Curtain raiser: The case for Spurs in 2016/17

By Charles Richards / @spurs_report

Tottenham v Arsenal 2015

A new season means a blank slate, and a chance to forget about what happened last time around. For the five wealthiest clubs in the Premier League, there is plenty to forget.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool experienced varying degrees of misery in 2015/16. Three of them missed out on Champions League football, and two on European football altogether. Four of the five clubs have changed managers in the past 12 months, while a large section of the fifth’s fan base wishes they had too.

Leicester’s title was so unexpected, and so out of keeping with the status quo in the Premier League since Manchester City struck oil, that it can be shrugged off. The big boys will return to their position at the top of the table, while Leicester will slip back down to their rightful place in the pyramid with a pat on the head. “Doing a Leicester” is something for lesser clubs to dream of, but now dominance will be reasserted.

If last season was “Jamie Vardy: The Movie”, the 2016/17 campaign is shaping up to be “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Inconveniently, however, it wasn’t just Leicester who gatecrashed the party.

Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant Spurs side defied expectations to emerge as Leicester’s closest challengers, keeping up the pressure until the 36th game of the campaign, long after everyone else had given up and expected Spurs — of “Spursy”, “Lads It’s Tottenham” fame — to give up too.

Judging by the early raft of previews and general tone of the conversation, this awkward turn of events is just another thing to be forgotten. You won’t see Spurs in a “Who Will Qualify for the Champions League” prediction by any self-respecting journalist or pundit. The bookmakers and punters agree, listing Spurs as fifth or sixth favourites. The UK broadcasters have little belief that Spurs will be involved in any early top-of-the-table clashes, having selected just two of Tottenham’s opening six games for live coverage.

The narrative ahead of the 2016/17 Premier League season goes as follows:

  • New managers and blank cheques at Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea mean a return to the top.
  • Arsenal’s Champions League place is guaranteed as long as Arsene Wenger remains in charge.
  • Liverpool, reinvigorated under Jurgen Klopp and not afraid to spend, are the most likely challengers if anyone falters.

As for Spurs, the failure to win in the final four games of last season, plus unconvincing performances by Harry Kane and Dele Alli at the European Championships, are unarguable precursors to a year-long drop in form that will return Spurs to their signature, revenue-linked sixth position. Any success for Spurs in the previous season was in direct correlation to the lack of success by bigger clubs. Leicester winning the league was a fluke and will never happen again, ergo Spurs finishing third. Enjoy the Champions League nights at Wembley, Spurs fans, because it’s back to the Europa League in 2017/18 and beyond.

I mean, why do we even bother?

Here’s the thing though: rival teams never look stronger than they do before you’ve actually seen them play. Pep Guardiola’s tactical wizardry, Jose Mourinho’s psychological magic sponge and Antonio Conte’s manic energy are at their most impressive when they exist solely in your imagination. These dreams fuel football, and justify the billions ploughed into the game, not just by oligarchs but also fans.

The problem, once the season starts, is that reality intrudes on these dreams. Injuries, luck, form, inspired opponents, sulking strikers, fallings out, defensive errors and greedy agents can all conspire to make Pep’s tactics look naive, Conte’s energy wasted or Mourinho’s mind games misdirection rather than magic.

Don’t forget that Spurs are good

As James Yorke, a Spurs fan and therefore not one to succumb to a bout of the 2015/16 forgetsies, wrote in his excellent curtain raiser on Statsbomb, there is a six-into-four dynamic this season that means something has to give. But reading and watching the early previews, a curious logic appears to be emerging: the teams that most “need” to finish in the top four are identified as the teams that are most likely to do so. Klopp and Pochettino are less likely to lose their jobs if they fail to secure a top four finish, therefore Liverpool and Spurs are less likely to secure one.

I can understand how this conclusion is reached. But if we learned one lesson from last season, just one, it’s that you don’t get what you need, want or deserve in the Premier League. You just get what you get.

Watching the Manchester clubs spend hundreds of millions on flashy new players, and Roman Abramovich underwrite yet another mammoth Chelsea rebuilding, is intimidating to other teams and fans. And it is supposed to be that way. We’re still David standing there with our slingshot, but Goliath is back on his feet and he’s even bigger.

However Spurs fans (and Liverpool fans after watching their club repeatedly “do a Spurs”) know better than anyone that spending isn’t anything. While it makes you look strong, normally the need to spend is born out of a weakness. You can look at the history of transfers and see that 50 percent work out, 50 percent don’t. Smarter clubs do slightly better, stupid clubs do slightly worse. Not every weakness that dragged the Premier League elite below expectations last season is going to be fixed, and even fewer are going to be fixed immediately.

No club has needed to spend less than Spurs this summer. Sure, we had to buy a second striker and increase the midfield options, but the same starting XI that finished third last season is in place and ready to go. There is no need to adapt to new tactics, understand a new philosophy, or learn how to play together. Spurs walk out at Goodison Park on August 13th knowing exactly what they are meant to be doing.

Last season, Spurs conceded the joint fewest goals along with Manchester United, and five of those 35 goals came in the shitshow at Newcastle. We had the best goal difference (+34) and second best expected goals difference (+29.3, behind Arsenal’s +34.4, per Michael Caley). A bunch of other metrics looked good, if that is your thing. Mauricio Pochettino’s side equalled the club’s highest Premier League points haul, and in six of the ten prior seasons, 70 points would have secured a top four place. Spurs didn’t ride a hot streak, a single superstar or a freak set of results. Spurs were just plain, old-fashioned good, and had the youngest starting XI in the league to boot.

The “Spurs are good” genie is out of the bottle, and it would take an extreme set of circumstances to blow Spurs off course. Do you think Spurs are going to forget how to press? Are Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen going to forget how to play together? Are Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembele going to wake up one morning as the ineffective players they were two years ago? Is Christian Eriksen going to stop making smart passes, and Harry Kane stop finishing them off? As I have stated repeatedly in the past six months, the success Pochettino has created at Spurs has been built on extremely solid foundations. There is a plan, and it is working.

Instead of taking the dismissal of Spurs’ chances as a slight, or as a precursor to a return to the Europa League, we should embrace it.

Spurs are dipping back below the radar, ready to surprise the league by once again not being the Spurs everyone expects us to be. There is a chance to quietly build momentum while the talking heads fawn over Pep and Conte, and the press covers every waking move by Zlatan and Mourinho, the Premier League’s Kanye and Kim. Less pressure means more space for young players like Dele Alli and Eric Dier to grow, for emerging talents like Josh Onomah to find their feet, for new signings like Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to bed in.

Fueling the fire

What seemed so egregious last season was the relish that greeted every Spurs mistake in the run-in from fanbases who’ve forgotten what it is like to see local boys wearing the shirt, or whose teams had never seriously challenged Leicester for the title. This was only compounded when the same Spurs players formed the core of the England team that flopped at the Euros.

Because we have to explain everything, and connect everything, these two storylines merged into one. Spurs were mentally and physically exhausted, the subtext of which was weakness.

But Spurs didn’t “lose” the title to Leicester; we were only ahead of Leicester for 13 minutes last season and couldn’t chase them down. England didn’t flop because the Spurs players were shattered; England flopped because Roy Hodgson and Gary Neville, in a gross act of footballing negligence, sent the players into battle devoid of tactics and a game plan.

If others want to interpret this confluence of negativity as a precursor to doom, so be it. But do you think, for one second, that Pochettino will let the players dwell on what happened at the end of last season and over the summer, and indulge a hangover? Do you think, for one second, that the anger at falling short last season and the outbreak of schadenfreude will do anything other than drive this team on?

Make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title this season.

