In late October, a lacklustre Tottenham performance led to a 2-1 defeat to Belgian side Anderlecht in the Europa League. In his post-match interview, Mauricio Pochettino simmered through his broken English: his side had been limp and he, in his own words, was “angry, frustrated, disappointed”. The Argentinian has made a habit of being intentionally vague in front of the media, a symptom of his obvious distrust for them, and it was unusual to hear him break from the familiar Spanglish platitudes.
Two weeks later, after winger Andros Townsend had been pictured in dispute with physio Nathan Gardiner after the Premier League game with Aston Villa, Pochettino was similarly aggressive:
“It was in public, there were pictures, we can’t hide it. When there is an action, there is a consequence. There is always a consequence before time to come back again with the team to train. He did not train with the group. He is not available to be selected (to play Anderlecht), because of Monday. You behave in the wrong way you always need to pay.”
Townsend was banished to the U21 squad and has only recently reappeared on the first team’s bench.
Neither incident is indicative of anything particularly unusual, because performance standards need to be upheld at all clubs and internal discipline is an essential weapon against indiscipline - but Pochettino’s decision to air his grievances publicly was interesting and certainly a departure from the modern game’s establish norm.
The contemporary footballer is perceived to be fragile. The product of an obvious cliche, he is viewed as self-indulgent, sensitive and too emotionally fragile to withstand even the mildest criticism. As a consequence, public criticism is now treated as stigmata for a club in turmoil; when it happens, something isn’t quite right - managers who are in control know better than to risk the wrath of their squad. That’s not entirely baseless. During Chelsea’s recent slump, Jose Mourinho is generally seen to have employed that tactic as a form of misdirection. Like an untethered Catharine Wheel, the Portuguese has spewed bile and blame in every direction, taking umbrage with rivals, referees and almost all of his first-team squad.
These were the acts of a desperate manager who had lost control and his willingness to air his club’s dirty laundry in public was a symptom of just how tenuous his employment was becoming.
Of course, that’s a bit of simplification: in happier times, Mourinho has extracted a lot of productivity from that very same approach. His past to chastising of Eden Hazard and Cesar Azpilicueta in front of the press, for example, coaxed significantly positive responses from both players and that unquestionably contributed to Chelsea’s successful 2014/15.
However, it’s still assumed to be something negative and there is still an invisible which, by modern convention, isn’t supposed to be crossed - and especially so at Tottenham, where challenging players can cause such obvious problems. Jose Mourinho can afford to criticise a player of Eden Hazard’s stature, a manager of a club outside the game’s velvet ropes clearly can’t.
While the current professional has undoubtedly become more sensitive, he has also seen his influence grow on the game’s decision-makers. Players may be bought and sold as commodities, but the most talented are largely in control of their own destiny and managers consequently seem highly reluctant to challenge them in public. Clubs at a certain level of the game - one which Spurs represent - are essentially caught in an over-indulgence trap in which a player’s behaviour and, more importantly, performances have to be tolerated for fear of how he might act if it’s not.
It’s an inconvenience, because public criticism is a very useful tool if used sparingly. Players may react badly to a dressing-down on the training pitch in front of their teammates, but jabbing their egos whilst the world watches risks a far more visceral response - a twitter rant, perhaps, or a quick call to an agent. When a problem player is also a valuable asset, there must be times when a manager feels obliged to bite his tongue.
When Luka Modric effectively sleep-walked through the final six months of his Spurs career in 2012, the risk of admonishing him for his lack of application was obviously deemed to be too great by Harry Redknapp. The club were in such a weak position and Modric so obviously wanted to leave that, for all intents and purposes, he was able to set his own standards in those final weeks. That’s the great threat in football today: if a talented player isn’t absolutely satisfied with how he’s being treated, he takes his ball and he leaves.
“Never a minute’s bother…”
Well, what else could he say?
That’s probably why Pochettino’s comments were so surprising. Tottenham are constantly at risk from the game’s apex predators and taking visible swings at the more talented members of his squad was a risky move from the Argentinian. Andros Townsend may be slightly more expendable and was perhaps a tempting prop with which to make an example, but consider the players who contributed to that Anderlecht loss: Eriksen, Vertonghen, Lloris - those were established internationals who were being thrown under the bus and players who, where they to have fallen into an irreversible sulk, would very easily have found new clubs.
It was successful, though, and Pochettino’s stinging assessment has helped to jolt Tottenham right to the top of their form. Their recent win over West Ham was arguably the most complete performance of the past eighteen months, they bullied Arsenal at the Emirates two weeks before and, pertinently, Anderlecht were seen off 2-1 back in North London.
That has a general importance. To Tottenham and their fans, of course, but also to the game as a whole. Had Spurs flat-lined into a slump in the weeks following, it would have bred nothing in Pochettino’s fellow managers other than an even greater reticence. But, the example being what it is, it is essentially a blueprint for a form of squad control. Pochettino may not be a disciplinarian in the traditional sense, that type of manager having probably left the game forever, but his ability to tactically uncork his venom is a more refined version of the constructed tension that a Jose Mourinho-type specialises in and, as a consequence, it also constitutes a more sustainable management style - one which doesn’t necessarily have an expiration date.
Mourinho is the bullying schoolteacher who bawls and screams his way through the week and who erodes at his class’ respect with every outburst. Pochettino is the master who favours a gentler authority, but who can still curdle his students’ blood once or twice a term.
Player accountability is a good thing and it’s something which the game needs more of. Greater weapons have to be established against sulking professionals who are content to under-perform or to pick and choose which games they apply themselves in. Mauricio Pochettino has shown himself to be part of that resistance, as have his Tottenham players with their maturity of response to his brand of discipline.
It is setting a very welcome precedent: one which says that, with the right characters and in the right situation, tough love can still be effective.