Mauricio Pochettino: Never mind his mind games

Mauricio Pochettino has continually downplayed the importance of the domestic cup competitions. But does his record suggest otherwise?

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It’s become a feature of Mauricio Pochettino’s time at Tottenham Hotspur that the Argentine downplays his ambitions in England’s two domestic cup competitions. A feature that grows increasingly ironic as the pressure from all sides mounts on the trophyless Argentine and his equally trophyless charges. Whilst Pochettino was managing at Espanyol and Southampton, few expected him to win trophies but since his move to Spurs expectations have heightened.

All the more so considering the side he has built. Forged from the ashes of a broken team, shorn of their superstar Gareth Bale and listless under the unsuccessful tenures of Andre Villas-Boas and the tactically inept Tim Sherwood, Pochettino has built a force. Gone are the days of a Tottenham side willing to lie down when the going gets tough, the Pochettino-era Spurs tackle as hard as they play well.

They continue to progress despite some wobbles this season that leave them currently a point outside the top four and they look to be in good shape going forward. All the more so as some of their injured stars, such as Toby Alderweireld, Erik Lamela and Victor Wanyama return to the fray. Even without them, there have been some memorable days this season for Spurs. 

Liverpool were put to the sword in October and Real Madrid were defied at the Bernabeu and beaten at Wembley. Recently Tottenham took seven points from United, Liverpool and Arsenal before rallying from two-goals down in Turin to hold Juventus to a draw which leaves them in good stead ahead of the return fixture at Wembley. Spurs also look to be going well in the FA Cup and yet…

Domestic trophies not a priority?

Pochettino again said, as he has before many of Tottenham’s cup ties, that his team need to have grander ambitions than the FA Cup. As he would have it, with Premier League and Champions League glory potentially beckoning, to focus on competitions that for all their heritage bring no real reward would be a mistake. And perhaps on the surface of it he’s right. Arsenal fans may have argued that their season was better than their North London rivals last year after winning the FA Cup last year, but that was a delusion.

Ultimately, for a club to move forward finishing in the top four is a priority. The revenue and prestige associated with playing in Europe’s elite competition outweighs the short-term glory of winning the cup. And for all the talk of winning being a mentality and one trophy potentially opening the floodgates, Arsenal have won three of the last four FA Cups whilst undergoing a seemingly inexorable slide backwards. They are currently by some distance the sixth best side in the country, not what a club of their stature would expect.

Manchester United, who won the FA Cup in 2016, and the League Cup and Europa League last season, have also not seen their trophy winning exploits help them in the league. They trail Manchester City by a surely insurmountable margin despite heavy investment over the summer. All that seems to suggest that winning the cup doesn’t have the transformative effect on a team’s mentality that pundits would have us believe. So perhaps Pochettino is right to be ignoring the cups.

An underrated record

Except that he isn’t ignoring the cups. Far from it. Pochettino actually has a reasonably impressive record in the domestic competitions since taking over at Tottenham, something he receives surprisingly little credit for. In his three full seasons so far, he has already taken Tottenham to Wembley twice. They reached the League Cup final in his first year in charge, where his still developing side were comfortably beaten by a Chelsea team full of experience, who also won the league that year.

2015/16 was admittedly a dry year in the cups for Tottenham. They lost a close battle to Arsenal in the League Cup third round, but in their defence few would have predicted a Flamini brace going into the match. They then lost out to Crystal Palace at home in the fifth round of the FA Cup, as Pochettino’s decision to rest a number of his star names backfired in a frustrating defeat for the side.

But the Argentine looks to have learned from that, and last year again led Tottenham to Wembley, this time in the FA Cup semifinals. Tottenham’s curse in the competition continued as they were beaten in one of the best matches of the season again by Chelsea, who were unquestionably the best team in the land last season. Tottenham weren’t ruthless enough and Chelsea punished them, but it was hardly a case of Pochettino failing to prioritise the cup.

Pochettino has generally fielded strong sides in cup competitions during his time in charge. He started Harry Kane away against Newport, which was a risk to his side’s talismanic striker. But one he took because despite what he says Pochettino is clearly eager to bring silverware back to the white-half of North London. And so he should be. One of Tottenham’s proudest records is having won silverware in every decade since the 60’s, its one only United can match. And under Pochettino it might just be safe yet.

Do you think Pochettino is playing mind games? Let us know in the comments below!

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