“We want to win it, and we will go for it,” Alderweireld said towards the end of last season. “I think we now have a different mindset from the one we had at the beginning of this season. Then we were thinking the top four would be brilliant, now we are thinking more than that, we want to go one better.”

Over the past 12 months, Spurs fans have been slower than the players in believing what can be achieved, a caution born out of bitter experience. We are still looking at possible scenarios and bargaining with ourselves as to what is possible, trying to find the balance between hope and realism, mentally hedging against disappointment by lowering expectations.

A sliding scale of acceptability emerges: If not second, then third; if not third, then fourth; if not fourth, then at least win a cup; if no cup win, at least reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League; if we don’t finish above Arsenal, let’s at least finish above Liverpool or Chelsea or West Ham or someone.

But for Spurs, it is no longer about trying to define success in this way: this is the old way of thinking. For Pochettino, the only target is to win the title, and his whole ethos is about continually improving his team until that happens. Finishing in the top four accelerates the building process because Champions League football helps recruitment, increases the budget, and aids player retention. But it isn’t the goal in itself for Pochettino, no matter what the bean counters say. There’s a world of difference between something that is good enough, and something that you really want.

What does progress look like?

Measuring progress is difficult, because it can be counterintuitive. It is possible to improve as a team but still finish lower down the league. We only have control over our opponents’ results twice a season.

So how will Pochettino measure progress, and how should we?

There will be statistical measures that we may or may not see, assessing the quality of things like the press, attacking build-up, set-pieces and fitness, as well as the increase in mental strength that Pochettino considers so crucial yet is so hard to define.

But more visibly, Pochettino will be looking to fix the areas where Spurs fell short.

That means more single-goal wins, whether they be late winners, rearguard actions to protect an early lead, or simply greater control when we’re not playing well. That means fewer dropped points at White Hart Lane, particular against teams such as West Brom who come and sit deep. That means better performances in Europe, because our Europa League displays have been consistently mediocre and we need to raise our game in the Champions League.

Crucially, that also means better results against the other “big” clubs. Spurs improved results in these matches last season, taking 15 points from 30 compared with just seven from 30 in 2014/15, but there is still room for improvement. We’ve not beaten Liverpool yet under Pochettino, and we still need to overcome our Stamford Bridge hoodoo.

These are all yardsticks to measure Tottenham’s progress against. We may solve all the problems, or we may not. The extent to which Spurs manage to do this will determine the strength of the title challenge. But the problems are clear, and they are fixable, and Pochettino has consistently shown the intelligence and ambition required for the task at hand.

If I have one concern, it is a lack of an alternative or supplementary midfield creator to Christian Eriksen. But there is nearly a month left in the transfer window, and plenty of money in the kitty after the relatively light investment since Pochettino took charge. Every other club has a weakness that is just as glaring — in central defensive for Manchester City and Chelsea, the right flank for Manchester United, in most defensive positions for Liverpool and up front for Arsenal. We’re just as likely to find our missing link, if not more.

We’ll know if Spurs are making progress because suddenly our games will be on TV, the players will be in the papers, Mourinho will start his mind games and Chelsea will begin baiting us. Articles describing Spurs as the “surprise package” will be written, glossing over the fact that Spurs being good again really shouldn’t have been that much of a shock if you’d only paid attention.

I’m not going to predict that Spurs are going to win the league — as anyone who follows me on Twitter or has read this blog for a while will attest, my predictions are beyond hopeless.

But make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title. Just a shame you had to read it here first.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

Tottenham’s most expensive signing, relative to revenue

“Has English football gone mad?”

With Manchester United set to smash through the £100 million barrier with their deal to bring back Paul Pogba, and Manchester City considering spending £50 million on a relatively unproven John Stones, the sentiment is frequently expressed by journalists and fans.

No doubt, similar questions about the game’s financial sanity were asked 20 years ago when Newcastle spent £15 million to bring favourite son Alan Shearer back to the northeast from Blackburn.

Of all the transfer deals I can remember, it was the Shearer one that stood out and made me think: How much?!?

It seemed an incredible amount of money for Newcastle to spend on a single player in 1996. By contrast, huge fees paid by Real Madrid, for example for Gareth Bale, have always seemed more understandable given the vast wealth and global reach of the Spanish club.

This got me wondering, how expensive was Shearer for Newcastle at the time? Adjusted for inflation, £15 million would now be £25.4 million. But more, my question was how big a deal was Shearer for Newcastle at the time, compared to its total revenue as a football club back in the very early days of the TV boom?

For the 1996/97 season, Newcastle’s revenue, according to club accounts filed with Companies House, was £28.97 million. The deal for Shearer, at £15 million, was equivalent to 51.77 percent of the club’s total revenue.

Newcastle’s total revenue, according to the last accounts, now stand at £128.8 million. If you fired up the time machine and did the same deal today, Newcastle would be spending £66.8 million on Alan Shearer.

As Newcastle fans will be painfully aware, Mike Ashley is more likely to offer his Sports Direct slaves permanent contracts than spend that much on a footballer.

Using the same 51.77 percent figure, this would be equivalent of Manchester United spending £204 million on Pogba, or Manchester City spending £182 million on Stones.

For Spurs, it would be the equivalent of spending £101.5 million on a player. Can you imagine Daniel Levy sanctioning that?

This in turn got me wondering, who is Tottenham’s Shearer? While Erik Lamela is the club’s record signing, at £30 million (£25.8m plus clauses), who was the most expensive Spurs player, relative to the club’s revenue at the time?

I dug out some data* and created the following chart.

TransferRevenueHistory

As you can see, the most expensive, at the time, and by quite some margin, was Sergei Rebrov. His £11 million move from Dinamo Kiev was equivalent to nearly 23 percent of the club’s annual revenue that year.

Rebrov is followed by Les Ferdinand (19.4 percent) and Chris Armstrong (18 percent). In fourth is Lamela.

When I first thought about this, my guess was Darren Bent, but his transfer was funded by one of the biggest jumps in revenue (with a new TV deal kicking in), so he is only in fifth place on the all-time list. I daresay Sandra Redknapp would have been higher.

Of course, this is just a snapshot and not to be taken too seriously. As a club that has been run for a profit, rather than as a plaything, what Spurs spend is a reflection of what has been received.

But nonetheless, as a snapshot, it is an interesting one. Some of those names — Fazio, Bentley, Reid, Vega and Rebrov himself — are a reminder of what a massive crapshoot the transfer market is. Which is why spending an amount equivalent to 51.77 percent of your revenue is a crazy idea, and one unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

English football may well have gone mad, but it went mad a long time ago. If anything it has become a little more sane, but as the numbers get bigger, it just doesn’t seem that way.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

*Revenue data from Companies House. Transfer data from @ztranche

The Pochettino Revolution: How Tottenham were transformed from also-rans to title contenders

By Charles Richards/@spurs_report

Poch_cover

Sky Sports, via Google Images

As a Spurs fan, you can pick your nadir.

Maybe it was Lasagne-gate, or the night when Chelsea snatched our hard-earned Champions League spot in 2012. Perhaps it was the sight of Arsenal celebrating the league title on the pitch at White Hart Lane, Sol Campbell among them. For some the pain predates the Premier League era, while for others each new misstep supersedes the last and it is the final-day faceplant against Newcastle in May that stings more than anything.

For me, rock bottom came on March 8, 2014:

Chelsea 4 Tottenham 0.

I had some things going on in my life at that time, and more than ever before or since, I needed my team. I needed that temporary uplift, that two hours of escape, that feeling of togetherness that a good Spurs performance brings. Instead, I witnessed one of the most abysmal displays in recent memory.

