Mauricio Pochettino must win silverware to back up his reputation
If history is a guide, Tottenham will exit the FA Cup on Sunday. Not because of Spurs' record against Fulham, which shows eight wins in their past 10 meetings. Or, indeed, their past in the FA Cup, which only Arsenal and Manchester United have lifted more often. Nor, even, a recent record showing a mere two defeats and nine victories in 13 matches over all competitions.
But more so because of Mauricio Pochettino's personal history. The Argentine has forged a reputation as a manager who takes teams forward. He took over a Southampton side in 15th and left them in eighth. He went to Tottenham when they had finished sixth. Now they are on course to record successive top-four finishes for the first time since 1983. By promoting and improving young players, by adopting a high-paced pressing game and by switching systems, he is a progressive figure.
But in one respect, Pochettino has made too little progress. In eight years of top-flight management, whether with Espanyol, Southampton or Spurs, he has tended to get knocked out of cup competitions too early. He was bequeathed an Espanyol team in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals -- under his auspices they were narrowly beaten by Barcelona -- but has only actually reached the last eight of any knockout tournament twice.
He steered Espanyol to the quarterfinals of the 2011-12 Copa del Rey without facing La Liga opposition, losing to Mirandes, who thus became only the third third-tier team to secure a semifinal berth. And in 2014-15, he took Tottenham to the League Cup final where they lost to Chelsea. Yet their only Premier League victims en route to the final were Newcastle, who have a habit of capitulating to all comers in the cups.
There have been missed opportunities -- such as Southampton's tame 2014 loss at Sunderland -- and defeats to big clubs, whether Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Borussia Dortmund. Individually, Pochettino's cup exits are nearly all explainable. Collectively, they produce a pattern of last-16 and last-32 departures.
Some have been the products of failed attempts at squad rotation. Indeed, Tottenham diced with humiliation when a weakened team went 2-0 down to League Two side Wycombe last month, relying on a 97th-minute goal to go through. Yet each underwhelming, comparatively early elimination, whatever the circumstances, adds to a growing trend. There may be no one competition he should have won, but at some stage he ought to secure a trophy.
If not, the danger is that Pochettino becomes seen as a more cosmopolitan, more glamorous version of the Everton edition of David Moyes: admired for his exploits in the league, but starved of silverware to such an extent that it becomes a millstone. The risk is that, by the very highest standards, he is not seen as a winner.
Like the Scot a few years ago, he is not competing on a level playing field. He spoke of "different tools" after defeat to Liverpool: at least four of Tottenham's five peers spend far more on wages and transfers. Like Moyes in his Merseyside days, he has attracted admiration. Pep Guardiola is a fan, and Manchester United were apparently interested, neither purely because of the financial disparity.
But based on budgets, playing personnel and the draw, there were 16 clubs who ought to have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League. The lone exceptions were Tottenham, who finished behind Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen. In an otherwise predictable group stage, they provided unwanted unpredictability.
And Spurs have a mere nine victories in 37 games against the rest of the top six or in the Champions League during Pochettino's reign and just one win in 15 away league matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs. It is not quite Moyes-esque, but nor does it suggest he prospers often enough in defining matches. Securing silverware could alter that perception.
Arsene Wenger has long suggested that fourth place is a trophy in itself. Perhaps Pochettino will echo that argument. Certainly, Tottenham's board, like their Arsenal counterparts, will probably be satisfied with cost-conscious achievement in the league, especially if a ground is financed as annual top-four finishes are secured, and the Argentine, in signing a deal until 2021, does not appear to be chasing a job like United where medals are a prerequisite. By believing in the primacy of the league, as in his tactics, Pochettino is a very modern manager.
Yet while his total of two FA Cups since 2005 is a meagre haul, Wenger has secured major honours, and plenty of them at his peak. Sooner or later, Pochettino could benefit from the appearance of substance silverware produces.
He has rebranded Tottenham, often for the better. But they used to be a cup team, winning five FA Cups, two League Cups and three European trophies between 1961 and 1984. If that reputation was shed long before Pochettino's appointment, he could benefit from restoring it, whether in the FA Cup or the Europa League. Being "Spursy" should not mean mediocrity in defeat in the last 16 of cup competitions.
Defeat at Gent in the first leg of the Europa League round-of-32 suggests Pochettino still has a lot of work to do to get it right as a cup manager.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.