Monthly Archives: August 2015

A doomsday preview: What if Spurs are worse?

Hugo-Lloris 2

It’s November 29, 2015. It’s cold and wet, one of those slate-grey London winter mornings when it never really seems to get light. Spurs fans trudge through the damp streets to White Hart Lane, still bleary eyed, for a Sunday midday kick-off. The mood is quiet, tetchy almost. Not like the same fixture last year, a 5.30pm kick-off on New Year’s Day, stadium buzzing throughout and the roof near as lifting off as Harry Kane reigned supreme. It’s Chelsea at home, and last year we won 5-3.

Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea circus top the table and are on a roll. Spurs, meanwhile, are struggling.

It’s been a tough month, which it always looked like being when the fixtures were drawn. Harry Kane picked up a knock with England during the international break, and the goals have dried up. Timo Werner and Clinton N’Jie have looked talented, but they aren’t yet Premier League goal scorers. The midfield, meanwhile, has been creaking. Things started badly with the first game of the month, when Arsenal narrowly won a hard-fought derby, Theo Walcott slotting home a late winner at the Emirates. No disgrace, but no pleasure going into the international break. The disgrace came next time round. West Ham visited the Lane and took the three points after a limp Spurs performance, the ghost of Big Sam laughing throughout. In between the London derbies, Spurs face a grueling Thursday trip to Ukraine for the penultimate game of what already feels like a never-ending Europa League group stage. They return on Friday afternoon tired after a long flight and a match on a quagmire of a pitch. They’ve tried to rotate, but you can’t rotate your way through mental fatigue. Chelsea meanwhile enjoyed a home romp on Tuesday night against their Champions League group whipping boys, Celtic.

Mourinho has his team primed for revenge after last year’s New Year’s Day massacre, and they are fresh and fully prepared. They come out of the gate hard, our midfield collapsing like a paper bag under an intense press. Kyle Walker is shredded by Eden Hazard. Chelsea smash two early goals, a panicked Spurs ship a stupid third, Hugo looks a picture of misery as he picks the ball out of the net again and again. The atmosphere is toxic as fans slink out of the stadium after another goes in, cursing in the direction of the Directors Box as they go. Why didn’t we strengthen more in the summer? Where are the experienced players?

Tottenham 0 Chelsea 4.

I desperately hope this AVB-ian nightmare doesn’t unfold. I deeply believe we are a stronger, hungrier and better coached team than we were under the Portuguese, the emperor’s new clothes personified. But, just days before the start of season, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some fear about the season ahead.

My last blog focused on trying to define what would constitute success for Spurs this season. I stuck it up on Reddit and was surprised by how consistent the reaction was. Fifth was generally accepted as a success, unless Daniel Levy pulls a rabbit out of the hat and lands a real difference maker or two in the final weeks of the window. Yup…

Meanwhile, it’s preview time in the Spurs blogosphere, and the mood is generally one of gloom, rather than the pre-season optimism that normally prevails at this time. James Yorke’s excellent curtain-raiser on Statsbomb, and Alan Fisher’s superbly balanced preview (with added Ray Charles), are must-reads.

We’ve just played Real Madrid, and have AC Milan this evening. Then we are away at Manchester United for the Saturday lunchtime kick-off, and Mauricio Pochettino has even admitted they tried to get the game moved to Sunday. I’ve argued that the Audi Cup may help our sharpness, but I’m pretty sure now that I’m wrong and have been arguing for the sake of it. Football fans do that sometimes, desperately trying to find the positives. In the cold light of day, it feels a pointless exercise at best, and an unnecessary risk that damages our chances of a strong start at worst.

My consistent thought, over the past couple of days, has been as follows: What if, instead of hitting or surpassing expectations this season, we are just worse?

As I noted in my last piece, it feels like the gap between Spurs and the Top Four is bigger than ever. Furthermore, it feels like the gap between Spurs and the rest has shrunk. It’s not like we’ve necessarily gone backwards over the summer — the addition of Toby Alderweireld should be a much-needed upgrade at the heart of the defence — it’s more that the other teams around us have gotten relatively better.

The season is now upon us and we still have glaring holes in our squad. Ryan Mason remains the first choice in midfield, which is alarming as he is far from great. Kane is the ONLY striker in the squad for the Audi Cup and no doubt in the squad for Old Trafford. This feels bordering on negligence at this point.

After a strong start to the window, Spurs have brought in no players in the past month. Daniel Levy has gone into full Captain Ahab mode with what appears an increasingly doomed pursuit of that White Whale of a transfer target, a young, talented and cheap striker. He must surely realize that he is driving the manager and supporters insane, and that the points lost in August could be the difference between Champions League and Europa League come May? Just get on with it, please.

If you look at the teams that finished below Spurs in the league, and the players they’ve bought and sold, you can see some real threats to Spurs. I won’t go through them individually, but in my view, Liverpool, Southampton, Swansea, Stoke and Everton could ALL finish above Spurs this season if we’re not careful or things don’t go our way.