The BBC summed up the shambles in its match report:

“Spurs fell behind to Eto’o’s 56th-minute strike, which came after Jan Vertonghen’s slip and aimless pass, before more mistakes – from Sandro and Kyle Walker – led to Chelsea’s third and fourth goals at the death. Chelsea’s second came from Hazard’s penalty after Younes Kaboul fouled Eto’o, a challenge that also saw the French defender sent off.”

That Tim Sherwood, parachuted into his first managerial role mid-campaign, was out of his depth tactically was already clear. But as he appeared before the TV cameras and lambasted the players, it was becoming evident that he wasn’t psychologically suited to the task either. It wasn’t what he said — the performance was gutless, the squad did have players who didn’t care — but rather the way that he said it. As he lost control, he lashed out; his attitude appeared to be, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me.” There was a real risk that his interim appointment could cause lasting damage, and the few positive legacies from the lean preceding years, such as Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen, would seek a departure as the club stumbled blindly into the next false dawn.

Spurs as a club wasn’t just fractured, it was broken. Daniel Levy’s schizophrenic switching between “continental” and “English” strategies had gone into overdrive, bordering on parody, with the transition from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” vacuity of Andre Villas-Boas and Franco Baldini to the cartoonish footballing provincialism of Sherwood.

When Levy, rebuffed by Louis van Gaal, turned to Mauricio Pochettino in May of 2014, this was an appointment that simply had to work. The club’s “best of the rest” status, that ambition of Champions League football that could be sold to potential recruits even if it wasn’t quite achieved, was threatened as Spurs drifted back towards the mid-table pack. The stadium project was stalled, while the new training ground was an expensive new facility that no-one appeared to know how to make the most out of, like an iPad only used for playing Angry Birds.

I don’t think, in hindsight, we can overestimate the scale of the job that faced Pochettino when he first joined. Aged 42 and with little more than five years of managerial experience, he became the 10th Spurs manager in 12 years on the strength of a hugely impressive, if low-pressure, spell at Southampton.

Two years on, Spurs are back in the Champions League, playing vibrant football, and have a young and united squad with a strong homegrown core. The success appears sustainable, and I can’t recall ever feeling that the future was so bright. Only the most attention-seeking of contrarians will argue that Pochettino hasn’t succeeded in every respect.

Which begs the question, how on earth has Pochettino prospered where so many of his predecessors have failed?

Heading into the Argentine’s third season in charge of Tottenham, now is the perfect time to look back at what Pochettino has achieved, and the work that still needs to be done.

 

The Kaboul Cabal and a dressing room revolt

Poch1_angry

For the first 11 league games of Pochettino’s tenure, it had all the hallmarks of another trademark Tottenham false dawn.

Eric Dier’s late winner against West Ham and a thrashing of QPR raised expectations, only for a crushing defeat by Liverpool to send Spurs back down to earth. A point at the Emirates was fine, another inept thrashing at the Etihad a sign that nothing had really changed.

The real problems occurred once the Europa League campaign kicked in, and those early Sunday kick-offs at White Hart Lane, fans and players equally unenthusiastic, returned. First was a narrow defeat to West Brom, which happens, then a farcical defeat to Newcastle in which Alan Pardew’s side scored seven seconds into the second half, which really shouldn’t. When Stoke went 2-0 up within 33 minutes on November 9, with Spurs devoid of ideas and any clue how to defend, for the first time the atmosphere turned mutinous.

There’s a story, which I heard from THST Co-Chair Martin Cloake on The Tottenham Way podcast, about the Spurs dressing room after the Stoke match. Returning down the tunnel, the boos ringing out after a 2-1 home defeat, it was business as usual for the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor. At this point, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason stood up and took control, informing the dressing room that this wasn’t acceptable. There was a rebellion, and Pochettino needed to decide who to back.

This match would prove to be a watershed, above all in Pochettino’s understanding of his squad’s willingness and ability to carry out his instructions. Adebayor, who didn’t care, was cast aside, as were the likes of Kaboul and Etienne Capoue, after being deemed inadequate technically and tactically. The “Kaboul Cabal” was born — even if the term was harsh on Kaboul himself, a committed player for whom injury rather than attitude had been the (primary) downfall.

Others would find themselves pushed to the sidelines. Aaron Lennon, the club’s longest serving player, was a walking, talking (and rarely playing) version of the “needs a new challenge” cliche. By February he’d be at Everton on loan. Paulinho continued to appear, occasionally and never effectively, while Roberto Soldado’s crisis of confidence deepened. New signings like Federico Fazio and Benji Stambouli were evidently sub-standard. In their place, the young guns led by Kane, starting to embark on his rise to national prominence, would be given their chance.

In hindsight, Pochettino’s biggest achievement at Spurs may have been surviving his first season. He inherited an unmotivated, fractious and poorly assembled squad, but one that was expensive enough to raise expectations. Ditching the “Kaboul Cabal” was the right move, as was turning to the likes of Kane, Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. But there was also an element of luck that these players were able to step up. Was it good management, or just good fortune?

This “lucky vs good” question would be an issue through the 2014/15 season. All those late Eriksen or Kane winners that kept the campaign afloat — was that the mark of enhanced fitness stemming from superior training methods, or just the rub of the green? The Pochettino pressing game wasn’t just poorly executed, it was positively dangerous, with Spurs shipping 53 goals. Southampton conceded just 33, yet we finished fifth while they finished 7th.

If the dismal Stoke defeat was one milepost, another would come on New Year’s Day against Chelsea. For the first time, Spurs fans witnessed the sort of performance that we’d allowed ourselves to dream about in the most optimistic moments when Pochettino was appointed. A young Spurs side descending on Chelsea’s league leaders like a pack of wolves, ripping them apart and scoring five.

For many fans, this was seen as a turning point, the moment when the Pochettino project found its feet and the club kicked into the next gear. But perception is a funny thing, especially when it comes to gauging success. Even though we all felt that performances were finally improving, and revelled in the thought that a brighter future was starting to take shape, actually results didn’t really improve much. In the 19 games before we played Chelsea, we averaged 1.63 points per game, in the 18 games after we averaged 1.66. The reality was Spurs were playing a bit better, had one or two excellent performances (notably against Arsenal), but were still a flawed unit with huge holes in the squad (and in the defence).

Ultimately, Pochettino did enough in his first season. Spurs got enough points, there was enough hope about the future, enough signs that his methods were working, enough understanding that a lot of the failures could be laid at Baldini or Levy’s doors. But going into 2015/16 there were precious few hints of what was going to come.

“I hear people say stuff about Tottenham and I don’t like it”

Poch_Dier

After a familiar slow start to Pochettino’s second campaign in charge, and a frustrating summer where key areas of the squad (central midfield and striker) were not strengthened, it soon became clear that something was happening at Spurs.

It wasn’t like the previous season, where, rightly or not, the 5-3 win over Chelsea could be seen as a visible turning point. Instead, after there was a steady drip of events, information, quotes and social media buzz that pointed to a more positive dynamic emerging.

After losing narrowly at Old Trafford, Spurs were unbeaten for the next fourteen games. The defence was miserly, and for the first time in years we had a proper central defensive partnership in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. In front of them, Eric Dier was starting to demonstrate that he was much more than a centre-back slotted into midfield due to a shortage of options. Dele Alli was proving that the impish nutmeg of Luka Modric in pre-season really was the precursor to greater success that we’d hoped for. Even Erik Lamela, so lost in his first two years and nearly shipped out on loan to Marseille, was starting to get it. Harry Kane, after a slow start, rediscovered his shooting boots.

