LONDON — The speed is the most surprising part. In the span of just 11 hours, timed between Tottenham‘s club statements on Twitter, they went from firing Mauricio Pochettino and unveiling Jose Mourinho as their new manager. After five-and-a-half years under the former, it took half a day to move on in a decisive, risky new direction.
It seems remarkable that it could play out so quickly and yet sources told ESPN FC that this was merely the conclusion for something that had been a long time in the making. Here’s how it played out in North London after one of the most tumultuous days for Tottenham in recent memory.
With contributions from Mark Ogden, Gabriele Marcotti, Rodrigo Faez, Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal and Moises Llorens
How Spurs players found out
The players are always the last to know. None of Tottenham’s players, either those away on international duty or returning to training following a brief break, were aware that this change was coming. Sources told ESPN FC that many of Spurs’ senior players understood how broken the relationship was between Pochettino and his bosses, namely club chairman Daniel Levy, but they still had support for their under-fire manager even after his dismissal. A lot of the dressing room still bought into Pochettino’s principles and were shell-shocked by the change.
Equally, the squad was even more stunned by Mourinho’s appointment. Nobody saw that coming; sources told ESPN FC that some figures are skeptical about the complete change of philosophy and style. None of the players were consulted over the appointment of Mourinho, as you’d expect; what stood out was how the hire marked a break from Levy’s usual operations. Equally, sources say that his intermediaries were telling clubs in recent weeks that he wasn’t solely waiting for the Real Madrid job, as some reports had suggested, so as to hint at his interest in other jobs.
The change was discussed heavily in the first team squad WhatsApp group as soon as news of Mourinho’s appointment was made public. But no amount of chatter or discussion could really prepare the players: the mood was strange Wednesday morning when they began arriving at the training ground and saw him and not Pochettino.
Mourinho arrived at around 6:30 a.m. He had breakfast with some members of the club and put his new club tracksuit on before going straight to work: a session of video analysis, some tactical analysis and preparations for his first training session. He wanted training to take place in the afternoon so all his new staff would be there, including Joao Sacramento, his new assistant, who came from Lille and remarkably made it on time.
‘Back me and I’ll make you winners’
Mourinho had prepared everything in his head; he’d planned the whole day. The early arrival, the work to be done regarding his new team and new players, the act of meeting the club’s staff at the training ground but also planning the first training session. He knew the most important part of the day would be his first chat to the players: for this transition in power to work, Mourinho had to win the dressing room. Of course, he excels in those situations. He is so good at rallying people and finding the right words to galvanise a crowd.
Mourinho met Daniel Levy on Wednesday morning as well. The night before, once Pochettino’s exit had been confirmed, Mourinho was waiting at home, being informed of every little development. Pini Zahavi, who is very close to both Mourinho and Levy, brokered the deal and both parties had total faith in him to conclude things swiftly. According to ESPN FC sources, the Israeli “super agent” had pitched the idea of Mourinho taking over for Pochettino to Levy three weeks ago, making Tuesday night’s negotiations more of a formality than a complicated back-and-forth.
In front of the players on Wednesday, Mourinho was his typical self. He displayed plenty of energy, charisma and belief in his new team, according to ESPN FC sources. He told his new players that they formed a talented squad capable of achieving great things. He reminded his new team that he’d won trophies everywhere he went — even at Manchester United, where he created endless friction but still claimed the League Cup/Europa League double in 2016-17 — and that he wants to win at Spurs, too. Mourinho has reportedly planned a series of one-on-one interviews with his new players in the coming days but reminded them that he was prepared, telling them at training that he knew everything about them and had done his homework.
This captured the squad’s attention and focus, according to sources. They were all ready for his first training session following the team talk and Mourinho ran quite a playful, relaxed session, free of much complication. After all, there will be plenty of time to work on more specifically and exactingly what he wants the team to improve.
After Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking, Rob Dawson wonders if he’ll be hovering over the Man United job.
Why Pochettino left the club
As ESPN’s Mark Ogden wrote Tuesday in the aftermath of Pochettino’s exit, the signs of a split have been there at Tottenham for some time. Fundamental issues of communication and confusion between the former manager and Levy were seemingly ever-present since the Champions League final defeat and events over the summer contributed to the inevitability of Pochettino’s departure.
The key broker between Levy and Pochettino, former Head of Recruitment and Analysis, Paul Mitchell, left in February 2018 and with him went the main conduit between the coaching staff and boardroom. Without a guiding hand on player scouting and transfers, the pair were fatally indecisive. With Mitchell, who joined Tottenham shortly after Pochettino’s appointment in 2014 and worked with him at Southampton, the club was able to sign core players; without him, Pochettino and Levy couldn’t figure out how to work together, including the crucial summer of 2019 in which they had to navigate unhappy Spurs players, expiring contracts for several first-team members and identify the right transfer targets to help rebuild the squad.
There’s also a sense that Pochettino took business a little too personally while in charge. Sources told ESPN FC that he would be upset whenever players turned down a contract extension. While Levy would then look to find a buying club following such snubs, Pochettino deferred to his boss. But Levy’s unwillingness to take ownership of selling popular players that wouldn’t commit to the club left them stuck in limbo, retaining unhappy players and having no money from their sales to regenerate. A crucial breakdown in their relationship came whenever Pochettino did take charge: When suggesting possible replacements for outbound players, Levy rarely acted with speed to fulfill the manager’s wishes.
