The view that Spurs needs something tangible not just to prove its progress under Pochettino but to cement it has become something close to received wisdom. Inside the club, players admit — as both Jan Vertonghen and Harry Kane have said — it is time to “win something.”
That belief is, if anything, even stronger on the outside. Alan Shearer, the former England striker, wrote earlier this season that Spurs could not pass up the chance to open its new stadium later this year “with a trophy held aloft.” Only then can Spurs claim a place among the game’s true elite. Until then, it is merely a pretender. Pochettino, finally, has joined the chorus.
And yet it is worth remembering exactly where Tottenham was, what it was, when he first arrived at the club, four years ago.
The last game before Pochettino arrived was in May 2014, a meaningless, meandering home win against Aston Villa. Spurs was sixth at the start of that day, sandwiched between Everton and Manchester United, with European qualification secured but a place in the Champions League impossibly distant.
In Pochettino’s place on the bench at White Hart Lane was his predecessor, Tim Sherwood. For most of the game, at least. Midway through the second half, with his team up, 3-0, Sherwood decided it was time, in his words, for “some banter.”
Not far from the dugout sat a couple of fans who had, Sherwood said, been “telling me what to do every week.” Turning away from the field, Sherwood suddenly pointed to one of them, Danny Grimsdale. Sherwood asked Grimsdale if he wanted to put his money where his mouth was, to come and sit on the bench and see if he could do Sherwood’s job as well as he thought.
Grimsdale demurred at first but soon changed his mind. He trotted over the advertising boards, skipped up to Sherwood, slipped on the manager’s vest — an item of clothing that had become something of a trademark — and duly took his place on the bench. Sherwood laughed. Grimsdale laughed. White Hart Lane laughed.
That is the club that Pochettino found: one of considerable promise, talented players and weighty history, for sure, but one where there tended to be quite a bit of laughter, and not all of it shared with the regulars in the first few rows. Spurs’ taste for self-destruction was such a cliché that an adjective — Spursy — had been coined to encapsulate it.
Spurs was the sort of team that might miss out on Champions League qualification because of a lasagna — or so legend had it — in 2006, and then do so again in 2012 because Chelsea, among its fiercest rivals, won the title to swipe its place.
It was a team that appointed Sherwood as coach, despite deep-seated reservations, and then watched as he went rogue, criticizing his players, his board, and eventually offering his place on the bench to a fan. It was a team that churned through managers and players with little rhyme or reason, a club forever in flux.
Pochettino has changed all of that. His transformation of Tottenham is, when examined not in the heat of a moment and the bitterness of defeat but at one remove, one of the most remarkable achievements in recent English soccer history.
Spurs did not used to reach two semifinals — and one league cup final — in the space of three years. It did not used to beat Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. It did not even used to qualify, with the exception of the occasional season under Harry Redknapp, for the Champions League.
It did not used to mount title challenges of any sort, successful or not. It did not used to provide the backbone of the England team, or be seen as a paragon of virtue when it came to youth development. Real Madrid and Paris St.-Germain did not used to look toward its manager with envious eyes; they did not used to talk glowingly of Tim Sherwood in the marble halls of the Bernabéu.
Pochettino’s detractors would point out that none of those are the ultimate aim for a manager, for a team: José Mourinho, Pochettino’s longtime friend and temporary tormentor at Wembley on Saturday, would have no truck with the idea that managerial achievement can be weighed in any other way than silver and gold.
But they are all concrete achievements. Pochettino has fundamentally changed Tottenham’s identity. He has revolutionized how the club is seen, its place in the firmament. And that, by his own estimation, is what he was employed to do.
A few years ago, during his first full season in England, at Southampton, Pochettino was asked whether it is a manager’s aim to win trophies, or to leave some sort of enduring impact on a club, on the sport. “It is better to leave your mark, without doubt,” he said. “That is my personal value.”
He has done that, beyond any reasonable doubt. He has turned Tottenham into a bastion of stability, of progress, of promise. He is right to talk of how “the process is more important than winning a trophy.” What he has done is a greater triumph — and a bigger test of his abilities — than winning the League Cup, or perhaps even its older brother, the F.A. Cup.
Tottenham has not yet shaken off its tag as a perennial loser, the team whose history — as Giorgio Chiellini put it — is “always to be missing something to arrive at the end.” But there is another way of looking at that: Pochettino has put the club in a position to fail at the last again. It is not so long ago that it failed a long way before that.
It is easy to forget just how far Tottenham has come under his guidance, but it is worth remembering. In four years, he has changed where Spurs is, and what it is. Pochettino has made the laughter stop.