Roy Keane was unimpressed. When analysing Liverpool’s 5-0 victory over Porto and Tottenham’s 2-2 draw in Turin against Juventus on ITV, the former Manchester United midfielder failed to share the enthusiasm.
“For a club the size of Liverpool and Tottenham, one trophy in ten years is I think pretty embarrassing,” he said. “I know the Champions League has taken over now and the money behind it, but success for club like that is getting your hands on trophies. These clubs with these squads should get to the knock-out stages of the Champions League and win an FA Cup or a League Cup as well. That should go hand in hand.”
Whenever you hear Keane speak, it reminds you of why he had such a glittering career as a player but also perhaps why he was less successful as a manager. His disdain for losing is so fierce that it doesn’t allow him to realise that not everyone is as good as he was. It also doesn’t take into account that not every club can be as dominant and powerful as Manchester United were in the 1990s and 2000s.
Keane’s gripe with Spurs seems to follow a similar line that expressed by other pundits in regards to Mauricio Pochettino apparently treating domestic cup competitions with contempt. Rotating your side when you’ve gone so long without securing any silverware is tantamount to treason amongst the ‘proper football men’ brigade, an unacceptable piece of disrespect towards the most ‘fabled’ and ‘unique’ cup competition in the world.
Pochettino takes a different slant on it entirely. “To win the FA Cup, it depends on the draw,” he said in September when explaining why Spurs would focus on the Premier League and Champions League, “the two real trophies.”
A quick glance at recent FA Cup winning managers though explains why Pochettino is right to prioritise other competitions. The last three winners are Arsene Wenger, Louis Van Gaal and Roberto Martinez. Martinez went on to struggle at Everton, Wenger is in a permanent state of crisis at Arsenal and Van Gaal was sacked only minutes after his triumph. None of them earned any credit for doing so – which should confirm how little it matters anymore.
The reason Pochettino has to juggle his resources is because up until recently Tottenham had the tightest squad in the Premier League’s top six. They also have the smallest wage budget by a distance, which is always the main indicator of where a team should finish in the table.
Winning a cup would be great for players and particularly supporters, but it doesn’t legitimise Pochettino as a coach anymore than his achievements at Tottenham so far, of which they are considerable. The Argentine has delivered consecutive top four finishes and title challenges. Under his guise, Spurs finally finished above rivals Arsenal in the table after 16 years and are well on course to do so again. They’ve reached a League Cup final and an FA Cup semi-final, and are primed to make the Quarter-Final of the Champions League for only the second time in their history.
Jamie Carragher likened this current Tottenham team to the Leeds United side of the early 2000s, suggesting they had to make sure they weren’t remembered as a great team which won nothing. But that Leeds team reached a Champions League semi-final in 2001 and were a game away from immortality. In that campaign, they beat Milan, drew against Barcelona, scored six against Besiktas at Elland Road, won in Rome against Lazio and faced the mighty Real Madrid before they were eliminated at the hands of Valencia. Sure, Leeds fans probably wish they could have won a trophy, but the European run was the stuff every football supporter dreams of.
After an auspicious re-entry to Europe’s top club tournament last year where they exited at the group stage, Spurs have made a much better fist of it in this campaign. They topped a group including heavyweights Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, remaining unbeaten in the process. The question is, would supporters accept an FA Cup as a trade off for the memories and the performances of trips to Madrid, Dortmund and Turin? Similarly to Leeds fans, it’s probably unlikely.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget where Spurs were at when Pochettino joined from Southampton – stuck in a state of flux, whipping boys against the top sides under a manager who felt it was a genius move to play Nacer Chadli as a holding midfielder. Pochettino has improved nearly every player at his disposal and turned Kane into one of the top two strikers in world football. He has changed the mentality to the extent that the likes of Keane now feel they should be mentioned in the same breadth as Liverpool even though history suggests otherwise.
Tottenham haven’t won a league title in 57 years and have only two league cups to show for in the past two decades. What Pochettino is doing is altering the entire culture of a club, something which requires stable progress without the petrodollar riches other sides possess.
If validation is purely down to trophies, than both George Graham and Juande Ramos would be considered better Spurs managers than Pochettino, but no one in their right mind is saying that. Tottenham’s transformation in his time at the club is remarkable, and with a new stadium due to open in August, the club is upwardly mobile. Like everything though, it takes time. Sooner or later, Pochettino will win trophies and this conversation will be a faded memory. Trust him to know the route to success.