Knocked out of both the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup in the space of three days, Tottenham Hotspur are once again likely to finish the season without a major trophy, barring an unlikely Champions League triumph or the Premier League capitulation of both Liverpool and Manchester City.
“We are going to create a debate that to win a trophy is going to help the club,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino said in the wake of FA Cup elimination at the hands of Crystal Palace.
“I don’t agree with that. That only builds your ego. In reality the most important thing is consistently being in the top four and playing in the Champions League. That is going to help the club to achieve the last step.”
While his assertion that attaining silverware is nothing more than self-aggrandisement has grated with many, Pochettino, who has not won a major trophy in a decade of management, argues finishing in the Premier League’s top four is more important to a club of Tottenham’s standing than winning a domestic cup. And he’s right.
It’s a notion that is not universally accepted, though, and still the stick with which Pochettino’s managerial reputation continues to be beaten is his lack of trophies.
Such base reasoning completely overlooks the reality Pochettino is working in, however, and has worked in his entire career.
Having begun at Espanyol, a club who share a city with the mighty Barcelona and are perpetually in the shadow of their gargantuan neighbours, his remit there, rather than chase silverware, was to survive in the Spanish top flight, a predicament the Argentinian fought against for almost four years before departing with the club bottom of La Liga in November 2012.
Then came an 18-month spell at Southampton. On the South Coast, Pochettino’s task was again to steer his club to safety and build towards consolidation in the Premier League. In his only full season at St Mary’s, the Saints finished a highly impressive eighth, sparking interest from Spurs.
When Pochettino took charge at White Hart Lane, Tottenham were coming off the back of a sixth-place league finish, and had finished inside the top four, thus earning Champions League qualification, just once in the previous four seasons; they came fifth in Pochettino’s first campaign and haven’t finished outside the top three since.
Through Pochettino’s clear tactical planning, his ability to coach and improve his players and the savvy identification of transfer targets, Spurs are now able to outperform teams with much greater financial might.
This month, UEFA published their latest European Club Benchmark Report. It's really worth reading. Link here: https://t.co/kUAzRghgRx
The wage bill is the perhaps the most interesting slide: pic.twitter.com/phC0Gdm59S
— Raphael Honigstein (@honigstein) January 28, 2019
Indeed, UEFA’s recent European Club Benchmark Report shows Spurs’ wage expenditure – usually a good indicator of expected performance – ranks them 14th on the Continent at €148million per year. Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal all rank inside the top ten. Of these teams, north London rivals Arsenal’s yearly wage spend is closest to Tottenham’s, but still some €86million higher.
What’s more, it not as though it’s a simple matter of the others having greater means with which to spend; Tottenham’s wage bill amounts to just 41 per cent of their revenue, comfortably the lowest within Europe’s top 20 wage spenders –Chelsea’s is 61 per cent of their revenue, for example, and City’s 60 per cent.
It’s a similar story when it comes to net spend on transfers, too. Since Pochettino was appointed, according to Sky Sports’ estimates, Tottenham’s net transfer spend is a paltry £29million. That’s at least £100million less than every other member of the Premier League’s “Big Six” (Manchester City £518million, Manchester United £466million, Arsenal £225million, Chelsea £200million and Liverpool £183million).
If there is a lack of ambition at Tottenham, it is not Pochettino’s, but rather lies above him at board level. The message from the manager’s employers is clear: amid escalating stadium construction costs, it’s top four at all costs.
“The club is doing fantastically well. It’s so successful. In the last four or five years we’ve been fighting in different ways to achieve what the club needs, to be in the level of Chelsea, United, City, Arsenal or Liverpool,” Pochettino continued, highlighting how Spurs continue to punch above their weight. “People wish we could win some trophies. But, being realistic, we are a team not built to win titles still.”
Of course, lifting the FA Cup would be a feather in Pochettino’s cap and satisfy the fans’ yearning for tangible success. But Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea – the five club’s with the biggest budgets and wage spends in English football – have accounted for 26 of the last 28 FA Cup wins; despite fears over its plummeting importance, it is still a competition dominated by the elite.
And a League Cup triumph would at least offer a welcome boon to Spurs and provide Pochettino with his first trophy. But Juande Ramos won the League Cup for Spurs in May 2008, the club’s last taste of silverware, and he was sacked just five months later, evidence of just how much English football’s fourth-rate competition is valued at board level.
Some have chosen to interpret Pochettino’s comments and exposing the manager’s lack of ambition. Indeed, some Manchester United fans have even pointed to his words after the Palace defeat as evidence of why he is unsuited to managing their club, a post he continues to be linked with.
Putting aside the arrogant assumption inherent in these claims, had the Spurs boss been backed in the transfer market to the tune of around £400million in the space of little more than two years, as was the case with José Mourinho, then maybe they’d have a point.
As it is, the lack of investment in Tottenham‘s playing staff has left them without the strength in depth of many of their rivals, meaning Pochettino must be selective with his resources; regardless, even the Premier League’s deepest squads would struggle to cope with losing three players of the calibre of Harry Kane, Heung-min Son and Dele Alli, absences Spurs are currently contending with.
It is reasonable to suggest that, for the way he has exceeded expectations based on financial power since arriving in England, no manager in Europe has over-performed as much and as consistently as Pochettino over the last five years. Trophy or no trophy.