Rewind three months ago, when Tottenham took the cut-throat decision to sack Mauricio Pochettino after five years in charge.
Pochettino left north London as the most successful manager in the club’s recent history. That success accounted for a grand total of zero trophies. So what success? Paul Merson may ask.
The Argentine arrived at a club on a downward trajectory. After Champions League qualification under Harry Redknapp, Tottenham took two steps backwards under Andre Villas Boas and Tim Sherwood.
Pochettino transformed Tottenham into Champions League regulars – finalists last season – and even Premier League title-challengers on two occasions.
All this was achieved despite spending literally nothing for two transfer windows and overseeing a stadium move that saw them spend a campaign playing at Wembley.
The former Southampton coach placed his faith in Tottenham’s English core and created a culture where young players could develop.
The England national team should feel indebted to Pochettino for his work, particularly with Kyle Walker, Harry Winks, Dele Alli and current captain Harry Kane.
Pochettino’s dismissal made sense. Five-and-a-half years into his tenure, his message had started to grind on his squad and the coach-player relationship was becoming strained. Links to the Real Madrid and Manchester United jobs had also tested chairman Daniel Levy’s patience.
But by appointing Jose Mourinho to replace Pochettino, Levy has threatened to undo so much of Pochettino’s good work.
In many ways Mourinho is the antithesis of his predecessor. The Portuguese pragmatist is disdainful of coaches who fail to win trophies. The pursuit of silverware comes above all else, above playing attractive football and far, far above the development of young players.
With his lengthy list of honours, Levy felt Mourinho was the perfect man to get Pochettino’s Spurs over the line and crown their achievements with some silverware. But the Mourinho of 2020 is not the Mourinho of 2004.
In the modern era, with player power on the rise, Mourinho’s methods are growing stale. He cannot relate to them – a fact made abundantly clear when taking into consideration his relationships with Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba at Manchester United. Young players like Marcus Rashford regress not progress under his tutelage.
Even the tide of silverware has been stemmed. Not since the world’s dodgiest treble in 2017 (Community Shield, Europa League and EFL Cup) aside, has Mourinho’s cabinet been added to.
And Tottenham are already feeling the weight of the baggage Mourinho brings. The post-match interview following Tottenham’s New Year’s Day defeat at Southampton, less than two months into his tenure, showed the Portuguese’s patience was already being tested.
In classic Mourinho press conference bingo, he praised Southampton’s defence to indirectly criticise his own, questioned the legitimacy of record-signing Tanguy Ndombele’s injury and referred to an opposition coach as an “idiot” after a clash between the dugouts.
While performances are still not up to scratch, results have picked up. Recent wins over Manchester City, Southampton and Aston Villa have been highly fortuitous but mean Tottenham are now just a point off fourth place.
They could have gone in a very different direction. RB Leipzig coach Julian Nagelsmann was on a four-man shortlist to replace Pochettino that included Eddie Howe, Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho.
Yet according to The Athletic’s and former BT Sport Goals Show contributor Raphael Honigstein, Tottenham were too late.
“Nagelsmann was open to a move abroad during his final season at Hoffenheim but eventually decided to succeed Ralf Rangnick at Leipzig,” Honigstein wrote. “He joined with a view to establishing Leipzig as a Bundesliga heavyweight. It is not a short-term project to him.”
If Pochettino had left in the summer, rather than November, Nagelsmann could well have been appointed by Levy rather than the mid-season SOS call that transpired in Mourinho’s arrival.
And after drawing RB Leipzig in the Champions League last-16, Tottenham supporters and Levy will come face-to-face with what could have been.
Nagelsmann was referred to as ‘Baby Mourinho’ during his spell as Hoffenheim assistant but there are few similarities nowadays between the pair.
The then-28-year-old became the youngest coach in Bundesliga history when he was appointed as Hoffenheim boss. He saved them from relegation that season before leading them into the Champions League for the first time in their history the following campaign.
Since joining the Red Bull-sponsored Leipzig in the summer, Nagelsmann’s side have become serious Bundesliga title-challengers. For the first time in their brief history, they made the Champions League knockout stages by finishing top of their group.
His Leipzig side play a front-foot, aggressive style with a focus on pressing the opposition into mistakes high up the pitch. He is adaptable to his squad and fluid with his formations.
“I work like a baker,” Nagelsmann says. “I mix things, shove them in the oven and see if it tastes well.” It’s a far cry from pragmatist Mourinho’s safety-first philosophy.
Nagelsmann himself admits “30% of football is tactics and 70% is social competence”. The 32-year-old is an outstanding man manager, capable of developing younger players such as Timo Werner, Dayot Upamecano and Christopher Nkunku.
Having finished second to Bayern Munich in Group B, last-season’s finalists Tottenham could have drawn Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain or Valencia too. Fans may have been relieved when RB Leipzig came out of the hat during the draw in Nyon.
Yet those who’ve watched Bundesliga this season will warn Tottenham not to underestimate Leipzig. With their progressive, attacking football, Nagelsmann’s side are among the most exciting on the continent this season and have scored eight, six and four (on three occasions) this season.
The German is a coach on the way up, Mourinho looks to be heading in a different direction. Claim Tottenham’s scalp in the last 16 and Nagelsmann will have Levy wondering if he made the right choice.