(Oddly, despite being the love of statsheads and hipsters everywhere, I’m a bit down on Southampton and think they will struggle. I see a Laudrup-at-Swansea scenario — he inherits a strong team and does well, but struggles to recapture the magic as good habits erode and the Europa League takes its inevitable toll.)

Despite the positive mood music that comes out of Spurs about the relationship between head coach and chairman, as Spurs fans we are right to be cynical about hailing the new long-term strategy as a new dawn

As the Statsbomb preview noted, Spurs outperformed a number of statistical measures last season. It certainly felt that way — all those last minute Eriksen and Kane winners, now the dust has settled, they do seem a bit unlikely, don’t they? Sure, Poch’s fitness regime may have made a difference, but towards the end of the season, those late goals stopped coming, and we slid quietly backwards.

I’d say this about the season ahead: I’m more confident predicting Spurs will miss out on the Top Four than I am predicting Spurs will finish in the Top Six. Probably, on balance, I’d put my money on sixth, but with such a young squad and with such massive holes remaining so close to kick-off, it feels overly optimistic to rule out the possibility of Spurs falling into the mid-table pack. I’ll be curious to see where our wage bill sits once the transfer window is closed — that is normally a fairly good indicator of where a team may finish. There is no divine right to continue to expect Spurs to perform better and better, while spending less and less on talent than rivals.

By relying so heavily on youth, both to continue to develop individually into world-class players and produce consistently as a team, Spurs are engaging in a high-wire act. The last team to go “all-in” on youth in this way was Aston Villa in the first year of Paul Lambert. Then, they thought their crop of youngsters (the likes of Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark, Andreas Weimann) were a new dawn that meant the club could stop spending. Villa have flirted with relegation each season since, abandoned the strategy after it transpired that none of the youngsters turned into stars, and are now managed by Tim Sherwood. Spurs are better than Villa because we know Harry Kane is miles better than any player Villa produced, but there is a reason most clubs go for experience: you know what you are going to get and can plan accordingly.

Despite the positive mood music that comes out of Spurs about the relationship between head coach and chairman, as Spurs fans we are right to be cynical about hailing the new long-term strategy as a new dawn. We’ve lurched from one new dawn to another under Levy’s guidance. I’m not part of the “Levy Out” brigade as through it all we’ve had brilliant players, kept our Premier Leagues status as other similar size clubs such as Newcastle and Leeds have struggled horribly, and generally been entertained. But let’s be honest, Levy’s judgement on football matters has proved to be questionable — just look at the previous two summers.

Furthermore, I’d add that I just don’t think Levy himself is patient enough to see through this type of long-term plan, of building up a hungry, young, homegrown team under a hungry, young coach in time to challenge in the magnificent new stadium that isn’t yet built. Levy sacks managers because it works — toss the angry mob a bloodied head and it takes the focus of anger away from the director’s box. I just don’t doubt, when results turn sour and Spurs are languishing in mid-table, a new manager and expensive crop of experienced players will come in. Leopards don’t change their spots.

As I said earlier, I think Spurs are a better team under Pochettino and are less inclined to the type of implosion that occurred under AVB and Sherwood. But I don’t think it is unduly negative to fear there is a good chance we’ll bump along in mid-table this season, without ever really threatening the Top Four. Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe a year out of the Europa League is actually just what we need. But we’ll then be relying on the vagaries of cup draws, and the hope of a few more magic Harry Kane moments, to consider our season a success.

I love the fact we have so many homegrown players coming through, and enjoyed Kane’s emergence as a star striker more than anything in recent years as a Spurs fan, even those exhilarating moments when Gareth Bale turned into a monster and destroyed Inter Milan. But I just can’t shake that feeling, as the new season dawns, that we may not have progressed by as much as required, and as a result could be relatively worse.

Attempting to define success for Spurs in 2015/2016

poch sideline

A question: What would a successful 2015/2016 season look like for Spurs?

Not such an easy one to answer, when you start thinking about it.

Two years ago, I was convinced Spurs had finally made the breakthrough after spending the proceeds of the Gareth Bale money on what looked like a batch of quality players. Perhaps cautious of the huge disappointment that followed, I tempered my “this will be our year” thoughts somewhat last August. Nevertheless the weakness at Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool made me think the Top Four was still on, especially if some of the Bale brigade improved after their tricky starts.

Instead, we saw conclusive proof that tens of millions of pounds had been wasted on the likes of Roberto Soldado, so much so that Mauricio Pochettino was forced to turn to young players like Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. And, perhaps more by accident than design, things turned around and Spurs fans started feeling happy again.

But was last season a success? It could go either way.

More optimistic sorts will say fifth place was good given the circumstances, a trip to Wembley brightened the season despite the result, and we had two outstanding derby performances at the Lane that will live long in the memory. Furthermore, we unearthed a genuine homegrown superstar, with the promise of more to come.

More pessimistic sorts will say we missed out the Top Four AGAIN, were miles behind Arsenal AGAIN, failed in Europe AGAIN, and had to endure horror shows at the Lane against the likes of Newcastle and Villa AGAIN.