Above all, the penny had appeared to drop about the type of play Pochettino wanted. The pressing was notably better, the way the centre backs split and the fullbacks zoomed forward was smoother than a Swiss watch, while Dele Alli’s ability to get beyond defences unlocked space for Eriksen and Kane. The passing became crisper, the ball and players fizzing around menacingly.

After his first season, Pochettino diagnosed two primary problems with the squad he inherited. First, there were the players who weren’t up to it, for a variety of reasons; second, the squad was simply too big. It was counterintuitive, given how widely accepted has become the Mourinho doctrine of two quality players in each position, and how Spurs have struggled with Europa League demands in the past. But Pochettino wanted a more united and cohesive squad, and placed faith in the quality of his fitness work and injury prevention record to withstand the rigours of the schedule.

“Character” is a tainted word in football, thanks to the Proper Football Men’s overuse of the word to describe a myriad of situations and problems. But anyone who has followed Spurs in the past two years will agree that a greater emphasis has been placed on identifying the “right” sort of player. Call it character, mentality, psychology, attitude or personality, the dressing room at Spurs hasn’t come together by accident. Pochettino and has staff have created an atmosphere of hard work and common purpose, and on the recruitment side, more attention has been paid to finding players who buy into this.

There were softer touches too. The club invested in improved social media over the summer of 2015, bringing in The Times journalist Henry Winter to advise players on how to communicate. Unlike other clubs, the players were always on message, but nonetheless it felt natural and not contrived PR fluff. The Dier-Alli bromance blossomed, photos of the squad eating together were shared, a mid-season trip to Barcelona was a roaring success, and created an impression of harmony. Even Pochettino and his staff got in on the act, larking about on a jog around Baku before the match against FC Qarabag, brightening what could have been a long and boring trip. The players genuinely seem to get along, and be happy at Spurs.

In previous years, the leaks out of Hotspur Way were negative, the internal politics spilling out into the open and undermining the attempts at unity from whichever manager happened to be in charge at the time. Gone were the stories about strikers falling out with managers over beanie hats and and transfer blame games, now it was all positive — little vignettes such as the players all joining in board games, shooting competitions after training, the tough fitness work seen as a badge of honour, not a cause for complaint.

This shift in mentality, the new toughness and determination emanating from the camp, was summed up by Eric Dier after Spurs thumped Man City at White Hart Lane:

“I don’t think we get the credit we deserve. We are an extremely young squad. I hear people saying stuff about Tottenham and I don’t like it. I don’t think the other boys like it either.”

I hate it, but the term “Spursy” was coined for a reason — too many sloppy goals, weak performances, decades of prioritizing style over substance. “Spursy” became a catch-all term to explain how it felt for success — however you cared to define it — always being just out of reach. We were Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football, and maybe, just maybe, things were starting to change.

Gary Neville, before embarking on an annus horribilis that would see his reputation in tatters, declared Pochettino his favourite manager in the league. “There is not one negative word I could use,” Neville said of the Argentine’s work. “There is nothing I dislike.”

A lot has gone right at Spurs in the last two years. Recruitment has improved with the arrival of Paul Mitchell and Rob MacKenzie, the return of Ian Broomfield and (unofficially) David Pleat, and much-needed investment in the scouting network. Assistant manager Jesus Perez is a sports scientist, and the standard of physical training (and injury prevention) has improved remarkably. A pathway for youngsters fostered by academy guru John McDermott has been established.

Perhaps most important is the relationship between Pochettino and Levy. In his rare media or public outings such as the Q&A with fans last year, the chairman has appeared unusually relaxed. He even undertook the “Ice Bucket Challenge” — remember that? — although the two players who soaked him didn’t last long. Pochettino revealed he’d watched one of the Leicester games at his house with Levy in last season’s title run-in.

It seems, more than anything, like Levy has finally “found his guy” — a manager who offers middle ground between the continental and the English styles. Levy is able to focus on non-football things — things that arguably he is far better at — such as the stadium project and other property ventures, as well as the money side. There is a balance of responsibilities and a structure that has previously been lacking at the club. Pochettino’s title change from head coach to manager reflects the extent to which he rules the roost at Hotspur Way, and the trust he has earned from a chairman with a reputation for micro-management.

It isn’t all handshakes and hugs at Hotspur Way either. Pochettino has shown he can be tough, and will treat expensive imports and homegrown talent equally firmly if the situation requires. When Andros Townsend threw a tantrum during a warm-down after the match against Aston Villa, Pochettino’s response was swift and firm: “When you behave in the wrong way, you have to pay.” Townsend was suspended, and left the club a few months later.

According to Toby Alderweireld, the key change under Pochettino was the team spirit: there were “no longer any heroes” in the Spurs team.

“When one makes a mistake, the other one picks it up. We have a togetherness. We want to achieve something this season and I think you can see that on the pitch. There is confidence and self belief — not arrogance — that we can beat everybody. We know that if we don’t put the effort in, we are a normal team.

“He [Pochettino] only puts in guys who work very hard. A lot of guys have left the club. If you do not follow the path, you don’t belong in Tottenham.”

Pochettino doesn’t seek credit, and when he signed his new contract, he made sure his team of coaches were signed up too. But, undoubtedly, when looking at the progress made by Spurs in the past 24 months, the Argentine is the common denominator.

“When your face isn’t smiling, your feet aren’t smiling”

Poch_kane

Pochettino doesn’t court publicity and he keeps his opinions to himself. There are no mind games, no taking of the bait, and rarely any insight into how he goes about his business.

On a personal level, two years on, we know practically nothing about him. We know Pochettino works incredibly hard — arriving at Hotspur Way very early and leaving very late. We know his son Maurizio is in the youth set-up. We know nothing about Mrs Pochettino — beyond the fact she thought he’d put on some weight last season forcing him to spend time on the treadmill over lunch. We know he insists on organic meat. We know Marcelo Bielsa is the dominant influence, from the day El Loco signed Pochettino up on the strength of his legs.

The contrast with Jose Mourinho, whose PR blitz for the Manchester United job would have made Kim Kardashian blush, couldn’t be starker.

The lack of soundbites and storylines from Hotspur Way frustrates journalists covering the team, and there have been communication problems with fans. Comments appearing to de-emphasize the importance of finishing above Arsenal last season, while reasonable, did not come out quite as intended and added to the frustration of slipping down to third.

We have rarely seen Pochettino flustered. About the only time last season was after comments about him wanting to manage his former club PSG in the future, again reasonable, emerged and took on a life of their own. His subsequent announcement that he had agreed a new deal with Spurs seemed impromptu. The sense above all is that he sees media duties as an obligation, not an opportunity. Because of his still-limited English, it is the one part of his fiefdom where he doesn’t have the degree of control that he would like.

But despite this, we all know what the Pochettino mantra is. Performance in training is crucial, fitness is paramount, the process of improving mentally is continual. Homegrown talent must be given the same opportunities as expensive imports, players are treated like adults and expected to behave as such. The sum of the parts must never be greater than the whole.

Over the busy Christmas period in 2014 and with three days before the next match, Pochettino was asked by a TV reporter if his plan was to “rest, rest and rest.” He replied, quick as a flash and with a smile, “No. Train, train, train.” Not every footballer will like this approach, and those thinking of joining Spurs will know exactly what is in store. It’s like the Spartans leaving out their newborn boys — it filters out the weak.

Rare insight into the way Pochettino works was given by John McDermott in a talk in California that was transcribed and posted on Reddit.

McDermott revealed that he spent several hours a day working with Pochettino. He considered Pochettino by far the best manager he had worked with, and described him as the “best strategist in terms of how he got the club working.”

