LONDON – Of all the ways Mauricio Pochettino could have returned to Tottenham Hotspur, few could have predicted the circumstances that led to Monday night’s encounter.
Pochettino, the man who took Spurs to the brink of glory at home and abroad, the man who has a strong connection with many of the club’s players and staff today, and the man many fans wanted to return to boxing as recently as this summer, will instead return as the troubled coach of Chelsea, one of their bitter London rivals.
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Tottenham fans are used to cheering on any Chelsea misfortune. They will, of course, on Monday, but Pochettino’s presence in the rival dugout may give pause for thought. The 51-year-old was sacked by Tottenham in November 2019, 171 days after losing their first ever Champions League final 2-0 against Liverpool.
A statement from chairman Daniel Levy spoke of “great reluctance” to remove the Argentine from his position after five-and-a-half years in which the club had four regulars and almost won the Premier League title in 2017.
That inability to take the final step, coupled with a terrible collapse of form that left Spurs in 14th place in the Premier League, prompted Levy to replace Pochettino with two people who he feels have succeeded in Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, both sides of a sick person – a short relationship with Nuno Espirito Santo.
However, instead of taking one last step towards silverware, Spurs regressed to mediocrity during a four-year period in which Pochettino’s influence continued to cast a shadow over the club.
When Spurs crashed out of the Champions League in the round of 16 to AC Milan in March following another poor display, Pochettino was out of a job having left Paris Saint-Germain last July. Tottenham fans sang Pochettino’s name loud and clear that night in a direct message to Levy that the soul of their club was lost and only one man could revive it.
And then when those same supporters chanted “We’ve got our Tottenham back” during Ange Postecoglou’s second game, they were recalling the halcyon days of Pochettino’s tenure, mixed as it was with a mix of exciting and winning football. This is a point not lost on Postecoglou himself.
Speaking on Thursday, the Australian said: “His work is not in question. Everyone I talk to in this area, there are still people who have worked with him, they can’t speak well of him as a person, as a manager. I doubt that. there would be nothing but respect for Mauricio from anyone at this football club — followers or people associated with it.
“That doesn’t mean he’s going to get a guard of honor on Monday night because we want to win. And I don’t think he can expect that. But his stay and influence here is undeniable and will stand the test of time. Whenever people think of Mauricio and his time as Spurs manager, they will only look at it with respect and love.”
Pochettino was unsure of the reception he would receive but insisted on Friday that nothing would tarnish his memories of Tottenham.
“I have nothing to say at the moment because we won’t be able to guess until Monday,” he said. “The most important thing is that people know that we will not forget what we lived together. Amazing memories and I will respect people, how they will express. It will not change my feelings, my opinion, my feelings about the club where we spent an incredible journey.
“When we come back after four years to a place where we have amazing memories and create amazing memories together, I think it’s special. I’m not going to lie.”
The timing of his first appearance at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – which, fortunately, Pochettino helped to solve the development by guiding the team successfully for almost two seasons at Wembley as their temporary home – is not very easy to be given a job. Postecoglou did at the same time as his rival.
Both men started their current posts on July 1. Postecoglou had to deal with the loss of talismanic striker Harry Kane, a saga that dragged on throughout the preseason before he left for a €100m move to Bayern Munich. But privately, the Australian has admitted early defeat in thwarting Bayern’s progress, allowing him to plan his life after Kane.
Spurs have exceeded all expectations without Kane — the club’s all-time top scorer — to top the Premier League after 10 games.
Son Heung-Min has replaced his relationship with Kane by finding a quick understanding with James Maddison, a summer signing from Leicester City, while Postecoglou has redeemed the hard work of Yves Bissouma and Pape Matar Sarr in midfield. Right-back Destiny Udogie has thrived after spending last season on loan at Udinese and another new boy, Micky van de Ven, has looked the part of a Tottenham defender who has been lacking for years.
It’s still early days this season but Spurs look like the kind of beast that could disrupt what many expected to be a two-horse race between Manchester City and Arsenal for the Premier League title.
In contrast, across London sits a camel, dubbed “a horse designed by a committee.” Sources have told ESPN that Postecoglou has kept a firm hand on Tottenham’s player recruitment, allowing a clarity of thought that appears to have helped their transfer business. Pochettino often suggests that there are decisions made by players before his arrival at Chelsea – Romelu Lukaku as a prominent and obvious example – and although he was consulted on both the exit and the exit, the Todd Boehly/Clearlake Capital model. signing young players to long-term contracts is crucial.
The negative impact of spending such money on contingencies, as deals continue until the end of the decade, is what increases the pressure on the manager because he is clearly the one to blame if things go wrong.
And things are not going well. Chelsea have shown flashes of potential — there appears to be real promise in midfield Moisés Caicedo, Enzo Fernández and Conor Gallagher, while Mykhailo Mudryk is reviving. But Chelsea will soon reach the point where they can start expecting more from the £1 billion Boehly and Clearlake have spent since taking over in May 2022.
“We are on a different project to Tottenham,” said Pochettino. “The whole history of Chelsea is to win big things. Maybe Chelsea now has Manchester United and Liverpool is the biggest team in England. I think Chelsea in the last 15 years won many titles, many titles, now we are in.” a different situation where we are building something for the future.
“Maybe we struggle at the beginning, because of the details we don’t manage well, that’s why we lose a lot of points, maybe we deserve some but because we are small as a team, maybe we don’t manage the situation well. .
“Ange and the other coaches, they are doing a great job (at Tottenham). Very good players, a very good team and you can feel that they can be a contender. It is early in the season but they are showing the level of being a good team. a contender.”
One key difference between Postecoglou and Pochettino in their performance comes down to injuries. Six players have started all 10 Premier League games for Tottenham: Guglielmo Vicario, Van de Ven, Cristian Romero, Maddison, Son and Dejan Kulusevski. Another four have started nine.
Chelsea have been able to rely on Robert Sánchez, Thiago Silva, Levi Colwill, and Gallagher to start all 10 league games but the injury list has been long with Christopher Nkunku left out for pre-season and Romeo Lavia yet to kick a ball following a £58m move. from Southampton in mid-August.
Wesley Fofana will miss most of the season following knee surgery, new captain Reece James has not started a league game since the opening weekend of the season and Ben Chilwell is in Los Angeles recovering from a hamstring problem. Nkunku’s absence has caused the Chelsea team to be without a burning presence, although it has been formed neatly.
In his absence, Pochettino has, rightly, pointed to a catalog of missed opportunities in games. Despite Spurs scoring nine more goals (22 vs. 13), Chelsea actually have the higher number of expected goals so far: 18.54 to Tottenham’s 17.78.
But remember: it was Spurs who had to struggle for goals this season without Kane, not the club spending huge sums on their squad.
The sheer scale of change at Stamford Bridge was always going to require patience from the owners, but the immediate impact Postecoglou has made has made a huge difference to Pochettino, who has already overseen four league defeats. A fifth at his old home will raise further questions about the practical limits of Chelsea’s ambitions this season.
The common ground will feel like an even lonelier place for Pochettino if the result is given his right-hand man, assistant coach Jesus Perez, was banned after entering the opposition’s technical area during last weekend’s 2-0 home defeat to Brentford.
If anything, it may add to the surreal feeling for Pochettino, who tries to beat Spurs on Monday and challenges the notion that they have left him behind for good.