In January 2019, Mauricio Pochettino was widely regarded as the leading contender for the managerial positions at Real Madrid and Manchester United, two of the most prestigious jobs in world football.
The two clubs were both being led by interim managers (Santiago Solari, Real Madrid and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United), and the Argentine seemed set to be at the centre of a summer battle for his services at the time. Pochettino had done an incredible job at Tottenham, leading them to Top 3 finishes in his first four seasons at the club.
Although both Real Madrid and Manchester United do not deny that they considered hiring the Argentine tactician, they decided to hire managers who were former players of the respective clubs. While many fans lamented the decision to miss out on a great coach like Poch, as the Tottenham boss is fondly called, the clubs needed to react to their changing circumstances quickly.
While it seemed like the board of two of the biggest clubs in the world shunned long-term planning in favour of sentimental appointments, the decisions felt right at the time and the boards implored their fans to be patient and be part of the rebuilding process that both sides needed to pass through.
Pochettino continued to lead his Tottenham side to punch above their weight as they held on to a position in the top 4 of the English Premier League and navigated through the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League. While their performances in the league dropped, teams chasing them including Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea failed to take advantage of Spurs’ woes.
There were factors surrounding the team that explained their slump in form, not least the lack of a real ‘home’ stadium for the past two seasons, the absence of a single signing since January 2018 and the mid-season loss of the influential midfielder Mousa Dembele. Several of their important players also missed key games due to injury and the loss of talismanic English striker Harry Kane was expected to be the end of their season.
However, Poch’s brilliance shone in this dark time as he coached the rest of the team to the UEFA Champions League final without the England national team captain. Tottenham scaled through the quarter-finals and semi-finals through away goals and a special comeback inspired by former Paris Saint-Germain Brazilian star, Lucas Moura sent the Spurs into the final.
For clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid who are almost never underdogs in any situation, they need a manager who is tactically astute and brave in decision making. While Pochettino had always exhibited these characteristics, he seemed to abandon them ahead of the biggest game of his career. His tactical decisions and team selection were called into question by pundits even before kick-off.
Pochettino included two Tottenham stars who had been injured for more than a few weeks into the starting lineup which was sure to distrupt the chemistry of the team that had led them into the final and perhaps caused emotional trauma to the players who were relegated to the bench for the final game that decided the Champions of Europe.
Of all the top sides in the Premier League, Tottenham stand out as the one without a clear starting XI, where rotation is king. While Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has identified 10-11 starters that are superior to the rest of the squad members, at Spurs there is really only one irreplaceable player, Harry Edwards Kane.
This was why it did not come as a shock to see Harry Kane walk back into the starting lineup ahead of Lucas Moura for the final. After the game, Pochettino attempted to defend his selection. He said to the members of the press gathered at the mandatory UEFA press conference at the end of the game that they [ the press ] were trying to make an issue where there was not one.
“The problem is you’re creating a story or drama when there wasn’t any drama – it wasn’t about whether we played with Harry Kane, Lucas Moura, [Heung-min] Son; that was neither important nor unimportant,” he explained.
“It was a decision, and of course, for me, Harry Kane, after a month and a half [out] I think he finished the game fresh. He didn’t score, but neither did anyone else – that’s something else you talk too much about. I promise you, my decisions were very analytical. I considered all the information; I don’t regret my decisions,” he concluded.
Another decision that raised a few eyebrows was the inclusion of Harry Winks in the starting XI for the final ahead of Victor Wanyama who had been exemplary in the Tottenham midfield in recent games. Winks on the other hand had been injured for months and he needed a surgery on his groin at the end of April.
Kane and Winks had not played a single minute of competitive football since the Champions League quarter-final victory over Manchester City in April. However Pochettino made the tactical decision to start both players in the most important positions on the pitch despite the fact that they had not played in almost 8 weeks. Although Winks was probably the best Tottenham player on the pitch on Saturday night, Kane looked lost.
Although Tottenham were underdogs against Liverpool who have been ridiculously amazing since last year, many Tottenham fans might feel they had a better chance of winning the game if Moura and Wanyama had started ahead of Kane and Winks. It was a sad end to what had been the fairytale story of Tottenham’s journey to the Champions League final.
Manchester United and Real Madrid are expected to be challenging on all fronts for titles and the managers in charge of these clubs are expected to be tactically astute and brave. Perhaps both clubs dodged a bullet by shunning Pochettino but only time will tell. The Argentine manager has already declared his intention for Spurs to learn from this and go again next season.
With Real Madrid and Manchester United now out of the equation, several reports have suggested that Italian giants Juventus and Bundesliga winners Bayern Munich have consider the possibility of luring Pochettino away from Spurs. If he makes the move to a ‘bigger’ club, perhaps he would improve his tactical decision-making.