Monthly Archives: February 2017

Can Spurs afford to finish 5th?

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With 13 games to go in the 2016/17 Premier League season, just four points separate second place and sixth.

Only Chelsea have managed to pull away from this almighty scrap: eight points clear and with no European distractions, John Terry can surely start dusting off his full kit and boots in preparation for the trophy celebration.

Two of Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and the Manchester clubs are going to miss out on Champions League football next season — who it will be, however, is anyone’s guess.

An air of manufactured perma-crisis has haunted the top of the table, with one manager continually forced to be “the one under pressure”. Jurgen Klopp felt the heat in January, but in February the spotlight appears to have shifted to North London and Arsene Wenger.

After a dip of form since the hammering of West Brom on January 14, and the ongoing inability of his Spurs team to perform well in Europe even against modest opposition, Mauricio Pochettino has also experienced a frustrating month. But averaging two points a game over 25 matches and into the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, this hasn’t been a campaign where the bad moments have lasted long.

Thanks to the excellent work of Pochettino, Spurs are defying Premier League gravity in terms of the resources they can bring to bear. But in a long, attritional campaign where no team is showing signs of relenting, this may be a season where depth is more important than ever. When Man City lose Gabriel Jesus, they have Sergio Aguero and Kelechi Iheanacho able to come in; when Spurs lose Harry Kane, it’s either an out-of-position Son Heung-min or Vincent Janssen, who has yet to score for the club from open play.

Combining a club’s wage bill and annualized transfer costs (amortisation, FY 2015) gives an idea of the “real football spend” at the top six clubs, and how hard it is for Spurs to compete:

Man Utd — £302.3m
Chelsea — £285m
Man City — £264m
Arsenal — £244.1m
Liverpool — £227m
Tottenham — £139.4m

Spurs, quite simply, are in a different league to the other five in terms of the amount invested in football. While disappointing, it therefore shouldn’t be a surprise if Spurs were one of the the two teams that eventually slipped down into the Europa League spots. This isn’t trying to create an excuse for failure, but rather establishing context: when Pochettino talks about the limitations he faces, it’s all true.

Leicester have shown money doesn’t always equal success, but most of the time it does. Per analysis by Michael Caley, 80 percent of top four places from 2000/01 to 2014/15 were secured by teams with the top four wage bills at the time.

With a £750m stadium project to finance, can Spurs afford to miss out on UEFA’s Champions League millions at this crucial juncture in the club’s history?

With Premier League TV income soaring to unimaginable levels and Europa League income increasing, Champions League football is no longer quite the silver bullet that it once was.

Last season, Spurs earned £95.2m from the Premier League TV deal, while the club’s share of UEFA’s revenue distribution — the governing body’s mechanism for dishing out TV money — was £17.7m. In 2014, Spurs took in £88.8m of PL money, and just £5.5m in UEFA revenue — that’s a jump of £12.2m year-on-year under the BT Sport deal.

This season, Spurs should bring in around £140m from the new Premier League TV deal, while UEFA revenues will be approximately £36m. The exact numbers will be known at the end of the season — the UEFA number is based on what Manchester United earned last season, after crashing out of the Champions League in the group stage, and then making an early exit from the Europa League knockout stages. Spurs are on course for a similar performance — but the 3rd place Premier League finish in the prior season may mean a little more.

As a percentage of club revenue, here’s how UEFA revenue distribution income has varied in recent seasons:

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(Note: Currency conversion throughout this piece is at current rates)

As you can see, Champions League remains a huge financial incentive. However, while in previous season the Europa League has been an irritation with marginal financial benefit, under the current deal, participation is much more lucrative.

By way of contrast, when Spurs were forced out of the 2012/13 Champions League by Chelsea, this was a crushing blow. Spurs took in just £4.6m in UEFA revenue in the following season, while Chelsea scooped £26m for finishing 3rd in their group (and another £9m for going on and winning the Europa League).

Of course, UEFA revenue distribution is just one part of the picture. Matchday income is much higher for Champions League than Europa League — Spurs sold out Wembley for the three home Champions League ties, while Europa League matches are less of a crowd draw — plus there is the potential commercial uplift that comes with appearing in the more prestigious of the European competitions.

As regards the new stadium, this project is not contingent on Champions League football — in fact, the aim of the new stadium is to enable Spurs to put out a sufficiently strong team to qualify for the competition on a regular basis.

In the Viability Report for the project, “better than estimated on-field performance” is listed among potential factors that may increase return on investment in the scheme — alongside reduced construction costs, player costs dipping below 45 percent of revenues and the club securing an NFL franchise (eyes passim).

