For Mauricio Pochettino it has long been a default response, a way to sidestep awkward questions. “Rumours,” the Tottenham manager says and, with it, he brings down the curtain on various subjects.
The rumours, as Pochettino would have them, are rife because Spurs are at such a low ebb, having won only three games all season. Harry Kane was asked on Monday whether it was the toughest period the team had been through in five and a bit years under Pochettino. “Yeah, probably, I’d say so,” Kane replied.
The 7-2 defeat at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League on 1 October has scrambled everybody. It has seriously damaged self-belief because, according to Pochettino, nobody had seen the humiliation coming at half-time, when Spurs trailed only 2-1 and had been arguably the better team. The 3-0 defeat at Brighton followed, when the players looked broken, and then the uninspiring 1-1 home draw with Watford on Saturday.
The atmosphere behind the scenes is said to be terrible and there have been numerous stories about disgruntled players who would rather be elsewhere. Does Pochettino still want to be at the club? Has he reached the end of the cycle?
“Look, I am 47 going on 48 and why do you think I don’t have white hair?” Pochettino said, as he prepared for Tuesday’s must-win Champions League home tie with Red Star Belgrade. “It’s because I don’t pay attention to any of these rumours. I only pay attention to what we need to improve, which is our performance.”
Yet Pochettino is no fool. As he always says, he knows football and what a cynical business it can be. “If we don’t improve our performance, which [leads to] the results after – what is going to be the result?” he continued. “It’s always the same in football. Yes, you are thinking the same as me.”
What everybody in the room was thinking was if Pochettino cannot improve results and fast he will be on an extremely sticky wicket. Quite simply, his job would be in peril and here was Pochettino accepting that grim truth. To him, it is about results and not rumours – with no grey areas in between. But on this occasion, he was unusually open to at least acknowledging the latter and, specifically, the one that has his Spurs future in doubt.
“That is football, I am not surprised,” Pochettino said. “In the same way that people praise you, if you don’t perform as people expect this is normal. No, I am not surprised. No, no, no. Football is always about winning today and what happened yesterday is gone.
“Managers and coaching staff always need to think that you need to win, today and tomorrow. Sometimes we are too much ahead and the people sometimes believe: ’Come on gaffer, you are thinking too much, too much.’ Yes, I think too much ahead as if I don’t win – then it does not surprise me, this rumour.”
Pochettino admitted his team were allowing too many chances and conceding too many goals. He noted how mistakes had led to early concessions against both Brighton and Watford, leaving uphill struggles, and he used candid language to describe the current lack of confidence. “When the confidence drops to the floor, what happens at Brighton in the first action, when we concede a goal and lose Hugo [Lloris to injury], is normal,” Pochettino said. “Then it is normal in the past two games. We are in a period where we are fragile.”
Spurs have one point from their opening two Champions League ties and the optimists will remember how they had one from the first three last season and still reached the final. Pochettino is desperate to fire an upturn, starting against Red Star, but the rallying cries have yet to inspire.
“In this type of period, our worst opponent are ourselves,” Pochettino said. “It’s difficult to do the things that you were doing before so easily. That is normal because it’s the pressure and the stress. You believe you need to run more, to show we are all together, to show we are with the manager, but it’s not like this. You need to usemore intelligence.
“The most important thing is to build our confidence again. For sure, we have the capacity and quality to turn this negative around. The belief is there. We only need to stay calm. We have to stay strong with our principles.”