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Ken Early: Pochettino must answer a very awkward question

Spurs look like contenders but will the manager practise what he preaches and stay?

Ever since Jose Mourinho's departure as Manchester United manager journalists have asked Mauricio Pochettino to comment on rumours that he is the preferred candidate to take over at Old Trafford, much to the annoyance of Tottenham's press officer.

Spurs have a better away record than any other Premier League team in 2018, and last night they pretty much emptied out Goodison Park with half an hour to go. When Harry Kane tried to make it seven with a Marco van Basten-style volley in injury time, there was hardly anyone left to see it.

The match will be remembered as a disaster for Everton, whose coach, Marco Silva, decided to play man for man against Spurs without having the quality in his team to pull it off. The result was a terrible night for several Everton players, none more so than Seamus Coleman, some of whose touches caused audible frustration in the crowd. Coleman has been one of Everton's most popular players since he established himself in the team there in 2010, but poor recent form has put him well into "What have you done for me lately?" territory with a lot of Everton fans.

This is the double cruelty of suffering a bad injury. Not only do you get put out of the game for a year and have to work your way back to fitness through endless hours of mind-numbing physio and gym work, but when you do come back, you find you can never just have a bad day: instead everyone says you’ve lost it since the injury and the time has come to bin you off.

Yet for all that Everton were bad, it was also a match to make you wonder: could Tottenham actually win the league? They have somehow got to within six points of Liverpool and two of Manchester City. If they hadn’t lost the home games against the two sides above them they would be leading the league by three points.


Danny you are thinking too much. You need to stop, and work. You need to deliver the job that we want – don't think

It has been Tottenham’s bad luck that the rise of their best side since the 1960s has coincided with other teams producing outstanding performances: Chelsea’s record 2017 season and City’s record 2018 have now been followed by Liverpool’s best-ever start to a league campaign. But Liverpool and City play each other next week and with Spurs’ next three matches all against beatable mid-table opponents, there is the chance for them to force their way into the reckoning by mid-January. And right now all of the pressure is on the two established contenders.

Poaching Poch

It will be interesting, however, to see how Spurs deal with the speculation that seems likely to surround Mauricio Pochettino and perhaps one or two of their key players now that Manchester United have let it be known that Pochettino is their preferred candidate to take over at Old Trafford from summer 2019.

The question can be dodged as long as Spurs keep winning, but as with Coleman’s leg injury, it will resurface whenever they suffer a setback: is the uncertainty over the manager’s future affecting the players’ performance?

Last week Pochettino talked about the need for people to start thinking more positively about the possibilities for Tottenham as a club, and spoke specifically about Danny Rose’s problematic habit of thinking too much. “Danny is a thinker. I always say to him, ‘Danny you are thinking too much. You need to stop, and work. You need to deliver the job that we want – don’t think.’ ”

Mauricio Pochettino has admitted his Spurs side need ‘more quality’ after their Champions League exit. Photograph: Reuters/Matthew Childs

Pochettino’s point was that Rose needed to save his energy for what was really important. But if this situation where Pochettino is seen as the United manager-in-waiting continues to rumble on, it will soon be hard for anyone at Spurs to think about anything else.

It's not very common for a manager at a team that is doing very well to move to a club further down the table

Their hope will be that Daniel Levy can persuade Pochettino that Spurs are at a historic inflection point, and that walking away from them now, just as they are poised to move into the new stadium and perhaps become one of the most powerful clubs in Europe, would be to risk looking like the biggest fool in football.

It’s obvious why Pochettino might be interested in moving. United’s turnover is nearly twice that of Tottenham’s, and the average first team player at United earns £6.5 million a year, compared with £3.5 million at Spurs. That is why his achievement in regularly finishing ahead of United has been so remarkable. It also explains why Tottenham to Manchester United has been a normal career move for players, with Teddy Sheringham, Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov all making that switch.

Bigger job?

But managers are different from players. It’s not very common for a manager at a team that is doing very well to move to a club further down the table. Generally, managers of teams at Champions League level tend to stay where they are until things go wrong and they get sacked. Pochettino has spent the past few years persuading his players to ignore the promise of more money elsewhere in return for the opportunity to be involved with something at Tottenham that means more. Wouldn’t it be awkward to turn his back on them at the first chance of a “bigger” job?

It might come down to the question of whether Pochettino still trusts Levy. Last May, his ambitions of winning the first trophy of his managerial career having been dashed by defeat to United in the FA Cup semi-final, Pochettino said that the time had come for Spurs to “take risks and be brave” in the transfer market. But Spurs signed nobody. It was the first time a Premier League club had signed nobody in the summer transfer window since Leeds United in 2003, and they were in the throes of total financial meltdown at the time.

Liverpool, meanwhile, outspent everyone else in the league and currently lead it. They look likely to finish ahead of Spurs for the first time since Pochettino has been at White Hart Lane, and the reason is that Jürgen Klopp has been allowed to sign players such as Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, while Pochettino has been asked to do more with less.

Resources will not be a problem at Manchester United. And yet it is hard to imagine Pochettino walking away from what he has at Tottenham with much of a spring in his step.