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.
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