth the best effort they can. They were not happy and let Pochettino know about it. Mr. Levy’s facial expression actually changed during the game today, so disappointed was he in the product his corporation had offered. And afterwards in his remarks Pochettino revealed he had experienced a managerial epiphany: there was more to managing in England than just the Premier League.

The biggest criticism of Spurs this season and most of last is that for a talented young squad, they don’t seem to have that killer instinct. That ability to put away games they should win quickly and decisively isn’t there. It is as if they need to learn how to win.  Too many missed opportunities yield too many draws. There was a lack of consistency in individual performances. Sometimes there were squad selections that were downright insulting to the opposition, such as today against Wycombe. “Boys,” Wycombe’s manager probably said, “this is the biggest game of your life, and those fools think Cameron Carter Vickers is your better. Now take that ball and cram it down his throat.” Mission accomplished there, and Pochettino noticed. Granted, he had Dele on the bench to save the day if needed, and sure enough, he was.

The idea of Spurs as the Cardiac Kids is exciting, waiting for someone to put the game away in stoppage time, but it can’t happen every match.  Spurs lately have enjoyed early success and seen out comfortable wins against the likes of Watford. Too often they’ve needed a miracle in the 97th minute, such as today, to put away a win.  Champions don’t skate on thin ice. Spurs need to learn that even if you can fight your way back from the edge, it’s better if you never get close to the edge in the first place.

What Did You Do In School Today, Mauricio?

The lesson Pochettino took away from this is to never put his squad in that position in the first place. Games like this are how young teams learn how to win. You can’t rely on Superman coming off the bench to save them. Pochettino needs his team to understand: every match, every time, requires full and total team effort. Games like this are an ideal opportunity to put the Kanes and the Llorises and the Eriksens out there. Make them remember how to scrap and scrape and fight, just as Wycombe was doing. Giving them the day off so fringe players such as the regressing Onomah could risk injury in their place benefits nobody.

The biggest lesson for Pochettino was the disastrous fold at the end of the 2015-16 season. The team lost its mind in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Leicester seized the title, and Spurs went on an epic slide. St Totteringham’s Day 2016 proceeded as scheduled.  And the capitulation at season’s end to relegated Newcastle United could have (and any other manager would have) got Pochettino the sack.

Falling behind the hated Gooners was bad enough, but for many supporters Pochettino’s remarks on the subject were tone-deaf at best, dismissing the importance of finishing ahead of Arsenal. He had to retract and clarify those remarks and it’s a good bet they won’t be repeated.

It appeared to shape his early season thinking for 2016-17.  By focusing on Premier League matches, Pochettino perhaps hopes to atone for the end of last season, even at the expense of Champions League glory or EFL/FA silverware.  He can’t have it both ways, and there’s the rub.  He will have to learn to play all competitions to win. Surrendering one to prop up another will not satisfy the fan base or fill the new Lane.  Soon Spurs will have a stadium and revenue stream to rival Arsenal’s or Chelsea’s.  These must bear fruit.

In Case Of Emergency…

Pochettino brought in Trippier to rest Rose.  Spurs got behind in the game. The fans got angry.  He substituted out the fringe players to bring in the stars and bail out his poor selections.  Then Trippier was hurt. The squad played at 10 men for half an hour.  With first team choices in the side today, that doesn’t happen. Dele is there all along, or Eriksen, Dembele, Kane, or Wanyama.  Rest one or two players at a time.  Don’t rest nine.  It’s not going to end well.  This is an easy trap to avoid and in hindsight Pochettino, at his post game press conferences, admitted as much.

Trouble Brewing?

Pochettino told today’s selections that they were playing for their long term futures at Spurs. Many of them played poorly anyway.  Pochettino handpicked some of them to provide depth and skill for the team. Either the players were just too comfortable going into the game taking Wycombe lightly; or they just simply didn’t care what the manager said.  Pochettino in the past has made players walk the plank for disobedience (Andros Townsend).  Perhaps the situation calls for another ceremonial sacrifice.  There is certainly no shortage of candidates after today’s match.

Pochettino demands commitment from his players, and that makes them all successful together.  When some players either can’t or won’t meet their expectations, everyone fails. Players can’t meet their expectations if the manager can’t understand his own.  Pochettino is still perfecting his craft in the Premier League. Though the best is yet to come, Spurs supporters are wishing it would come a little quicker.