There’s no right answer, and I prevaricate between the two positions as most fans do. After all it is an emotional reaction as much as a logical one. Overall, I’d say it was a fairly successful season: given the total failure of most of the experienced players, fifth was good and I’m hugely excited about the future. But, I have to be honest, I thought we could get Top Four and we were nowhere near. Fairly successful, but not an outright success.

How many other clubs would need to go through this sort of equivocation before deciding whether a season went well or not?

So, what would a successful season look like this time?

Before I sketch out the possibilities, I should qualify things by saying this debate feels inherently Spursy.

How many other clubs would need to go through this sort of equivocation before deciding whether a season went well or not? For Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, it is surely title or failure. For Liverpool, it is Top Four or bust, possibly literally given how much they are spending. For the promoted teams and cellar dwellers like Leicester and Villa, all that matters is survival. For most other clubs, you say Top Half, while bigger (Everton) or better run (Swansea, Southampton, Stoke) may say Europa League is a fair benchmark. But Spurs are in a weird position with revenues miles ahead of the bigger five clubs, but a way ahead of Everton in 7th, and this debate may be an expression of that.

So, some league positions:

Top Four: We can all agree, Top Four would equal success.

Fifth: This is where it gets tricky. By revenues/size of club/however you want to put it, Spurs rank behind Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. It is just a fact at this stage, and is the reason we’re building a bloody massive new stadium. I’ve argued recently that Spurs shouldn’t consider fifth a failure — the problem is that the Champions League is such a huge financial reward that missing out by just one place feels like failure. Finishing fifth is exceeding were we are “supposed” to be — but it is still somewhat unsatisfying. Can success be unsatisfying?

Sixth: Again, this is where we are “supposed” to be, so it feels harsh to call it a failure. A success though? Probably not. But saying that, does it even matter at all if you finish fifth or sixth? The reward is the same — Europa League rather than Champions League. I’d say, this is where style comes in. If Spurs are right in the chase for the Top Four until the end, and then just miss out and are pipped to fifth by goal difference, surely that is better than doing what we did last year, which was fall out of contention with a long way to go, only to recover slightly and pick up a place as Liverpool crumbled? It would certainly be more exciting — and as a club built on audere est facere and “failing while aiming high”, I’d like to think we could find success in a sixth place finish in the right circumstances. Furthermore, it depends on who we finish above or behind.

Seventh or below: Barring a few outlier scenarios, or an incredibly tight Top Four contest that sees Spurs nudged into seventh by just a point or on goal difference, seventh or lower should mean the season is considered a failure.

What other outcomes could be considered a success?

A trophy: Europa League victory would be a massive success, especially with the Champions League reward. FA Cup would be preferable to League Cup, but at this point, any trophy would be a hugely welcome addition to the trophy cabinet, and I’d happily sacrifice a few league positions. At the very least, we need another cup run.

Finishing above Arsenal: It’s been 20 long years, and it is really hard to envisage how Spurs are going to do this with Arsenal looking so strong in so many positions. But it would be bloody hilarious, especially as it would mean something absolutely bananas has happened over at the Emirates.

Finishing above Liverpool: This isn’t for everyone, but I really loathe Liverpool, and take great pleasure in the fact we’ve more or less had their number in recent years in league position. I just find the club so arrogant and boring, especially with the phalanx of ex Liverpool players on every UK TV channel. Their delusion and desperation is a welcome tonic to any Tottenham toil.

Finishing above Chelsea: If an Arsenal collapse seems unlikely, I’m not quite sure what would have to be going on at Chelsea. But boy would it be sweet.

More superstars: A slightly different vibe, but I just wonder if some Spurs fans would be prepared to swallow a bit more rebuilding if it meant the continuing development of our young stars. I’ve written about how I think Nabil Bentaleb is set to take it to the next level, but in the likes of Dele Alli, Alex Pritchard and Josh Onomah, there is every chance we are going to see some serious talent blossoming this season. It feels like Daniel Levy, after years of being the itchiest trigger in the business, is finally settling down to some long-term thinking in terms of building up a team for the new stadium in a couple of years. So perhaps fans will buy into that too. All I would say is, that perspective will be hard to find after the miserable post-Europa home defeats we all know are coming. And measuring sufficient development is hard, and impossible to call between what is success and what isn’t quite success.

So, what would I consider a successful season?

I just fear that this season, the Top Four are ahead by an absolute chasm. I don’t see how Spurs can possibly catch them unless we pull some rabbits out of the hat in the final weeks of the transfer window. I don’t think this is just my pessimism — the Top Four just look absolutely stacked and there is still time to fill the odd hole in their squads. It also feels like, given the massive new TV deal kicking in and the amount being spent by clubs lower down the league, the gap between Spurs and rest is shrinking.

For the first time in quite a few seasons, I’m genuinely starting the season without thinking: “This will be our year”. Next year? Maybe, but this season could be really tough.

Oddly, I’d take the same this season as we achieved last season: Fifth place, a decent cup run, and a couple more feel-good moments from Harry Kane.

Is that too negative, or should we just be realistic about what constitutes success, meaning we are more likely to actually achieve it?