“Pochettino is a leader of people, a very warm, Latin, touchy feely man, he has got something about him, an X factor. If you took Pochettino from Tottenham right now, they would not be half as successful. Pochettino will often say something doesn’t ‘feel’ right, he uses his intuition. For example, (he said to) Bentaleb, ‘When your face is not smiling, your feet are not smiling’. It is an intuition allied with statistics.”

For McDermott, who has spent years trying to work with Spurs managers, some of whom have shown no interest in the young talent he is developing, he now has a very different problem keeping him awake at night.

“How do I make sure our academy keeps up with Pochettino? He has taken it to another level.”

“We are ready to compete against any team”

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I have always thought captaincy is a good indication of the health of a squad. When a squad seems united, potential captains, vice-captains and future captains abound. When a squad seems short on “character” — perhaps Man United in recent years — there appear few, if any, choices.

If Pochettino could have one mulligan from his time at Spurs, it would be appointing Kaboul as captain and Adebayor as vice-captain. In hindsight, it was a horrible decision, but it was also an indicator of the extent to which the lunatics had taken over the asylum. The artful way that Pochettino buried the likes of Kaboul and Adebayor for the rest of the campaign was testament to his man management skills and the way a previously leaky club was starting to tighten up.

Now, you could happily see any of Alderweireld, Danny Rose and Dier joining Lloris, Vertonghen and Kane among the Spurs leadership group.

No-one speaks in more positive tones of Pochettino than Lloris. The France and Spurs captain revealed to the Guardian not only how close he had coming to leaving the club, but also how immediate Pochettino’s impact was.

“I had some concern and I question a bit myself two years ago, after AVB and Tim Sherwood were in charge. I think the first meeting with Mauricio Pochettino was very clear for me, for my future. I think I trust him since the first second I meet him, and because I understand what he wants, fully agree about his football view. I can say we have the same football view and he’s brought a lot to the team and the players.”

“The credit is for the gaffer. I think he changed all, inside the training ground, inside the squad, it’s about his mentality, his personality. We can feel we improved a lot. We have a real identity now and, from outside, it’s very clear. We try to play good football but don’t forget that we need to be aggressive, especially in the Premier League.”

“If you’re not aggressive, it’s difficult to be competitive and so if you have a good philosophy of football, you add aggression, hunger, because of course we are young but we can feel the team is very hungry. It means a lot for me. It’s about competitive mentality. Now we can feel we are competitive, and ready to compete against any team.”

“We show this season a lot of character. Of course, it will be interesting what will happen next season but I think in the way we work, we are improving every month so it’s not about this season. It’s also about the next season and the project of the gaffer.”

Mentality. Hunger. Aggression. Project. These are the new buzzwords at Hotspur Way.

For decades, I feel we’ve misunderstood what Bill Nicholson was trying to tell us when he said “It’s no use just winning, we’ve got to win well.” For Nicholson, the winning part was assumed. In the Premier League era, Spurs have been so fixated on winning well that we’ve forgotten to win.

It turns out, winning matches and competing for the title is far more entertaining than playing pretty football and finishing 10th. We can add the flourishes in years to come, but first of all we must win.

I still believe the most exhilarating football that I have seen from a Spurs team in the Premier League era was for a short spell under Harry Redknapp. Gareth Bale was metamorphosing in front of our eyes from unlucky left back to world-class winger, leaving Aaron Lennon free on the other flank. With Luka Modric pulling the strings, the ball always seemed to find the right man.

Redknapp secured two top-four finishes, which sometimes gets forgotten, but his was a flame that burned brightly and then faded. Redknapp — you could imagine Levy cringing in embarrassment whenever the car window got wound down on transfer deadline day — carried so much baggage he needed a roof rack. Redknapp turned Spurs around, and history will judge him as a successful Spurs manager once his tiresome self-promotion fades, but it was never clear that he was able to put in the foundations for longer-term success.

At its best, the defining characteristic of Pochettino’s football has been the intensity, rather than the swagger.

There have been spells, usually in the biggest matches, when we’ve torn the opposition to shreds. Against Manchester United last season, once Spurs had the breakthrough, we savaged them. Likewise in the second half against Arsenal in 2014/15 when Harry Kane scored twice.

But to me, the peak Pochettino performance — not in result but in the manner it represented what the Argentine has been able to change in his two years in charge — came against Manchester City at the Etihad in February.

Manchester City, embarrassed by a thrashing at home to Leicester the previous weekend, were desperate to bounce back. An inconsistent team even before Manuel Pellegrini’s regime began to run out of steam, they were fired up against Spurs. For 80 minutes, Spurs absorbed City’s blows and got a few in of their own. Aguero buzzed around like a hornet and Yaya Toure strode forward like he used to in his prime, none of the old-man shuffling that was seen so often last campaign.

In the 81st minute, score 1-1, four Spurs players surrounded Toure like muggers in a dark alley, stealing first the ball, then the three points. Pochettino celebrated like we’d not seen before, because he must have known that this was not only a huge moment in the title race, but also a vindication of his methods. All that hard work on fitness and mentality, the drilling of the press so tired players could still execute it effectively late in a top-of-the-table clash, had come to fruition.

It was the clearest indication that the plan was working, even if Spurs would eventually come up just short.

“Going down like Tony Montana”

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Ultimately, while the match at the Etihad would be a high-water mark, the match that will be remembered last season is the Battle of the Bridge. It showed how far Spurs had come, but also the room for further growth.

Fans of other clubs say Spurs bottled it, ignoring with standard footballing myopia that Spurs were still in the title race with three games to go, unlike everyone else. Some Spurs fans were critical of the performance, considering the aggression unattractive and indicative of a team that had lost its head.

Comparing Spurs’ disappointment to Manchester City’s limp defeat against Real Madrid, the (brilliant) Rob Smyth wrote one of those pieces which seemed to capture my every thought at the time:

“Spurs and Manchester City both missed out on major prizes this week; one went down like Tony Montana, the other closed the door quietly behind them. As a neutral or a fan, what would you rather watch? … Spurs stood up to Chelsea in a way that would never have happened in the past, and that burst of aggression is intrinsically linked to other qualities that make this the best Spurs side in decades. It is almost impossible for a team to excel in the Premier League without those qualities. In their darkest hour, Spurs looked like winners.

“If that happened every week it would be an issue, but these were unique circumstances. Spurs gave a human response to crushing disappointment; as such, they deserved a bit more sympathy and a lot more empathy. They had been battling for the title all season, and saw it disappear, at a time when they were being goaded by 40,000 fans, not to mention a number of Chelsea players. What were they supposed to do, smile sweetly and take a selfie?”

I’ll view every game at Stamford Bridge through the prism of the misery of March 8, 2014. Watching Spurs go down all guns blazing made me feel proud. I can live with disappointment, I can’t live with surrender.

What the Battle of the Bridge showed, however, was that fighting and togetherness wasn’t enough. I don’t buy the argument that inexperience was the problem that night, given it was more experienced players like Mousa Dembele and Kyle Walker who lost their discipline first. When HMS Dier went into Destroyer mode, the game was already gone.

The 2-2 draw, more than the two defeats of an emotionally exhausted team that followed, highlighted what Spurs lacked, and offer the blueprint for what needs to happen next.

Spurs need better squad options when players are injured, rested or suspended. We need reliable impact players off the bench, both defensive and in attack. We need to get better at controlling games we are leading, and seeing out the close ones. When teams like Chelsea, who have world class players and who hate our guts, throw everything at us, we need to be able to withstand it better. We didn’t lose that night, even though it seemed that we did — but we needed to win.

