Category Archives: Opinion

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.

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Spurs, Chelsea and two very different stadiums

Chelsea moved closer to joining London’s “60,000” club on Wednesday night after Hammersmith and Fulham councillors approved plans for their extraordinary new stadium.

While the meeting for Tottenham’s new stadium in December 2015 stretched on until 12.29am and culminated in a fingernail-biter of a vote, Chelsea’s stadium breezed through this critical planning hurdle with a unanimous vote of approval at a distinctly civilized 10.22pm. Decisions over new conservatory extensions have taken longer.

Ultimately, the Herzog de Meuron design swept all before it and meant approval was an inevitability. It was simply too spectacular a piece of architecture to be rejected, no matter the deep inconvenience about to be inflicted on local residents during four years of construction, the land grab over public infrastructure, and the loss of housing and hotel rooms.

Chelsea have work to do before construction can begin: Mayoral and other consents are required, agreement is needed with Chelsea Pitch Owners, the fan group that owns the Stamford Bridge freehold, and deals must be reached to buy out any remaining apartment owners in Chelsea Village. Fortunately money isn’t a problem for Chelsea, as that will be an expensive business.

Chelsea acknowledged that the timeframe had “slipped” in the planning documents, and they won’t be ready to leave Stamford Bridge for Wembley until the end of the 2017/18 season. Provided work is completed on time at New White Hart Lane, this means Spurs and Chelsea should avoid the world’s most uncomfortable houseshare.

The two stadiums will inevitably draw comparisons, but these are two very different projects, and each speaks volumes about the club and its situation.

For Spurs, the new stadium has always been about levelling the playing field. Constrained by the size of White Hart Lane, Spurs have slipped further and further behind wealthier clubs in financial strength. Spurs have clung onto the coattails of the big spenders with admirable tenacity and some Mauricio Pochettino magic, but it’s been a gruelling business and you can only defy gravity for so long.

This need to maximise the opportunity a new stadium presents has shaped the project, from the moment the early designs were released with the words “Naming Rights” emblazoned on the roof in giant letters.

The newly released stadium promotion video demonstrated this: it’s a home for Spurs, but also for the NFL and for concerts. The club ensured it can hold up to 16 non-THFC major events per year — it is likely that AEG, operators of the O2 and would-be partners in the failed Olympic site plan, may be involved to ensure every one of those 16 events slots is used. Concerts, rugby (European champions Saracens are based just down the road in tiny Allianz Park), boxing, T20 cricket and UFC — you name it, the stadium will host it and Spurs will take their cut.

Daniel Levy knows that Spurs have to make this stadium count — this is the silver bullet, and it can’t be wasted. No effort is being spared on the interior details, and the fan experience should be unrivalled in European stadia. The design is modern, but not flashy and certainly not “signature” — the real investment is being made inside, not on the exterior. Above all, it is about money — Spurs have been fighting with one hand behind their back for years, and now it’s time to punch back.

For Chelsea, Stamford Bridge isn’t so much a commercial project as a personal one: The stadium is both a monument to Roman Abramovich, and his personal legacy to Chelsea.

If his first decade as owner was about buying Chelsea’s way into the elite — the club technically “owes” him more than £1 billion — the second is about cementing it. The project makes less commercial sense than Spurs with a smaller capacity increase and more recent development of Stamford Bridge, although Chelsea had precious few options for further growth without abandoning west London altogether.

The sheer audacity of the design, with its lattice roof and columns drawing inspiration from Westminster Abbey, takes the breath away. It’s not just a stadium, it’s a symbol — of Abramovich’s extraordinary wealth, of Chelsea’s ambitions, of the sheer magnitude of football now. These aren’t stadiums any more, they are cathedrals.

Perhaps it’s just the name Roman, but rather than visions of London — Westminster Abbey, Battersea Power Station, the Tate Modern — to me the design harks back further, the huge exterior arches and vaunting brick walls bringing to mind the original sporting stadium, the Coliseum. It’s Roman the Emperor, on a Triumph through London, erecting a vast monument to his own glory; all that’s missing is the white horse and vanquished rival Premier League kings in chains.

It won’t be for everyone: there are hints of Albert Speer and Welthauptstadt Germania in its epic scale and Teutonic coldness, and questions will linger about whether Abramovich has really earned the right to redefine London’s skyline in this way.