This confusion continued when it came to outgoing players, particularly those whose contracts were winding down and had, at that point, refused offers of new contracts, such as Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen. Pochettino and Levy agreed in principle that the strategy ought to be to either sell them or increase the club’s offer, rather than risk losing them for free or at a deep discount in the final years of their respective deals. But while a source confirmed that multiple offers came in for these players, none of their sales came to fruition. Again, it was an issue of indecision on many fronts. Levy played hardball (Spurs felt the offers were too low), Pochettino dithered about whether he should let them go or push Levy for improved contracts and they couldn’t collectively agree on potential replacements and how to value them.
Meanwhile, people close to Pochettino deny that there were credible offers. This disconnect speaks to the rift between Pochettino and Levy: the offers were probably genuine, but the club’s inaction is covered by the idea that four marketable players could walk for free in the summer of 2020. This is one place where the unhappy pair seemed happy to deflect.
Another issue that was a constant frustration for Pochettino came in the lack of “football people” around the team. Sources told ESPN FC that Levy’s only contact beyond Pochettino within Spurs for footballing insight was chief scout Steve Hitchen, choosing instead to solicit feedback from outside the club. This noise contributed to Levy’s indecision; Pochettino would tell friends and confidantes that Harry Kane would have been loaned out again in past years or sold to a Championship club had he not insisted on bringing him through into the first team.
Managing Pochettino’s exit
Back in 2018, Jose Mourinho walked out on the media demanding respect after Man United’s heavy defeat to Spurs.
The writing was on the wall for Pochettino for some time. His staff expected him to leave the club following his summer holidays and were surprised when he came back to work, according to sources. Yet his frustration continued despite being in the job; sources told ESPN FC that he was very open to leaving before the start of the 2019-20 season but stayed put because he didn’t get an offer from one of the few clubs he’d have considered as a viable next move.
As understood, his sights were set on specific positions but none were available following the Champions League final defeat in Madrid. Manchester United gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a new deal following Mourinho’s exit, Real Madrid convinced Zinedine Zidane to return to the role, and Bayern Munich and PSG decided to stick to Niko Kovac and Thomas Tuchel respectively. Sources indicate that Pochettino is confident that things will change soon: at least one of the aforementioned will be back in the market for a new, long-term coach — Bayern have since fired Kovac, appointing interim boss Hansi Flick for the foreseeable future — and that there are not many top managers in the market. Even Barcelona refuse to completely rule out him to replace Ernesto Valverde, say sources, despite Pochettino’s insistence in the past that he’d never take that job given his allegiances to Espanyol. One link to the club: he’s close friends with a key member of their staff, who worked briefly with Spurs during Pochettino’s tenure.
Equally, the reasons for Pochettino being fired are understood, per ESPN FC sources, on two levels. First, he didn’t not want to resign or come to a “mutual consent” arrangement. He was only going to leave if another club came in or if Levy sacked him. Exiting under better conditions, according to sources, would have looked like an admission of failure in Pochettino’s mind and would tarnish his ability to command another job at a big club. His gamble is simple: If things go massively wrong under Mourinho (something Pochettino is confident will happen), the blame shifts to Levy for a lack of patience rather than Pochettino giving up on the club.
The other reason is financial. Sources told ESPN FC that his expected exit package from Tottenham will be significantly larger following a sacking than if he’d negotiated a mutual content/resignation. Unlike other top-tier managers, Pochettino’s earnings weren’t as significant as that of his peers while at Spurs, at least with his first contract that was extended in 2018, or at previous clubs Espanyol and Southampton.
One thing’s clear: Pochettino will get plenty of interest. He has had informal inquiries from both Real and Man United over the past two summers but never followed through, per sources. He sees the timing of his exit as beneficial to his career, leaving Spurs with a big reputation and a healthy payoff. He also believes that he leaves with a job well done given that he helped set Tottenham on course to reach the last 16 of the Champions League: They hold a four-point lead over Red Star Belgrade with two matchdays remaining and host last-place Olympiakos on Nov. 26.
The reason to go with Mourinho
The most intriguing side of Mourinho’s appointment — sources told ESPN that he has signed a contract worth around £15 million a year, behind only Pep Guardiola in Premier League managers, and running until the end of the 2022-23 season — involves the future direction of the club well beyond the pitch.
Hiring a manager with his pedigree and global brand has been floated as a first step on the road to potentially selling the club. Sources told ESPN FC that Tottenham owners, ENIC Group, are interested in selling, and the high-profile hiring of Mourinho will make them more appealing to a prospective buyer. With their new stadium, position in London, track record of Champions League play in recent seasons, Mourinho adds further polish to a potentially compelling investment.
ENIC Group have been majority owners of Tottenham since 2001 and have since purchased further shares to take their position to 85% control of the club. The club was ranked No. 9 by Forbes as the ninth-most valuable soccer team worldwide in 2019.