In his first season, Pochettino got by with a makeshift central midfield of Bentaleb and Mason, who’d made a combined 24 senior appearances for Spurs before he took over. In his second season, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, combined Premier League midfield appearances zero, became first choice for club and country. Dembele, seemingly destined to see out his career at somewhere like Sunderland, finally found a way to fulfil the potential he’d flashed for the past ten years.

Can you imagine what Spurs will be capable of as the quality of the squad improves, with a squad that is a year older and a year wiser, and motivated by the anger of how the season ended? There are still a thousand things that can go wrong, not least given the unprecedented arms racing taking place among the big-money Premier League rivals while Spurs are forced to cut the cloth more conservatively while the stadium is financed. But optimism is no cause for embarrassment.

I wrote last season that Pochettino has an opportunity to build a dynasty at Spurs, and what encourages me more than anything is that he knows it too.

“When you compare Tottenham with big sides people can see our approach is for the long term. We have the youngest squad in the Premier League yet here we are fighting for the title. The project is fantastic, because we are ahead of the programme – we are only going to get better. This is true because for a lot of players this is their first season in the Premier League and next season they will be better because they will have more experience. In football you always need time to develop to your full quality.”

“It is impossible to set limits. It is also important to improve our squad because this is always our idea to improve. Our idea is to keep the main group for the next few years and to try and build and add players that can help us.”

I love the line about it being impossible to set limits. It’s going to be tough for Spurs to take that next step and win a title, but we will never have a better platform. Let season three begin of the Pochettino era begin.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

A Spurs summer reading list

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I’m taking a summer break from blogging, and don’t plan to post anything new for the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, here are a few links to recent pieces for any new visitors, or those wanting to catch up.

The number of readers to this little blog has soared in the last couple of months, which is great to see. Thanks to everyone who has read my articles, shared them and joined in the discussion.

I will no doubt be chirping away on Twitter through the summer, especially with the Euros on, so please do give me a follow and join in. I also post work on Medium.

Summer Spurs stuff:

How Spurs can take it to the next level: A blueprint for the summer of 2016

Good problems: Five questions facing Spurs this summer

Did Spurs leave points on the table? Lessons for 2016/17 from the failure to keep pace with Leicester

The stars align for Pochettino and his swaggering Spurs

Stadium stuff:

Spurs stadium update: New information on capacity, design and other details, plus analysis of timeline and finances

Stadium update: Local tickets, NFL hosting, cheap beer, timeline and Wembley groundshare

As Spurs stadium rises, NFL moves closer to announcing London team

New Spurs stadium the “front-runner for an NFL franchise”: Q&A with Sky Sports presenter Neil Reynolds

The state of the stadium naming rights market, and what it could mean for Spurs: An expert view

Money stuff:

Fun with numbers: How the new stadium will enable Spurs to join the Premier League’s £1 billion club

Waiting for the revolution to happen: Analysis of THFC’s financial results for the 2014/15 season

The business end of the season: How much is a league place worth for Spurs?

Media stuff:

How many people actually watch Spurs on TV? Audience analysis of the 2015/16 season

The Premier League Goes Global — And Leaves UK Fans Behind (The Cauldron)

And if you want a longer read, do check out my Deep Dives:

Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge plans

Spurs stadium funding

Spurs and the NFL

Spurs stadium update: New information on capacity, design and other details, plus analysis of timeline and finances

 

stadium screenshot

Image by @ACEinBEDFORD

In recent months, huge progress has been made on the Spurs stadium project.

Key approvals have been gained, allowing construction to hit maximum pace. The stadium, as the timelapse video for May shows, is starting to emerge from the ground. An agreement has been reached for Spurs to play at Wembley in 2017/18, and Champions League games will also be played at the national stadium next season. Demolition work has started on the northeast corner of the ground.

By the final match of next season, the new stadium will be starting to emerge out of the old one, and the future of the club will be visible for all to see.

It will also look as weird as all hell, as this video from @ACEinBEDFORD shows.

It was a small thing, but I particularly liked how Spurs have added club logos to the giant cranes on site. To me, this bodes extremely well for the final finish of the stadium, and highlights the attention to detail in the planning phase. Spurs will be spending hundreds of millions on the stadium, but sometimes it is the tiniest of details that make the biggest difference when it comes to making a new “house” feel like a home.

In this update, I will discuss timeline, project finances and the NFL, and also provide some additional details of the project in terms of final capacity, colours, pitch and in-stadium connectivity.

You can read my previous reporting on the stadium here.

Attention to detail

While the club is doing a good job providing images, videos and updates on construction, there is really no end to the amount of information Spurs fans want.

I put a few questions to the club about the minutiae of the project, and to their great credit, a club spokesman gave me some answers

First, I asked about the final capacity of New White Hart Lane. In the planning documents, the “gross total” of all seats is 61,461, or 61,131 if you strip out seats allocated to media and players. However, this total was done before Mace, the construction contractor, had done its assessment. Are there any revisions to this number?

A club spokesman said the final seating number was not yet decided, but would be close to the 61,461 number.

“The capacity of the stadium will be approximately 61,000 and the exact figure continues to move slightly as we refine the detailed design, although we shall operate within the tested capacity established through the planning process,” the spokesman said.

My second question was about the pitch. The playing surface at White Hart Lane has been excellent for many years, greatly helping attractive football.

How were Spurs going to go about finding a new pitch, and were there plans in place to ensure an equally good playing surface and to avoid the issues Wembley experienced in its early years? Would it be hybrid or grass?

The spokesman confirmed the club was currently working on this issue and carrying out testing of various playing surfaces.

“We currently use a hybrid surface at White Hart Lane and we are in the process of examining and testing a number of different systems to ensure we achieve the highest possible quality surface at our new stadium,” the spokesman said.

My third question was a pretty basic one, but I’m not sure I’ve actually seen it confirmed beyond the mock-up images: What colour are the seats going to be? Will they be the “royal” blue currently at White Hart Lane, or will it be a switch to a “navy” blue?

“We shall be using traditional Spurs colours,” the spokesman said.

So there you have it.

Fourth, I asked about atmosphere, and specifically if there were any stadiums, for example the wonderful (and Populous designed) Grande Stade de Lyon, that Spurs/Populous are “learning from” in the design.

“Atmosphere has always been at the heart of our designs and we have studied some of the finest stadia in Europe best known for this,” the spokesman said. “We are looking at all aspects in terms of how we can create and retain an incredible atmosphere including the distance of the pitch from the stands, the tightness of the bowl and the introduction of a single tier south stand.”

Finally, I asked about connectivity. Much play gets made of how technology such as in-stadium wifi is incorporated into these projects, but, to be brutally honest, it doesn’t always work as well as intended. Would the club outsource this sort of technical aspect?

“We are working hard to ensure we deliver on our desire to make this stadium one of the most technologically advanced in Europe. We are currently in discussion with specialist contractors,” the spokesman said. “Technologies are updated continuously so we shall look to future proof too.”

Tight timeline

It is no secret that the timetable for this project is tight, and minutes published by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust of a meeting with club executives last month confirmed this.

Mace, the company overseeing construction, is now working 15 hour days, seven days per week. According to Daniel Levy, construction is on schedule, “but it remains a hugely complex project.”

Levy confirmed that Spurs had requested two matches at the end of the 2016/17 be played away from White Hart Lane to give more time for demolition and construction. This isn’t quite the “last resort”, as a block of fixtures could also be requested away from New WHL at the start of 2018/19 season. But it shows just how tight it is that every bit of extra time is being sought.

The club has announced a Wembley deal for 2017/18, but reading between the lines of reports into the deal, a “second-year option” has in all probability been discussed in case of delays. And with approvals still needed for associated works, and the myriad logistical challenges that come with building a 61,000 capacity stadium in a dense part of North London, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that delays are possible.