While Chelsea will surely take on significant financing, the suggestion is that Abramovich will personally fund the bulk of it; it’s unlikely Chelsea will have to engage in something as grubby as naming rights sponsorship. The stadium will host football only. Say this about Abramovich: like him or not, his commitment to Chelsea has been unwavering. He’s the ultimate oligarch, still there week-in week-out nearly 15 years later, still bankrolling his favourite toy.

The law of London football means Spurs fans and Chelsea fans will find ways to undermine, mock and goad each other. The new stadia will be no exception. New White Hart Lane is shaped like an egg, New Stamford Bridge like some sort of novelty vegetable shredder; you get the drift. I hope the ill-feeling continues at boardroom level and on the pitch — it’s surely the best rivalry in the Premier League at the moment, by a distance.

The same one upmanship that made Spurs trump Arsenal in capacity will be in play — stadium development is linear, and Chelsea will learn ruthlessly from Spurs to make sure their’s is “better”. But ultimately, the more you compare these projects, the greater the contrast becomes.

Here’s one thing we can agree on: Spurs and Chelsea are both going to have world-class stadiums within a few years, and thousands more fans are going to be able to see their team live. So a bit like West Ham — except without the need for binoculars, taxpayer subsidies and riot gear.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more articles and general Spurs chat. See more of my stadium pieces by searching in the stadium category in the right-hand navigation, or in the Deep Dives link above.

A new generation of Spurs fans craves FA Cup glory

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The trademark magic was in short supply in the FA Cup third round. Weakened teams, poorly chosen televised games, sparse crowds and an unexciting set of match-ups meant for an uninspired weekend of football.

Spurs summed it up with a laboured victory over a defensive Aston Villa side that came for a 0-0, and for 70 minutes looked like they might get one.

But sometimes the most glorious things spring from the humblest of beginnings, and as Spurs finally found their swagger, it was possible to let one’s thoughts drift ahead to Wembley in May, half-covered in Lillywhite, the trophy there for the taking if only the players believe. Maybe, just maybe, this is going to be our year.

Let’s be clear: Spurs are massively, extraordinarily, almost indescribably overdue an FA Cup win.

Our reputation as a “Cup team”, still trotted out dutifully by the BBC commentator as the teams emerged from the tunnel at White Hart Lane, is as hollow as the new structure emerging behind the Paxton Road stand.

Spurs have won the FA Cup just four times since 1966, and it has been 26 years since Spurs last reached the FA Cup final, when we beat Nottingham Forest 2-1. The only longer drought in the club’s history, since the first FA Cup win in 1901, came between 1921 and 1961. The League Cup has been somewhat more successful, with five finals in the intervening period; two victorious, three not.

Since Spurs were last in the FA Cup final, Chelsea have won it six times and Arsenal seven. Hell, Portsmouth and Wigan have both won it. Our eight wins are a distant memory. No Spurs fan under the age of 30 will have any memory of what it feels like to be an FA Cup winner.

Early football memories are snapshots, fleeting moments preserved for eternity while the rest has been washed away. My first Spurs memory was Gary Lineker scoring a winner in the league against Norwich. My second was Gazza, 15 minutes into the Cup final, injured after that tackle. My third was dancing around overexcitedly when Des Walker powered a header past his own keeper. No wonder I’m hooked.

One thing I can’t remember is Gary Mabbutt actually lifting the trophy. My guess is, I was already out in the garden with my brother, playing another game of three-and-in: him as Lineker, and Gazza, and Paul Stewart; me, the squitty little brother, forced to be Forest, but perfectly happy to be Psycho, or Walker, or Nigel Clough.

The FA Cup was such a fundamental part of me becoming a Spurs fan, and for younger Spurs fans to be deprived of what it feels like to win is cruel. It’s a chasm in the footballing experience every Spurs fan should have. It has to be corrected, as an urgent priority of the club.

So why this year? After all, we’ve had plenty of chances before, and found 25 different ways to blow it.

One difference now is that, for the first time, there isn’t a single draw that we fear. That feeling of watching the draw and thinking “please don’t let it be them” — that’s gone, or as is near as possible. Sure, Chelsea and Liverpool away still present psychological barriers to Spurs, but these are barriers this team has to overcome eventually. Now is the time.

If there’s fear, it’s on the other side — no-one wants to be drawn against Spurs at home these days. Just ask Antonio Conte or Pep Guardiola. And possibly Gareth Ainsworth.