A manager at any level must never stop learning, adapting, and growing. Players change and each successive group requires a new approach to reach them. More money is asked of the supporters, which means they have to be satisfied. And your chairman and club owner is more likely now to be someone who has no interest in anything but titles. Whether Pochettino is capable of keeping up with the demands of his job will determine how far this rising Spurs squad can go.

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  1. I agree that resting 9 players is probably a bit much, however these players are all part of a premier league squad and need to be tested and this is an ideal game for that. The fact that the writer thinks Trippier replaced Rose suggests he doesn't really know that much about Spurs.

    • I wrote the article, and you're correct – Trippier replaced Walker on the right side, not Rose on the left. Inferring from there that I don't know that much about Spurs I think is more about you disagreeing with my premise and less about my knowledge of Spurs.

        • No, I'm in the United States. I am a member of my local supporters' club, though, and watched the game from our home bar.

          • Figures. How do you know the fans got angry if you weren't there? I've seen angry Spurs fans and that was not the case yesterday, there is change in the air now. You go to the ground and you can see the new stadium progressing game by game. Wembley, although we didnt do well, has been great fun. I was there yesterday and for 20 quid I got my money's worth. Pure emotion, drama and then elation. FA Cup as it should be. I knew we would field a weakened team and that we could struggle to get a rhythm going. Its happened before. But I still went to 'support' the boys. I wanted to see how Josh Onomah performed. I've seen him on his debut and play a few times. I have had high hopes for him. The fact that he cant seem to raise his game is fascinating as a Spurs supporter who goes to games. I wanted to see how Dier captains the team. I saw the subs and said to the guy next to me that with Dele and Dembele on the bench we will be able to turn this around. What you dont see on TV is the presence of players on the pitch and yesterday I witnessed how Dele commanded the White Hart Lane Pitch. Its said that Glenn Hoddle was told by a psychologist to think of WHL as his Manor, yesterday I could see that it is beginning to apply to Dele, What drama, Like I said money's worth. I was at the game when we pulled victory from the jaws of defeat in the West Ham game. Drama. Love it. Its momentary and its great to have witnessed it. Now in a few words I've written what I witnessed. If we had won 4-0 with a stronger side I don't I would have been buzzing as much. You write as if you're qualified to give advice to the manager!! You write absolute garbage. You are no Spurs supporter, armchair fan maybe but that's it. Stick to American Football, you seem to think you know something about that too. We have a game away at Sunderland on Tuesday night. Walker, Rose, Ericksen, Wanayama, Lloris, Toby, Kane all rested. Why the hell do do that? And your comment to Mike Pinner? Pathetic.

          • So no Christmas card for you this year?

            This may shock you but 98% of Spurs fans don't get to watch at the Lane. We watch as part of our local supporters clubs and share opinions on social media just as you're doing.

            And if you're telling me that every legit Spurs fan was on board with that lineup Pochettino chose yesterday how do you explain all that booing I heard both in the pub with my group or over the TV from the Lane?

            As far as my response to Mike being pathetic, your opinion is your opinion and you are entitled to it.

      • On the contrary David I agree with much of what you say, I do think there could have been three or four less changes. We definitely got away with it Saturday, although I can understand why he picked the team he did, not only to rest key first choices but to see how the reserves stand up under pressure. I also feel it is easy to write players off if they don't hit the ground running as some of our best performers have, so I think we should reserve judgement on Sissoko until he's had a full season under his belt. (And I'm sure you know lots about Spurs and just made a genuine error, sorry to infer otherwise!)

        • Mike, it does appear we are in agreement that resting nine was excessive. To me though it's a managerial mistake to send a squad that raw out there in a competition with meaning to the supporters; it's as if you are daring them to fail. Pochettino has to find a balance somehow.

  2. Refreshing finally to read a blog acknowledging Pochettino's managerial shortcomings, of which there are many, as yesterday's game demonstrated pretty clearly. He might eventually become something like the maestro that so many Spurs fans want to believe he already is (even without a single trophy to his name at any of three clubs he's so far managed), but only if he learns from his many mistakes – hopefully the transfer window will close without another Sissoko, Jansen, N'Jie or Fazio appearing, and transfers are only one of several areas where he's been patchy, to say the least.

  3. I comment to pretty much agree with the gist of the article, and you choose not to publish – interesting slant on censorship!


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