Pochettino has reached a jumping-off point with Tottenham

Despite overachieving, Spurs manager faces tough decisions over make-up of team

Some easing of austerity seems key to keeping Mauricio Pochettino happy at Spurs. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Some easing of austerity seems key to keeping Mauricio Pochettino happy at Spurs. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

 

Hindsight is of course always 20-20. Did Mauricio Pochettino make a defining error in selecting Harry Kane to play from the start in the Estadio Metropolitano, Tottenham’s once-in-a-generation shot at European ultimacy?

In outline, the tone and texture of that oddly deathly Champions League final might suggest this was the case. Kane had not played for seven weeks and had not scored for Tottenham since early March. A half-fit Kane tends to be a ponderous Kane, with a tendency to spend much of the game grappling with his marker, arms stretched behind him, like a man feeling for the bathroom door in the dark.

Spurs were ponderous in Madrid. They lacked exactly the qualities of speed, dynamism and unusual running angles that Lucas Moura might have offered, or Son Heung-min playing centrally. Lucas Moura came on, played 25 minutes and had two shots at goal. Kane played for 90 and had one.

And yet, this is to construct a narrative in retrospect. Kane’s presence had nothing to do with Spurs conceding a penalty after 22 seconds. Had Lucas Moura played and his team still lost (as was equally likely) there would have been even greater bafflement at not starting the double golden boot winner.

What does seem certain is that Pochettino picked the right team as he saw it and still met stronger opponents. But it remains the key question now in all sorts of ways. Old or new? Stick or twist? Rejuvenate or continue to milk those well-grooved strengths? The real challenge for Pochettino is not Saturday night in Madrid; but the road it leads down from here.

There were no excuses from Tottenham’s manager after a controlled, arms-length defeat to a team who finished the season 27 points ahead of his own in the league.

Rarefied air

In a sluggish, fretful game a poor version of Liverpool turned out to be more effective than a poor version of Tottenham. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the weight classes. Before this season Spurs had never reached a semi-final. Plus of course Liverpool may actually be the best team in Europe right now, whereas Spurs were always punching up in this rarefied air.

They were not helped by the wait. That three-week break did nothing for the adrenal sense of destiny that has marked Tottenham’s run in Europe. Instead the extended build-up seemed to chafe at Pochettino, who had his players walking across hot coals, breaking arrows on their own necks and generally delving into their own deep motivational souls. A couple more weeks and they would have been building a space ship to escape the Rapture.

In the event it was not the opening goal that spooked Spurs. It was the feeling in those early moments of the day sliding away. With 15 minutes gone, Pochettino was already up on his touchline grappling and grasping wildly at the air like a man throttling a pair of invisible wolfhounds. Spurs looked frazzled. Passes drifted out of play. Touches were heavy.

Defeat in Madrid will be frustrating because at no stage in the final did Tottenham subject Liverpool to the full focus of their own best qualities. There was no change of gear, as there was against Ajax, just the feeling of a two-season team who went to the well once too often.

At the end of which there is also a sense of a jumping-off point reached, a moment where decisions about players and personnel will be more profound than simply playing or not playing your captain in a final.

Obvious triumph

It is worth acknowledging first that even in defeat the season has been an obvious triumph. Spurs have lost 18 games, shuttled between three home grounds and still managed to sustain the best all-round season in the club’s modern history.

Really, Spurs just should not be here at all, disrupting the dominant economic model with their intangibles of spirit and fine coaching. The numbers can become a little grating. But the numbers are also astonishing. Tottenham’s playing budget for the three years from 2015-2018 was £351 million, slightly less than Newcastle, who were not in the Champions League final this season. The second thing worth saying is that while the overachievement has been duly praised, and will stand alone as a distinct, unimpeachable period of work, this is also the moment to change gear.

Already there have been calls to present Pochettino with a heavyweight transfer fund. Clearly recruitment is needed, although it also presents its own problems. When you have succeeded with continuity, with sweating the most from what you have, how far to go the other way? What is the Tottenham model here, given some easing of austerity seems key to keeping Pochettino himself happy?

For all their energy, this team are in the process of breaking up a little. Three members of the back four could be on their way this summer. At least one high-class central midfielder is required. Some of the old guard have dipped, making that progress to Madrid all the more remarkable. Dele Alli has been poor for some time, a strangely static figure where his movement can be so thrilling. It seems odd to think at times this is the same upright, imperious player who tortured Real Madrid at Wembley in November 2017.

Saturday was not the time to make a dramatic statement on personnel, but the moment for hard choices, for a view on where this team can go, is coming; and may well find its first expression this summer in the transfer market.

At times a losing Champions League final has been the end of something, the high-water mark of a team or an era. The challenge now is to make it the start instead, and to have the will to make some tough decisions. – Guardian

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