Spurs have been prudently run for years, and budgets are based on the expectation of Europa League football, not the hope of Champions League football. This refusal to gamble frustrates some segments of the fanbase, and pleases others — but as long as Daniel Levy is controlling the purse strings, this approach won’t change. There’s no gamble being made about Spurs being able to overachieve on the pitch through the stadium construction phase — two seasons of CL football in a row would be a tremendous bonus.

But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a price to be paid were Spurs to miss out on Champions League football next season.

For fans, it will mean missing out on Europe’s elite competition yet again. This year’s campaign never caught alight, starting with an extremely boring draw that meant no “big” team coming to Wembley in the group stages. Gareth Bale’s heroics against Inter Milan were six and a half years ago — even the most patient of fans need fresh inspiration to feed the soul.

For the players, the Europa League represents a step back. Pochettino has nurtured a hungry group with a solid core of Champions League calibre players. With so many key players signing new deals and a palpable sense of excitement at the club as the new stadium takes shape, there’s little danger of losing players this summer. But footballers who make the top level are by nature ambitious, and Champions League is the benchmark.

However, for both fans and players, there are other ways to square this circle — the FA Cup would give fans a moment to savour, and demonstrate to the players that it’s possible to win trophies at Spurs. Judging by the performance at Fulham, the team is focused on the competition, and lifting the trophy in May would represent an important yardstick for this group.

That’s not to say the FA Cup is a panacea — for the team, there’s still a development cost to missing out on the Champions League. In three years under Pochettino, Spurs have been consistently poor in Europe. It’s hard to put a finger on why: Squad limitations? Focus on the Premier League? Tactical issues? The only way Spurs are going to get better is by playing quality European opposition on a regular basis, and figuring it out. It took Manchester City several seasons to find their way in the Champions League after the club struck oil, but they reached the semifinals last season and it’s not impossible to see them going a step further this time.

Then there’s the cost of one of the other teams sneaking into the Champions League at Spurs’ expense. At every other club, a far greater sense of crisis will be felt if they miss out — another season of failure at, say, Manchester United, has the potential to have repercussions that could open doors to Spurs in years to come. Maybe that’s getting a bit tangential, but to put it another way, it sure is enjoyable making Jose Mourinho squirm.

Hopefully, this is all moot: Tottenham’s run since the West Brom win is simply just a dip in form, an inevitability in a long old slog of a campaign, and the team starts purring like the fine-tuned machine we’ve resembled at times this season. The performance at Craven Cottage suggests as much.

However, if Spurs do end up missing out on Champions League football next season, it’ll be disappointing, but not disastrous.

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

Spurs need to rediscover transfer mojo

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In January 2016, Spurs were linked with three promising youngsters: Moussa Dembele of Fulham, Ademola Lookman of Charlton, and James Maddison of Coventry City.

The assumption at the time was that at least one would be signed before the transfer window closed. It seemed a trademark Spurs transfer approach: identify talented English youngsters at lower division clubs and bring them to White Hart Lane where they can develop and, hopefully, rise in value.

Dembele even reportedly travelled to Hotspur Way for a medical before the deal collapsed. Fulham, battling relegation from the Championship, demanded the player, whose contract was due to expire over the summer, remain at Craven Cottage on loan.

In the end, the transfer window closed, without Spurs making a signing.

The fate of the three players linked in January shows the opportunity cost that Spurs have paid for their prevarication, and underscores the problems Spurs have in the recruitment department at the moment.

Dembele has blossomed into a star at Celtic, banging in 20 goals in 38 appearances. He looked at home on the Champions League stage, and doesn’t appear likely to stay at Celtic for long. A £40m move to Chelsea was mooted in January, albeit with a strong clickbait element. In hindsight — and it was complicated with Spurs being asked to pay for a player on an expiring deal to return on loan – that £5 million not spent must haunt the club.

Lookman, meanwhile, joined Everton this January for £11m. He scored on his debut, and has impressed sufficiently to earn a start against Bournemouth on Saturday. It’s very early days, but he looks lively, pacey and technically good — similar to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before he moved to Arsenal and his career started to drift. Time will tell, but the early signs are promising.

Maddison, a creative midfielder with a hint of Ross Barkley about him, isn’t fairing so well. Norwich City scooped him up for £2m on deadline day — to the outrage of Coventry City fans who considered him a far more valuable asset — but allowed him to stay at Coventry. This season, he was loaned out to Aberdeen, where he played 14 times in the SPL, scoring twice and assisting seven times, and now finds himself back at Norwich, where he hasn’t made the matchday squad for a Championship match. He’s only 20, and there’s still time, but it doesn’t feel the trajectory of a star.

