Tottenham have plateaued under Mauricio Pochettino, so what comes next?

Pochettino has performed an incredible balancing act at Tottenham, but it's unclear what the future holds after the delayed stadium curtailed the club's thrilling upward momentum

Tottenham 2018/19 Premier League profile

The match itself was nothing to get excited about but the most engaging part of Sky Sports’ coverage of Tottenham Hotspur’s game with Manchester City on Monday night came at almost 11pm, when Wembley was emptying out and the only staff, journalists and those enjoying the last of the hospitality were left.

Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, wrapping up the end of the ‘Monday Night Football’ broadcast, got into a heated argument about Tottenham, their ambitions, their spending and their stadium. Both men were united in their praise of Mauricio Pochettino’s work over the last four-and-a-bit years, turning Spurs from a shambolic collection of individuals – “spineless, soft, flaky rubbish” as Neville put it – into the strongest, most consistent Spurs team of their lifetimes. But then not many would disagree with that.

The dispute came when Neville and Carragher looked at the bigger picture. Neville was proud of Spurs’ achievements, establishing the club in the Champions League while building a stadium that they are having to borrow £637m to pay for. But for Carragher, this was a missed opportunity for Spurs. He argued that such a strong team should “actually try to win” the Premier League, just as Liverpool were doing by spending big on the specific players that they needed to improve the team. While Liverpool signed Naby Keita and Allison Becker this summer, Tottenham bought no-one.

What this really hinges on is an argument about Daniel Levy and how he runs the club. For Neville, Levy is the best operator in football, a man who does not spend money that the club does not have. For Carragher, he should now be “pushing the boat out a bit further”. That means funding big transfer spending in the summer even while Spurs were adding another £237m onto their bank facility for the new stadium - as difficult as that might be for a club without a benefactor owner.

Tottenham may well insist that they are not being quite as parsimonious as Carragher says. They have pushed the boat out with a series of big improved contracts this year, not just for Pochettino but for Harry Kane, Erik Lamela and Dele Alli, all worth more than the old Tottenham wage structure would allow. And they did not plan to spend no money this summer either. Had they been able to cash in on Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose, Victor Wanyama or Moussa Sissoko, then money would have been able to re-invest. But they were not, so there was no money to spend.

And yet it is impossible to avoid the feeling, watching Spurs this season, that all the thrilling upward momentum of the last four years has slowed. For the first time since Pochettino took over, it no longer feels as if this season will be better than the last. The failure to deliver the new stadium on time – no matter whose fault that is – has robbed the club of the single most exciting rallying point for the season. The lack of atmosphere at recent Wembley ‘home’ games is testament to that sense of broken promises amongst the fans. And while the new stadium will be a thrill for the fans when it is open, for now it feels as distant as ever.

What more can Mauricio Pochettino do at Tottenham? (Getty)

What matters even more than the feeling in the stands, though, are the performances on the pitch. And while Spurs are grinding out results better than ever, their performances do not display the stamp of Pochettino’s coaching as they have in the last few years. Not once have they produced the type of high-energy performance we associate with Spurs at their best. Injuries have not helped, as they have missed Christian Eriksen, Alli and Jan Vertonghen, while Kane, Hugo Lloris, Mousa Dembele and Alderweireld all have their own individual issues inhibiting performance.

Normally teams in this position would refresh themselves in the transfer market, but that is not an option for Tottenham right now, for obvious reasons. They are left with the same squad they have already squeezed so much out of. Which leads us to the big question: how much more can Pochettino get out of these players? What extra level can they reach?

The problem for Spurs is that everyone around them is moving faster than ever. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are by many measures worse-run clubs than Spurs and yet they have more money and better players. Pochettino’s great triumph at Spurs has been to routinely beat their better-funded rivals but that is such a difficult balancing act, it requires almost every little detail to go Spurs’ way to pull it off. There is nothing inevitable about it. And the fact that Pochettino said last week that this was “the worst” he has felt since he has been at Spurs shows how hard it will be to keep every part of his machine ticking along.

For his whole time at Spurs, Pochettino has made clear that league position was his barometer, and aiming for the Premier League and Champions League, the only trophies that count. But the chance of a Spurs title charge, like we saw in 2015-16 or 2016-17, feels remote now, and they are likely heading out of the Champions League too. And if they cannot fulfil those, then maybe this will be the season where attention finally turns back to the Carabao Cup or FA Cup, never Spurs’ priority recently but trophies the fans would love. Win tonight at West Ham in the League Cup, and Spurs will keep alive the dream of a trophy for this tiring team.

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