Those close to Mauricio Pochettino have described it as a ridiculously intense 10-day period, when he and his coaching staff were locked so deeply into talks about Tottenham’s immediate future that it was a struggle for them to come up for air.
It was the end of last season and Pochettino had given a pointer as to what was on his mind after the wild 5-4 victory against Leicester at Wembley, which secured a third consecutive top-three Premier League finish to add to Champions League qualification.
Pochettino got on to the front foot in his post-match press conference to articulate what sounded like an ultimatum to the chairman, Daniel Levy. The manager gave an ambiguous answer to a question about whether he would remain at the club and he called on Levy to “be brave and take risks” in the approach to the summer.
“I have very clear ideas of what we need to do,” Pochettino said. “We are going to talk next week to create the new project. It is a little bit up to Daniel and the club to agree with us. If we want to be real contenders for big trophies, we need to review a little bit the thing.”
Pochettino has never adequately explained what he wanted from Levy. It was easy to conclude that signings to strengthen the squad were at the top of his list but there were other things, including a desire for outgoing player business to be completed quickly in order to provide more room for manoeuvre on the market.
Then, there was the issue of retaining the squad’s star names and not only that but satisfying them with better salaries; raising the wage ceiling to fire ambition and growth. The overall theme was flexibility and it also applied to the profile of prospective signings. Pochettino did not want to be wedded exclusively to younger players with resale value.
The storm seemed to have blown over when Pochettino signed a new five-year contract on 24 May. Harry Kane would follow suit with a six‑year extension on 8 June and it was a game-changing moment, with Levy granting the striker a deal worth up to £200,000 a week, shattering the existing pay structure.
But the summer would contain plenty of blockages and frustration, with the headline item being the lack of any transfer business, and it set a rather fractious undercurrent in motion. Pochettino has grown increasingly outspoken, unafraid to voice his opinions on the various problems that have beset him and the club – most obviously, the delay in getting into the new stadium – and, if last summer felt like a crossroads for him, then another is fast approaching.
Pochettino had expected it to feature a different dynamic. Manchester United and Real Madrid have monitored his progress and considered, at various times, whether to move for him and there had been the fear at Spurs that they would face a fight to keep him away from one or both in the summer.
Yet Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s remarkable impact at United since the dismissal of José Mourinho in mid-December, which has culminated in his appointment on a permanent basis, and Zinedine Zidane’s return to Real have changed the picture. Pochettino’s most obvious exit routes have been closed off, leaving him to think about a sixth season at Spurs and what needs to be done.
There is a good deal in terms of squad restructuring and, with United and Real off the table, it is possible to wonder whether Pochettino has lost any leverage with Levy. Then again, Levy is a notoriously difficult person to back into any sort of corner.
Pochettino stands to lose a clutch of players, including a couple of regular starters, with Toby Alderweireld the most likely to go; he has an attractive-looking £25m buyout clause. Then there is the situation of Christian Eriksen, who is out of contract in June 2020 and has held off on signing up for another cycle at the club.
Eriksen is in his 10th season as a professional but he is only 27 – his breakthrough came at Ajax in 2009‑10 – and, in Levy’s eyes, he is lavishly valuable. The chairman has let it be known that he would cost £130m, which has drawn the usual rueful smiles, although not from Eriksen. If this were not Levy, the position would be unbelievable. But this is Levy. Eriksen faces a complicated summer.
Jan Vertonghen will also see his deal expire in June of next year but he is in a different boat because of his age. He turns 32 at the end of April and, as such, he has a lower resale value. Spurs would be more comfortable about allowing him to enter his final year.
Pochettino will likely lose Michel Vorm and Fernando Llorente on Bosman free transfers and he will listen to offers for Victor Wanyama, George-Kévin Nkoudou and Vincent Janssen. The quintet have been bit‑part players but it all adds up to a churn. Spurs’s squad is not the deepest in the Premier League’s top six. Players out will mean players in.
Who to turn to, particularly when money is tight because of the debt repayments on the new stadium? It is interesting that many of the players the club have scouted are aged 23 and under. They include Jack Grealish (Aston Villa), Jarrod Bowen (Hull), David Brooks (Bournemouth), Max Aarons (Norwich), Kieran Tierney (Celtic), Sean Longstaff (Newcastle) and Harvey Barnes (Leicester). In addition, they have a long-standing interest in the 26-year-old Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech.
Pochettino’s net spend on permanent transfer fees at Spurs stands at £27.25m and he is not a manager who demands big-name signings. In that regard, he is well matched to Levy. Pochettino wants players who owe him, who are malleable, obedient. He prizes control, as does Levy, and it is a battle for them.
The economics are challenging. Players know how difficult it can be to get out of Spurs under Levy and some have been reluctant to sign new deals that add extra years. A player approaching the end of his contract will calculate what he could earn as a free agent and that can radically influence his demands.
Levy has had big wins with Kane, Dele Alli and Hugo Lloris; the midfielder and goalkeeper extended in October and December, respectively. But he is losing control in other instances.
On the field, Spurs will be boosted when they finally move into the new stadium for Wednesday’s Crystal Palace game but they travel to Liverpool on Sunday having taken only one point from an available 12. Champions League qualification and revenues have never been more important. For Pochettino, it does not get any easier.