Mauricio Pochettino has been here before – with Manchester United and Real Madrid – and it is tempting to suggest that he has now perfected the tap-dance.
On one side of the fine line, the Tottenham manager talks up the respect he has for his employer; his happiness in north London; his focus on the job in hand; his professionalism. And on the other, there are a series of expansive shrugs. Who knows what the future might hold? It is known as showing a bit of ankle.
So it was on Tuesday lunchtime, at what was supposed to be a preview for Wednesday night’s Carabao Cup quarter-final at Arsenal. The best intentions for the briefing were turned upside down when United announced the sacking of José Mourinho in the morning. Pochettino even offered up a team news story – completely out of character – when he revealed that Harry Kane had not trained because of a cold and was a selection doubt. It felt like a minor detail and that told you everything.
Pochettino was first linked with United towards the end of 2015-16, when the writing was on the wall for Louis van Gaal, and he fanned the flames when he enjoyed a Mayfair luncheon with Sir Alex Ferguson.
Fast forward to November of last year and it was Real who had him in their sights. Pochettino’s team had beaten them 3-1 in the Champions League and Zinedine Zidane, the club’s then manager, was tipped for the sack. Pochettino ruled nothing in or out, while describing Tottenham as “the most important club in the world”.
Real’s interest has persisted this season, through the disastrous tenure of Julen Lopetegui, and there remains the sense that Santiago Solari may only be keeping the seat warm until the summer – possibly for Pochettino or possibly even Mourinho.
It is now back to United. They have opted for an interim manager for the remainder of the season and that has put Pochettino in the frame to be appointed on a permanent basis next summer. Since the initial United link, he has done nothing but enhance his reputation. Cue the routine.
“In football, no one can guarantee you are going to be here tomorrow,” Pochettino said. “In football, I say today is white, tomorrow is black, you know? What is going to happen in the summer? Or tomorrow? No one knows. What is going to happen is not in our hands – the decision in another club, we don’t know. That is not my business and I will not waste time or energy because my focus and energy is in Tottenham.”
Pochettino was asked directly whether he had any interest in the United job and, of course, he did not give a straight answer.
There is a major difference between the current situation for Pochettino and those of the recent past and it is about the timing and control. United considered him seriously as Van Gaal’s successor, with Ferguson pushing him, but, in the end, the Glazers waited and waited before concluding that Mourinho – proven winner, global name and commercial gold – was the better bet. Pochettino signed a new deal at Spurs.
Real had Pochettino on their radar last season, only for Zidane to keep himself afloat by progressing in the Champions League and then winning the thing again. Pochettino would sign another new contract in May and, seven days later, Zidane announced his shock resignation. Once again, Pochettino’s stars did not align with regard to a concrete offer from an elite-level rival.
The fear at Tottenham is they might do so now; that Pochettino stands to have a decision to make. Even before Mourinho’s sacking, there was the recognition at Spurs that they faced a battle to keep him next summer. By removing Mourinho and pursuing the caretaker option, United have advertised their summer vacancy well in advance. Could it be the beginning of a play for Pochettino?
Why would Pochettino want to leave Spurs? He has built an exciting team on a relative shoestring and they are competing at Champions League level for the third season in succession. As they did last time out, they have advanced to the last 16, where they will play Borussia Dortmund. They are plainly outperforming United in the Premier League and there is also the excitement of the imminent stadium move.
Yet Pochettino has shown signs of frustration at his low budgets, which are linked to the new £1bn ground, and it was interesting to hear him suggest on Tuesday that regular top-four finishes without trophies might come to be regarded as insufficient. “After four and a half years, it’s like we forget all that happens in the past and we’re only successful if we win titles,” Pochettino said. “We shouldn’t forget that other clubs invest a lot of money.”
United are chief among those clubs, whereas Pochettino knows that book-balancing will remain the order of the day for some time at Spurs. There comes a point when that becomes too frustrating for a manager who is driven to win the league title.
If United want Pochettino, why do they not move immediately for him? It is because it would be impossible to prise him from the Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, in mid-season. With a contract to 2023 and no buyout clause, it would be difficult in the summer, too – with money most likely required to talk extremely loudly – but this one has the potential to run and run.