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 reunion.
Pochettino, who led Spurs to the brink of glory at home and abroad, a man who still has a strong connection with many of the club’s players and staff today, and who many supporters wanted back in the dugout as recently as this summer, will instead return as Chelsea’s embattled head coach, one of them in London. bitter rival
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Tottenham fans usually cheer for any Chelsea misfortune. They are still, of course, on Monday, but Pochettino’s presence in the opposition dugout may give a momentary pause for thought. The 51-year-old was sacked by Tottenham in November 2019, 171 days after their first ever Champions League final defeat to Liverpool 2-0.
An accompanying statement from chairman Daniel Levy spoke of his “extreme reluctance” to remove the Argentine from his post after five-and-a-half years in which the club became a regular in the top-four and almost won the Premier League title in 2017.
An inability to make the final move, combined with a worrying slump in form that has left Spurs 14th in the Premier League, prompted Lewy to replace Pochettino with two men he felt were ailing Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte – a proven winner between the two sides. Fateful brief feud with Nuno Espirito Santo.
However, instead of taking the final short step to silverware, Spurs slipped back into mediocrity during a four-year spell where Pochettino’s influence overshadowed the club.
While Spurs exited in the Champions League round-of-16 in March with another dismal display away to AC Milan, Pochettino was left undone having left for Paris Saint-Germain the previous July. Tottenham fans sang Pochettino’s name loud and clear that night in a direct message to Levy that their club had lost its soul and only one man could revive it.
And so when the same supporters chanted “we’ve got our Tottenham back” during Ange Postecoglou’s second game in charge, they were recalling the halcyon days of Pochettino’s tenure, with its mix of exuberant and winning football. This is a point not lost on Postecoglou himself.
Speaking on Thursday, the Australian said: “His work is unquestionable. The people I talk to here, there are still people who have worked with him, they can’t say enough about him as a person, as a manager. There I doubt it. There will be nothing but respect for Morrissey from anyone at the football club — supporters or those associated with it.
“It doesn’t mean he’ll get a guard of honor on Monday night because we want to win. And I don’t think he’ll expect it. But his tenure and influence here is undeniable and it will stand the test of time. Whenever people think of Mauricio and his time as Spurs manager As will be thought of, they will only look upon it with respect and affection.”
Pochettino was unsure of the reception he would receive but insisted on Friday that nothing could cloud his memories of Tottenham.
“I’m not going to say anything right now because we can’t speculate until Monday,” he said. “The most important thing is that people know that we can’t forget what we had together. Amazing memories and then I’m going to respect people, how they’re going to express themselves. It won’t change my emotions, my view, my feelings about a club where we are. Had an incredible trip.
“We have amazing memories to come back to a place like that after four years and we make amazing memories together, I think it’s special. I can’t lie.”
Given his first appearance at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — which, incidentally, Pochettino helped offset the development by guiding the team so effectively through almost two-season use of Wembley as their temporary home — the task is particularly awkward. Postecoglou did in the same timeframe as his rival.
Both men started their current posts on July 1. Postecoglou had to cope with the loss of talismanic striker Harry Kane, a saga that dragged on throughout pre-season before a €100m move to Bayern Munich. But privately, the Australian conceded early defeat to stem Bayern’s progress, leaving him to plan life after Kane.
Spurs have exceeded all expectations without Kane — the club’s all-time record goalscorer — to top the Premier League after 10 games.
Summer signing James Maddison from Leicester City replaced his partnership with Son Heung-min Kane in an instant deal, while Postecoglou rescued the stalled careers of Yves Bissuma and Pep Matar Sar in a new-look midfield. Right-back Destiny Udogi excelled on loan at Udinese last season while another new boy, Mickey van de Ven, has seen Tottenham’s lack of a commanding centre-back for years.
These are still formative days in the season but Spurs suddenly resemble the beast that could gatecrash what many expected to be a two-horse race between Manchester City and Arsenal for the Premier League title.
In contrast, across London sits the camel, “a horse designed by a committee.” Sources told ESPN that Postecoglou took a firm hand in Tottenham’s player recruitment, allowing a clarity of thought that has seemingly helped their transfer business. Pochettino has often suggested that decisions on players were made before his arrival at Chelsea — Romelu Lukaku is a high-profile and obvious example — and while he was certainly advised both in and out, the Todd Boehly/Clearlake Capital model is long-term before his date. Signing young players to contracts.
The knock-on effect of spending that kind of money on prospects, with contracts running until the end of the decade, is that it increases the pressure on the manager as he is more obviously the most passive element when things go wrong.
And things are not going exactly to plan. Chelsea have shown flashes of potential — the midfield trio of Moises Quesedo, Enzo Fernandez and Conor Gallagher looks to have real promise, while Mykhailo Mudrik is stirring up life. But Chelsea will soon reach a point where they can reasonably expect more than the £1billion spent by Boehly and Clearlake since their takeover in May 2022.
“We are on a different project for Tottenham,” Pochettino said. “Chelsea’s history is all about winning big things. Maybe Chelsea is with Manchester United now and Liverpool is the biggest club in England. I think in the last 15 years Chelsea have won a lot of titles, a lot of titles, now here we are. A different situation where We are building something for the future.
“Maybe we struggled a bit at the beginning, because we are not managing well because of the details. That’s why we are losing too many points, maybe we deserve more but because we are so young as a team, maybe we can’t manage. Situation
“Ange and the other coaches, they’re doing a great job [at Tottenham]. Very good players, very good team and you can feel they can be competitive. “It’s early in the season but they are showing the quality to be competitive.”
A key difference between Postecoglou and Pochettino in their working conditions comes down to injuries. Six players have started all 10 of Tottenham’s Premier League games: Guglielmo Vicario, Van de Ven, Cristian Romero, Maddison, Son and Dejan Kulusevski. Another four started nine.
Chelsea have been able to rely on Robert Sanchez, Thiago Silva, Levi Colwill and Gallagher to start 10 league matches but the injury list has always been long with Christopher Nkunku sidelined in pre-season and Romeo Lavia kicking a ball after £58m. Moved from Southampton in mid-August.
Wesley Fofana will miss most of the season after knee surgery, new captain Reece James did not start any league games on the opening weekend of the season while Ben Chilwell is in Los Angeles recovering from a hamstring problem. Nkunku’s absence has exacerbated the lack of firepower in Chelsea’s squad despite their impressive rebuild.
In his absence, Pochettino has, rightly, pointed to a catalog of missed opportunities in games. While Spurs have conceded nine more goals (22 vs. 13), Chelsea have far more expected goals: 18.54 to Tottenham’s 17.78.
But remember: Spurs were supposed to struggle for goals without Kane this season, with the club sparing no tears in overhauling their squad.
The sheer scale of change at Stamford Bridge has always required patience from the owners, but the immediate impact has made Postecoglou an uncomfortable contrast to Pochettino, who has already overseen four league defeats. A fifth at his old home will raise further questions about the realistic limits of Chelsea’s ambitions this season.
A familiar ground will seem a lonelier place for Pochettino, although 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 could add to the surreal feeling for Pochettino, who is also challenging the notion that they have left him behind once and for all by trying to beat Spurs on Monday.