(Written March 20 for The Fighting Cock)
After the fiasco in the first half at Old Trafford, the shambolic Europa League exit and the brave but doomed League Cup campaign, Mauricio Pochettino’s first season in charge of Spurs is all but over.
Barring a major collapse from at least two of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, plus an almost perfect sequence of results from Spurs, it is looking like we’ll finish sixth or seventh and with a similar points tally to the past three years.
The fat lady is warbling and preparing to come on stage, and I doubt anything we see from now on will change how we view the season.
So why wait? Let the rush to judgment begin.
For the first time in a long time, it feels like there is stability at the club. Clearly, Daniel Levy is not going to sack Pochettino, who overcame a poor November and the botched captaincy decision to win over the fans. A trip to Wembley helped, but the turning point was the stonking win over Chelsea, backed up by the thrilling victory against Arsenal. His team selection has overall been quite good, given the balancing act that must has been required. Tactically, he has been exposed slightly in certain games, especially by Van Gaal at Old Trafford and in the Europa League against Besiktas and Fiorentina. In particular, he appears to be too slow to react to opposition tactics with changes of his own. In a large part though, he is undermined by a lack of trusted options on the bench and in the squad. Overall, he has managed tricky characters like Adebayor well, put faith in young players, and has the squad as fit and hungry as it has been for a long time.
The Senior Players
Hugo Lloris has been magnificent and is Pochettino’s true captain. He’ll be hugely missed if he goes. Jan Vertonghen, after some initial grumbles, has knuckled down and played generally quite well, but questions over character and organisational ability remain. Aside from that, the performances have been disastrous. Kaboul was a liability, Capoue a non-factor, and Adebayor an utter shambles. Soldado cuts a sad figure, and Paulinho is a wimp who can’t be trusted. Chirches plays better at right back than in his natural position of centre back. Given the remarkable lack of good performances from the senior players, Spurs have done well to be so high up the table.
The New Signings
Make no mistake, Spurs had another poor summer. Ben Davies has failed to usurp Danny Rose and looks a poor return for such a good player as Sigurdsson. Stambouli is just too slow to press in midfield, and it is clear why no big clubs had an interest in him, despite his good attitude and leadership ability. Federico Fazio is a total liability and another addition to the “remember him” line of dismal Spurs centre halves. Deandre Yedlin is yet to appear, and may or may not make the grade. Dele Ali looks a smart bit of business, and a return to the transfer policy of old, namely signing promising young players for reasonable fees and developing them. Oh, and Spurs spent millions on a 31-year-old back-up goalkeeper in Michel Vorm.
The Young Guns
This may be seen as a pivotal season in Spurs history. Poch put faith in young talent, and they delivered in spades. Spurs hit the jackpot in Harry Kane — they could have a 20 goal-a-season striker for a decade. Nabil Bentaleb is emerging as a potentially world-class midfielder. Eric Dier has had a couple of shaky games, but overall, I think he has been excellent given his inexperience and is the centre-back Spurs should build around. Poch clearly has a magic touch with left-backs, and in the second half of the season, Danny Rose has settled down and become one of the most consistent in the league. My favourite story is Ryan Mason. He has gone from the scrapheap to a key figure in the team. He may never be world class, but he shows leadership ability, hunger and intelligence, and could be the type of trusted squad player top teams have always had (for example Darren Fletcher at Man Utd). The only player who hasn’t particularly developed is Andros Townsend, and Spurs should consider cashing in while he is the England reckoning, and focus on developing Eric Lamela and Alex Pritchard.
The Director of Football
Franco Baldini’s signings look worse and worse. Aside from Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli, there have been no successes. I’ve not given up on Lamela yet, but many fans have. The rest have been garbage. However, this glaring weakness has been recognized and a new scouting system put into place. As mentioned, the signing of Ali hints at a return to a better transfer policy. Spurs missed out on two key summer transfer targets in Musacchio and Schneiderlin, and went for cheaper options. This proved worse than doing nothing at all. Spurs have struggled to shift out the deadwood, but this may be more to do with Levy than Baldini. Quite what Baldini actually does these days isn’t clear. However, there is a sense of stability at the club and few leaks to the media now the likes of Sherwood and Redknapp are gone. There also feels like a cohesive strategy of player development through the club. Even if he is little more than a figurehead, there seems little point in replacing someone if it undermines the feel-good vibe at the club.
Daniel Levy appears to finally have found the manager he wants, or thought he was getting in AVB. Someone whose work is done on the training field and on matchday, not in press conference or in leaks to media pals. He has backed him by bringing in Paul Mitchell, and sensibly held back from throwing around money in January before the new scouting system is bedded in. The test will come in the summer, in whether he can clear out the deadwood and bring in new signings in time for Pochettino’s rigourous preseason. Levy’s focus appears to be the stadium, which is inching torturously towards the construction phase and remains an immensely challenging project to deliver on time and on budget. Levy should share some credit for the atmosphere of stability, and investment in youth facilities that is now paying off. But more than that, while he drives us mad at times, would Spurs really want someone else in charge?
Spurs turned a profit, once again, this summer on their transfer dealings, even if they were underwhelming. In the past five years, Spurs have turned a profit of over £20 million on transfers. In the five years before, the net spend was over £90 million. This is what happens when you build a new stadium. To have remained so competitive during that time is impressive, especially as revenues have lagged further and further behind the bigger five clubs. Levy may look like a gambler in his transfer dealings, but he deserves great credit for his careful stewardship of the club through the financial lunacy of modern football. And it makes me prouder of our achievements in that time and more confident in our future as a club. The key will be recouping as much as possible from the failed Baldini signings and allowing Poch and Mitchell to reinvest, rather than hoarding the cash.
I’m as excited about the future of Spurs as I’ve been for a long time. Sometimes though, the future is more exciting than the present. There are clearly major talents waiting to come through the academy, such as Josh Onomah and Cameron Carter-Vickers. These will supplement a strong and endearing core of young players in Kane, Mason, Bentaleb and Dier. Clearly, Pochettino is putting his faith in youth, and the likes of Kaboul and Adebayor, plus the majority of the Baldini buys, have no future. Replacing them with young, hungry talents, rather than more overpaid mercenaries, must be the priority this summer. I want to see more tactically from Pochettino, but have liked how the young team has rebounded from adversity this season. And with a young team, there are bound to be more afternoons like at Old Trafford.