This January, the transfer window came and went without Spurs making any serious moves for anyone. A 1% percent chance of a deal turned into a 0.01% chance of a deal, but even that seemed to be overstating it. In fact, the only significant stories to emerge were about the dysfunction in the club’s recruitment department — Paul Mitchell, the head of recruitment, resigned, while Ian Broomfield, the international scout, left the club after his contract was not renewed.

Mitchell remains at the club, working out an 18-month notice period. This is an utterly ludicrous situation given the total lack of incentive for Mitchell to do his job properly. If Spurs were so keen to keep him from the clutches of rival clubs, then the club should have insisted on an 18-month period of gardening leave.

Mitchell has largely escaped criticism from the fans, painted as yet another victim of Daniel Levy’s control-freak approach. The exact breaking point isn’t known, but is normally pinpointed as the failure to sign Michy Batshuayi.

But this is far too kind on Mitchell. Before joining Spurs, Mitchell surely did his due diligence: He must have known that a) Spurs have a limited budget compared to top six rivals, especially with the stadium to finance, b) Even without these constraints, as a club run on rational lines, Spurs can’t win bidding wars with plaything clubs like Chelsea, and c) Levy is a hands on chairman who drives a hard bargain and is unafraid of falling out with people.

At the moment, it appears Spurs are going backwards in the transfer market, with Pochettino and Levy calling the shots in the absence of specialist recruitment staff. James Yorke summed it up in an article on Statsbomb:

If there are concerns about the direction the club is moving in, the structure of any transfer committee appears uneasy. Paul Mitchell continues to work his leave and the late summer transfers of Georges-Kevin N’Koudou and Moussa Sissoko looked like headscratchers at the time (with little or no statistical basis to either of them), and the lack of impact made by both players implies that Tottenham may need to apply greater care to their recruitment in future. Talk of Wilfried Zaha is hopefully wide of the mark as his apparently improved contributions for a struggling Crystal Palace carry a huge red flag based on little change in his shooting or creative numbers year on year, implying he’s running on little more than a warm streak of form.

You can see how a mistake like Moussa Sissoko happens given the void created by the departures of key recruitment staff. Pochettino says he wants a powerful, ball-carrying player to add a threat from wide positions, and Sissoko ticks that box. Levy looks at his spreadsheet, and sees room in the budget for a £30m player, paid for in £6m annual instalments. So boom, in Sissoko comes on deadline day. At no point does someone who has actually spent months assessing him say, “Hold on, this guy can’t pass, shoot or control the ball, he’s not up to the technical standard required for this Spurs team”

It’s simple logic, but while Pochettino is in a position to state what his squad is lacking, he isn’t in a position to scout players. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for him to do this and manage the team. Likewise Levy: his in-tray includes building and funding a stadium, contract negotiations, commercial deals, property development and representing Spurs at a Premier League level (think negotiations over TV money, etc). And anyway, neither of them are professional scouts or analysts.

Spurs have already paid the price for the missteps this summer. In October and November, with Champions League in full flow and the squad suffering injuries, a bad run of form allowed Chelsea to bolt clear in the league and saw Spurs crash down into the Europa League. Sissoko was signed as a box-ready product, yet was publicly called out by Pochettino and considered unselectable during this run. Vincent Janssen failed to score from open play while covering from Kane, while GK Nkoudou has barely featured beyond the odd cameo. In particular, he has struggled in his rare starts.

Pochettino has exhausted his old boys brigade with the signing of VIctor Wanyama, so new ideas are sorely needed. Instead of waiting until the summer, Spurs need to move fast to fill the recruitment void. There have been reports of various sporting directors being approached — former Roma honcho Walter Sabatini and Bayern’s Michael Reschke — if this is true, this should happen now or Spurs will miss a valuable half season of scouting time.

However, despite the money wasted on Sissoko and the whole N’Jie-Nkoudou boondoggle (personally, I’m giving Janssen a bit more time before dismissing him as a flop as there is a good technical player there), it’s the deals not done that will haunt Spurs more.

Dembele would have been the latest in a long line of successful acquisitions from lower divisions: Dele, Bale, Walker, Dawson, and so forth. No club does it better — identifying talent from English clubs and developing the hell out of them. For every Walker, say, there is a Kyle Naughton — but the beauty of signing young players is you normally get some return on them, and the value of the ones that make the grade far outweigh the money spent on the ones who don’t. Sure, there are serious talents emerging from the academy, but not in every position.

It’s time for Spurs to get back to what they do best in the transfer market. The beauty of football is, the next big thing is never far away.

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