LONDON – Mauricio Pochettino was widely lauded as something of a miracle worker by elevating Tottenham into English soccer’s established elite and inspiring its improbable run to a Champions League final.
In his sixth season at the north London club, the magic of the Argentine coach finally wore off.
Pochettino was fired by Tottenham on Tuesday, a move that was sudden yet perhaps inevitable with the team’s declining fortunes on the field mirroring the ostensible disaffection of its manager.
British media reported that Tottenham was in negotiations with Jose Mourinho to take over.
“We were extremely reluctant to make this change,” said Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, whose relationship with Pochettino has appeared strained in recent years as they clashed over transfer spending, “and it is not a decision the board have taken lightly, nor in haste.”
Nor would they. It wasn’t long ago that Pochettino was one of the most sought-after managers in world soccer, having transformed Tottenham into a title contender in the Premier League and guided the team into last season’s Champions League final — a remarkable feat that remains the standout achievement of his 5½ years in the job.
That masked, however, an alarming slump in results on the domestic front that has seen Spurs win just six of their last 24 Premier League games since February, a period that goes back to the end of last season.
With the team currently in 14th place in the 20-team league and showing no sign of an improvement, Levy made his move.
“Regrettably domestic results at the end of last season and beginning of this season have been extremely disappointing,” Levy said.
“It falls to the board to make the difficult decisions — this one made more so given the many memorable moments we have had with Mauricio and his coaching staff — but we do so in the club's best interests.”
Pochettino departs without having won a trophy as Tottenham manager, a stain on an otherwise brilliant tenure in which he has had to battle against the biggest teams in Europe while working under strict financial constraints as Spurs prepared to move into a new stadium.
His replacement could be Mourinho, out of work since being fired by Manchester United in December but reportedly keen on the vacancy at Tottenham. Carlo Ancelotti and Massimiliano Allegri, highly respected Italian coaches, are also currently unemployed.
Since leaving Porto for Chelsea in 2004, Mourinho has always worked at clubs with big budgets so Tottenham might not be a natural fit for the Portuguese coach.
Whoever does come in has a tough act to follow, with former Tottenham and England striker Gary Lineker saying Pochettino had “helped the club to punch massively above their weight for years.”
“Good luck with finding a better replacement,” Lineker tweeted, “....ain't gonna happen."
Pochettino, a former Argentina defender, took over a Tottenham team that was outside the established elite in 2014 and created one of the most dynamic and exciting young teams in recent Premier League history, despite being unable to spend lots of money in the transfer market as the club prepared to move into a new stadium.
After a fifth-place finish in his first season, Tottenham came third, second, third and fourth in his next four full seasons in charge. The intensity and energy of the team’s pressing made Spurs stand out under Pochettino.
The highlight of his tenure will be Tottenham’s run to the Champions League final, where when the team scraped through the group stage, before beating Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Ajax to get to the final. The wins over Ajax and City were sealed in breathless games full of late drama, seen as a sign of the unity Pochettino had forged in the side.
However, Pochettino suggested before the Champions League final that he would be ready to leave the club if Tottenham won in Madrid, and he has had a disgruntled air ever since. His squad has become fractured, too, with key players like Christian Eriksen and Toby Vertonghen reportedly keen to leave and there was a sense the team was stale and in need of a shake-up.
In the space of four days at the start of October, Tottenham lost 7-2 at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League — the first time in club history the team had conceded seven at home in a major competition — and then 3-0 at Brighton, piling the pressure on Pochettino. The previous week, the team was eliminated from the English League Cup by fourth-tier Colchester.
His last match in charge was a 1-1 home draw in the league against Sheffield United, a promoted team that outplayed Tottenham at times.
Pochettino’s successor will inherit a squad potentially requiring a revamp and lacking in areas like full back and central midfield.
Dele Alli, signed by Pochettino from third-tier MK Dons in 2015 as an 18-year-old, was the first Tottenham player to speak about his manager’s departure.
“I can’t thank this man enough,” Alli said on Twitter, alongside a picture on him embracing Pochettino. “He’s taught me so much and I’m so grateful for everything he’s done for me. Good luck and hope to see you again my friend.”
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80