I’m sure if you zoomed in on the webcams on site you’d see Kevin McCloud wandering around, as this is the ultimate episode of “Grand Designs”. And you know if you watch the programme, the contractors never deliver the bloody glass on time.

The good news for Spurs, in terms of Wembley availability, is that Chelsea appear quite bogged down in their plans for redeveloping Stamford Bridge. As I reported in April, Chelsea have yet to secure key consents and will have to go through another public consultation due to changes to the design.

Money and Naming Rights

In the minutes published by THST, Daniel Levy provided an update on the financial side of the project. He confirmed that the amount invested so far had risen to £150 million.

Meanwhile, contrary to ITK chatter, naming rights have not yet been put to market, but will be “shortly”.

It will be fascinating to see what Spurs can achieve in this regard. Personally, given the way the club is falling behind the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal in commercial deals, I’d be cautious in expecting too high a figure. However, with the upswing in on-field performance and exciting homegrown core of players, not to mention the NFL tie-in, Spurs should be a far better commercial proposition now than in recent seasons.

A concern of mine is that Spurs may seek to bridge any gap in funding by simply piling up more debt on what will already be a pretty large load — £350 million has been promised by banks. In the minutes, Levy addressed this concern, loosely, noting he was “aware of the level of debt the Club could sustain and there were lots of options open at this point.”

Levy also hinted at the possible structuring of the stadium from an ownership perspective, with the establishment of an SPV (a special purpose vehicle, which sounds more like something you need to get across the construction site than a financial arrangement).

According to filings with Companies House, Spurs registered two companies recently which point to such a structure: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium Development Limited (April 26) and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium Limited (April 27).

There are no details on these companies yet, but nonetheless, it indicates that the financial and legal structuring is also being put in place alongside the steel and concrete.

Spurs and the NFL

I wrote in detail recently about the NFL and how its plans for a team in London appear to be kicking into a higher gear.

In writing this story, I learned from an NFL UK source that the NFL is having regular meetings and conversations with Spurs through the construction phase, and feels “fully engaged”. The relationship between the NFL and the UK was characterised as “excellent” and “ongoing”.

This is hardly revelatory, but nonetheless I thought it was interesting that the NFL remains involved. No doubt, the NFL is keen to ensure the facilities for American football — the retractable pitch, the locker rooms and media facilities — are installed to specification.

This is a “first of its kind” project in the UK, meaning a lack of local expertise, so it is understandable the NFL is keeping a close eye that, for example, the artificial turf is the correct sort.

Thanks for reading. I welcome any comments, and please give me a follow on Twitter for more Spurs and stadium chat. The video is by Asil Purcell, proprietor of Visualhorizon3D. You can see more of his work here: 

As Spurs stadium rises, NFL moves closer to announcing London team

You can read my previous coverage on Spurs and the NFL here. My “deep dive” on the gamble being taken by Spurs with the NFL is here.  You can follow me on Twitter here.

Is London ready for some (American) football? The NFL appears to think so.

Comments in the off-season from Commissioner Roger Goodell, who described a London NFL franchise as a “realistic” prospect, and public support from the league’s powerful owners, indicate a decisive shift taking place, in which an idea is starting to turn into a reality.

If the NFL has not quite “pushed the button” on launching its first international franchise, the Commissioner’s finger is hovering above it.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks clearly visible progress has been made on the potential new home of a London NFL team, with Spurs’ spectacular new stadium finally starting to emerge from the ground.

The sense of momentum was crystallized in a report last week by CBS “insider” Jason LaCanfora, who stated that a London franchise was a “major topic of conversation” in a meeting of NFL owners in late May.

According to LaCanfora, Mike Waller, the NFL executive in charge of international matters, gave owners a “detailed progress report and presentation” which “led many teams to come away more convinced than ever that this is something (the NFL) very much wants to happen.”

The presentation detailed concerns over timing and travel requirements for playoff games, particularly if a London franchise drew a team on the US west coast.

LaCanfora connected the dots:

“Yes, that’s how far down the line the NFL is in addressing London contingencies, and these are the types of things owners are being asked to consider as further preparations are made toward moving a team to England.”

Crucial to any forward progress for a London team was finally sorting out a franchise for Los Angeles. The league couldn’t seriously move ahead with a franchise in London before placing one in the USA’s second-largest media market. This anomaly was rectified in January when it was announced that the Rams would be moving from St Louis to LA.

(There is no pretty way to move a franchise, and the people of St Louis were royally screwed. The outrage if a team is taken from a US city overseas will be even more vociferous.)

With this resolved, attention at the league’s Annual Meeting in Florida in late March could turn to other things. Judging by the comments by owners, it is clear that London was a topic of conversation. I counted four owners — the Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots — who discussed London in positive terms with reporters.

Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner who is considered one of the most influential in the league, was asked by SI’s Peter King where was “next” after LA.

Jones replied: “We don’t get many opportunities to say “this is what we give back to fans, this is a wow”. Los Angeles was that. What else could we do that with? London looks like that to me.”

Jones also mentioned Mexico City, which will host its first regular season game next season, as a possible destination.

The importance of these comments can’t be stressed enough given how decisions are made in the league. It is the 32 owners who will ultimately decide on a London franchise.

A few days later, at a townhall meeting with members of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Goodell stated, clearly, that he felt London was ready for a franchise.

“As a market, I believe they (London) can support a franchise,” he said.

“I actually believe that a franchise in London is realistic.”

According to Goodell, his concern was ensuring a London team wasn’t at a competitive disadvantage due to logistical issues such as flight times and scheduling.

“I think we can find solutions to those issues,” Goodell said. “The way we schedule and the way we do things, those are things we’re still focused on.”

I don’t think the importance of these comments can be stressed enough. Before a franchise is placed in London, the league has to be comfortable with several pivotal things:

  • The London market can support an NFL franchise
  • A London franchise has a stadium to play in
  • There is a suitable candidate for relocation to London, or viable plans for expansion
  • US broadcasters are happy (London games would never be played in primetime Sunday, Monday or Thursday evening slots)
  • A London team, with logistical issues, would be competitive and schedule integrity would not be affected

Stating that the London market is ready for a full-time franchise is a HUGE statement, as without it, the rest is moot. Again, if the question now is the brasstacks of how the games are scheduled, then it is hard to argue against the idea that we are “almost there”.

If the market was the most important, second is the stadium. An NFL standard facility is required, and Spurs are delivering it. The Spurs stadium will feature a retractable pitch as well as NFL-size locker rooms and media facilities.

Huge steps have been taken by Spurs in the past few months in terms of receiving key permissions and commencing full-scale construction.

The NFL is in regular contact with Spurs and feels fully engaged in the stadium construction process, an NFL UK source told this blog. The relationship was characterised as “excellent” and “ongoing”.

(And yes, if this had been “terrible” and “dead in the water”, I might have a story)

A couple of weeks after Goodell’s comments, ESPN ran a long primer discussing the remaining hurdles for London — for example whether an expansion or a relocation was more likely, the issues facing players, and logistical matters. It is worth a read.

The final comment from an unnamed team executive summed up the mood:

“It’s one of those things where I know all the problems,” said the team executive. “But one of the things you learn in this league is it doesn’t matter what the problems are, you better figure them out because if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, tough crap.”

The setting for Goodell’s comments was interesting, given the Jaguars are widely assumed to be the most likely franchise to move to London. Goodell tweaked the franchise, stating the growth of the market in northeast Florida was “below expectation.” Another contender is the Oakland Raiders, although a move for them to Las Vegas seems more likely.

