Tottenham’s loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinal means they’ll go trophyless for another year.
Here we go again. Tottenham, defeated 2-1 by Manchester United in the semifinals of the FA Cup on Saturday, will end the season trophyless for a fourth consecutive year under Mauricio Pochettino. To suggest this makes him a bad manager, any kind of failure, would be to ignore almost everything he’s done since taking over at the club. The charge would be simply false if it weren’t so busy being stupid.
But it’s also true that when a side this talented, filled with young, ambitious players (getting paid less than they’re worth, no less) — when a side like that fail to win anything year after year after year, there will come a point when progress comes to seem insufficient consolation for a lack of silverware. Somewhat confusingly, the fact that time hasn’t already come is yet further testament to what Pochettino has built.
That this most recent disappointment came at the hands of Manchester United only makes it feel more cruel. For United are a club, over the past four years, who have been by almost every measure inferior to Pochettino’s Spurs. And yet in that time they boast three trophies to Tottenham’s zero, and now four finals to Tottenham’s one. That it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what a winning mentality is and looks like doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
This is the challenge now facing Pochettino, to transform his side from fearsome competitors to winners. But how do you do this? How does a team get over that hump? There’s no question Tottenham are talented enough to win trophies. They were the better team on Saturday for long stretches, and could have had two or three goals before United had one. But if all this is true, what’s missing, what has prevented it from happening already?
Luck certainly plays a role, but a long enough run of bad luck inevitably leads to questions, to doubt, to the fear, among players and fans and manager, that maybe they don’t have the winning mentality everyone keeps talking about, whatever that phrase actually refers to. This mental side of the game — what it is, how to manage it — is one of the great mysteries of sports. What to make of a side who can do everything, it seems, but win?
Pochettino will presumably call for patience. Trust the process. The trophies will come. This is exactly what he should say, of course — because it’s true. There’s nothing for a manager to do but prepare his players as best he can, to put them in the best position to succeed, to believe in his methods, the only ones he’s got. But time is working against him. Money is working against him. Weirdest of all, his own players’ ambition may soon be working against him as well.
Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Heung-min Son, Jan Vertonghen and a few more Sprus players besides could all force their way to bigger, richer, more established clubs, clubs with the sort of winning record they’ve tried and failed so far to establish at Tottenham. The desire to finish what they’ve started with Pochettino is strong, but as silly as many of the criticisms leveled against this side are, the doubt they’re intended to create may soon prove very real.