In an interview with the BBC at the beginning of this year, Mauricio Pochettino was asked whether he would rather be a maverick genius or blindly loyal. His answer: you need both.
The fourth generation son of farmers in Sante Fe is certainly a maverick. A fat-calved Argentinian football obsessive pinched from the Murphy night by Marcelo Bielsa to join local team Newell’s Old Boys.
And the pilgrimage which plots his route from the rural town to Tottenham is interwoven by lasting relationships and unquestionable loyalty. Pochettino has known his first-team coach, Miguel D’Agostino, since he was barely a teenager. Toni Jimenez, his goalkeeping coach, was a feisty comrade from his playing days at Espanyol - the club at which he both started and finished his playing career once in Europe - and Jesus Perez, his chief corporal, has worked with him since his first managerial role at the Catalonian club.
But at what point does loyalty become blind or maverick become genius?
In an interview this summer on French TV, Arsene Wenger was asked about his greatest regrets. “Perhaps staying at the same club for 22 years,” he answered.
“I’m someone who likes new things, likes change. But I also like challenges. I was a little bit of a prisoner to my challenge each time.”
Pochettino is yet to become prisoner. His incendiary collaboration between Catalonia and north-eastern Argentina is hardly one which lends itself to capture. He left Espanyol at the peak of his career to join PSG. He left Southampton as the sails of his managerial expedition caught a crosswind to North London.
Wenger’s loyalty to Arsenal did however become a footballing Stockholm syndrome. He was the sturdy infrastructure which prevented the new stadium from crumbling. The frugal sorcerer who couldn’t be detached from European status. Wenger became besotted by the insurmountable challenge. He was blindly loyal, a maverick no less, but his genius was spent.
Pochettino too is a maverick, but his genius is yet to come. He has been in management for less than a decade, he has only managed three clubs and is yet to lift a trophy. When Arsenal moved into The Emirates, Wenger had already won titles in three different countries. His footballing deity already ratified.
Yet Pochettino is facing the same fatalistic cycle which withered his former foe. Tottenham are balancing debt each transfer window, their prospects of a prolonged Champions League campaign are already all but over, and the battle for fourth with their arch-rivals has been reignited.
Just shy of his tenth anniversary in management, the dusk has settled on the decision which will confine his career to one crossroad.
Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich have all won just a single match in their last five games and the European giants are now engaged in a schoolyard sack race, scouring managerial options like swiping right on dating apps. All three clubs will be matched before Christmas decorations litter their city centres and Pochettino is in contention for each.
It is he or Zinedine Zidane for Manchester United, he or Antonio Conte for Real Madrid, he or another rescue call to Jupp Heynckes for Bayern Munich. To desert Tottenham now amid their transformation would be akin to a general running AWOL in combat – even if he has restored stability and success to a club who blitzed through nine managers in thirteen years prior to his arrival. It would betray the loyalty which defines Pochettino, but they are also the only opportunities for the foreseeable future for him to enter football’s upper-most echelon.
Wenger turned down approaches from the same trio of clubs during his tenure at Arsenal - three from Real Madrid, two from Bayern Munich and one from Manchester United. Now Pochettino must decide whether to step up or stay harboured on the border below where acclaim inevitably descends into disdain. Blind loyalty or maverick genius. There can only be one.