The “magic date” (albeit never an official target) for an NFL franchise has always been 2022. In January, Mike Waller was quoted as saying by the BBC that plans were “on track” for a London team by this date. In my Q&A with Sky Sports NFL presenter Neil Reynolds, he said 2022 was “very realistic”.

Is the league on course for 2022? It would seem so. Judging by the comments from owners in recent months, London is at the forefront of their thoughts and discussions. I can’t recall an owner trashing the idea of a London franchise, or at least not in recent years. (Please point out these comments if they do exist, I’m interested to learn)

“Pushing the button” on an NFL franchise in London doesn’t mean it will materialise overnight. Instead, it will trigger the start of an ignition sequence preparing for launch to the next footballing frontier.

If the NFL put it to a vote and announced the establishment of a London franchise by the time of its next Annual Meeting in 2017, that would give the league five seasons to launch in time for 2022/23. Five years to build the hype, five years to find a team, five years to resolve any lingering logistical issues, five years to experiment with new timeslots in London that appeal to US broadcasters.

I’m biased on this because I’m a huge NFL fan and would love to see a team in London. The fact that it would most likely use New White Hart Lane as its home only adds to the appeal.

But I’m pretty sure that interest would grow rapidly across the Spurs fan base and beyond once a London team was announced and became “real”. To quote Buddy Garrity in Friday Night Lights, everybody loves football, they just don’t know it yet.

If the league hasn’t formally decided on bringing the NFL to London on a permanent basis, it is getting close to the point of no return regardless.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs (and NFL) chat.

Fun with numbers: How the new stadium will enable Spurs to join the Premier League’s £1 billion club

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I was chatting football finances on Twitter the other day, and the conversation turned to the value of Spurs — specifically, what impact the new stadium is going to make.

Stories have surfaced now and again in recent years about possible interest in the club, and a valuation of £1 billion has been bandied around. This has generally been dismissed as excessive, and a figure aimed at deterring potential investors. Nonetheless it is widely accepted that the value of Spurs will soar once the new stadium is built.

The question my co-conspirator (who may or may not have been @ztranche) and I were wanting to answer was: what sort of increase in value are we talking about?

Clubs are valued in many ways, most famously by Forbes, but also by standard measures in the investment world such as through cash flow or revenue multiples.

These valuations often serve as poor guides for what a club may fetch when sold, but nonetheless movements up and down the Forbes rankings serve as fodder for the “my club is bigger than yours” pissing contest that football fandom so often comes down to.

In 2013, an academic and soccer nerd, Dr Thomas Markham, proposed a more sophisticated valuation system, the Markham Multivariate Model, which correlates far more closely with the actual price of clubs when sold.

The key is in the word “multivariate” — and yes, in case you are wondering, we are deep into the off-season.

The model uses several variables — revenues, assets, profit, wage ratio and stadium utilization percentage — that better represent the business of football and the differences among clubs.

The formula is as follows:

MMM variate

Dr Markham’s last published rankings in August 2015 valued Spurs at £710 million — comfortably above Liverpool (£537 million), but well behind Arsenal (£1.18 billion).

That figure was based on the 2013/14 accounts, so first I wanted to get an updated value using numbers from the recently published 2014/15 accounts. I don’t have the exact stadium utilization percentage, but it is fair to assume it is somewhere around 99 percent, which most sold-out Premier League stadiums are.

The “current” value of Spurs: £717 million.

The small increase in value reflects moderately increased revenues and a decrease in wage ratio. It seems “about right”, as really the value of Spurs won’t have changed all that much given how static things are while we are stuck at White Hart Lane, and with the TV deal flat in the period.

But what happens once the new stadium is built?

I have done some quick and dirty calculations. There are too many variables to sensibly project what the revenue will be in 2018/19 given soaring TV deals and critical commercial deals to be negotiated. But, with Arsenal having built a similarly sized stadium in a nearby part of North London, there is a very useful proxy for projecting what sort of uplift a new stadium may have for Spurs, were it to open tomorrow.

Arsenal’s revenue increased from £137.2 million to £200.8 million after its move to the Emirates, according to its accounts for the 2006/07 financial year. This is an increase of 46.4 percent.

Revenue mix varies from club to club: Arsenal recorded sizeable income from property development but only increased commercial revenue by £7 million, far below the target of £30 million Spurs have set for commercial revenues associated with the new stadium. But nonetheless this feels a decent starting point, as much of that increase was from rising matchday revenue due to the larger capacity and better corporate facilities.

Applying the same 46.4 percent increase, Spurs revenue would jump from £196.4 million to £287.5 million.

Net assets are interesting. The key is “net” — while Arsenal’s fixed assets soared when the club moved to the Emirates, so did what it owed to creditors. In the two years that covered the final year at Highbury, and the first year at the Emirates, net assets increased by only 8.7 percent. This slightly broader view seems a better gauge as it cuts out year-to-year churn, and I will apply the same increase to Spurs. This would take net assets from £183.0 million to £199.0 million

Arsenal’s profits dipped slightly in the first year at the Emirates (but the club remained profitable). I don’t want to get too involved in guessing what direction Spurs profits will move as it is actually quite a small variable in the calculation, so I’ll keep them the same. Likewise, stadium utilization will remain at 99 percent, if the season ticket waiting list turns out to be an accurate measure of interest, and not some Potemkin justification for the whole project.

I’ll calculate a range for wage ratio: from the current 51.35 percent, to the desired 45 percent (Arsenal got wage ratio down to 46 percent at the lowest point).

So, plugging these variables into the MMM formula, what is the value of Spurs once our shiny new stadium is opened?

My calculation: £968.5 million to £1.105 billion.

As stated, the revenue is hard to project given the changes in the TV deal, meaning that by the time 2018/19 rolls around, this is likely a very conservative estimate. But it shows that the new stadium, right now, would add £250 million to £386 million to the value of the club.

It also shows that the £1 billion figure that is batted around isn’t actually all that optimistic. This simple MMM projection shows it is a good ballpark figure for what ENIC may seek should they chose to cash out once the stadium is built, or as a guide if they seek new investment to help bridge any funding gaps in the project.

A valuation of £968.5 million to £1.105 billion would put Spurs third in the current MMM rankings, and hot on the heels of Arsenal. They still have advantages in commercial revenue, and Spurs have not shown any indication of being able to land the big sponsorship deals to narrow this gap. But it would put Spurs ahead of the two oligarch playthings, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Tottenham Hotspur has been one heck of an investment for Joe Lewis and Daniel Levy, and no doubt quite the ride.

In 2000, when ENIC first bought into Spurs, the deal valued the club at around £60 million. In 2007, when ENIC bought out Alan Sugar’s remaining stake, the deal valued the club at £209.5 million. The club is now valued, by my calculation, at around £717 million, and once the new stadium is complete this should pass the £1 billion mark.

Some may be curious about what this means for Daniel Levy himself? Remember, he owns* 29.41 percent of ENIC, which itself owns 85.55 percent of the shares in the club.

(*The exact wording is, “Daniel Levy and certain members of his family are potential beneficiaries of discretionary trusts which ultimately own 29.41 percent of ENIC’s share capital”)

Actually, I’ll let you do the maths as it feels a bit gauche to be spelling it out. But, put it this way, the new stadium could see the value of his stake increase by something approaching £100 million, which is very nice and is one heck of an incentive to make sure this thing gets built on time and on budget.

I have no idea if ENIC really want to sell — this has always been an investment with an emotional component. But if they do, ENIC will be quids-in once the stadium is built. The value of Spurs is about to soar — and for the first time in a while, this may actually be mirrored by success on the pitch.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat. Thanks to Sam Z for pointing me to Dr Markham’s research.