Another reason is that, more than any other team, Spurs NEED to win something this season.

The lack of silverware is a cause of embarrassment. Mauricio Pochettino has never won a trophy as a manager, and few of the Spurs players need private trophy rooms in their North London mansions. ENIC’s ownership has been blighted by the trophy drought: just one, in 16 years — constant fuel for the agitators, and the agitated. There’s no trophy for finishing in the top six, and the only prize for finishing in the top four is financial.

What reassures me about this squad, as well as their talent, is their hunger: they get it.

“If in five years’ time we hadn’t won a trophy with this squad, everyone would be disappointed,” said Eric Dier, the future arriving as he donned the captain’s armband on Sunday. “Football is about winning trophies. Look at the players we have now and the basis we have to win things. We have to keep working hard and improving but the whole squad is desperate to win things.”

Desperation is a powerful motivating force.

The Champions League flop means even more reason to focus on the FA Cup. The Europa League is a consolation prize, an afterthought, a plate competition to fill the TV void on Thursday nights. It’s a long, gruelling contest, and extremely hard to win, yet it teases clubs into playing stronger than advised teams as it has the illusion of winnability. Spurs are veterans, and have never remotely threatened — nothing we did in the Champions League suggested we’ve gotten any better at finding midweek performances against technically proficient European opponents with vastly smaller budgets.

In my view, Pochettino should de-prioritize the Europa League, unashamedly. Kids, reserves, unwanteds — a strategic choice to cede ground in Europe, in search for gains on the home front. Poch will say the right things — “we try to win in every competition” — but sometimes hard decisions have to made.

The league this season is shaping to be a brutal slog, with six fairly even teams fighting desperately for four places. It’s no season to be messing around with Thursday trips to Eastern Europe. But the FA Cup is a weekend competition, so long as you win.

As Liverpool showed with their severely weakened team against Plymouth, the tightness of the title race may take attention away from the FA Cup. A little more rotation, a slip here, a slip there; it’s one of those seasons where it might open up, and it pays to be the last man standing. Already the bulk of Premier League’s middle class has slunk out, meaning less chance of that dangerous type of team that has nothing to play for except Cup glory.

The omens are good. Ball 26 in the fourth round draw, 26 years after our last victory, 26 for Ledley, one of our greatest modern players who should have won far more. Wycombe at home — yup, we should win that one.

I’m dreaming of FA Cup glory this season, more than ever before.

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

Half-full, or half-empty? Nine games gone and Tottenham’s performance is however you want to see it

There’s a glass half-full, glass half-empty feel to the start of the season for Spurs.

It’s been good, but it could have been better. It’s not been brilliant, but it could have been worse.

We’re fifth, but we’re only a point off the top; we’re unbeaten, but we’ve drawn four out of nine. The four teams above us have all conceded at least five more goals, but they’ve also scored at least six more.

After the Bournemouth draw there were some rumblings of dissatisfaction among the fanbase for the first time this season, and then, as surely as night follows day, came the “backlash-against-the-backlash”.

It gets pretty tedious, in particular given how open to interpretation the quality of the current performance is.

I think it’s fair to have some concerns about the way Spurs have started, but also to be pleased with certain aspects.

I’ve had a few conflicting thoughts bubbling away since Saturday, but can’t quite decide where I fall on the glass half-empty, glass half-full side of the debate, particularly now the initial frustration of Saturday has faded.

So what are you — half-empty, or half-full? Or just kinda half, like me?

Half-full: We’re a point off the top with nearly a quarter of the season gone. We have the best defence, again, and we gave Pep’s City an absolute kicking in our biggest game of the season so far.

Half-empty: We should be top, but have drawn two winnable games and haven’t capitalised on City’s poor run. We should have beaten both Boro and Sunderland by more than a solitary goal.

Half-full: We’ve coped without Mousa Dembele for large stretches, far better than we did last season. In two games without another linchpin, Toby Alderweireld, we’ve not conceded a goal.

Half-empty: We’re missing Harry Kane badly, despite the best efforts by Son Heung-min. Vincent Janssen looks like he has the potential to grow into a solid Premier League striker, but he’s not there yet, in particular in terms of poise in front of goal.

Half-full: It’s going to be so hard to beat Spurs. The defensive shape and intensity of the press is outstanding, and is a testament to Mauricio Pochettino’s coaching and motivational skills. With a bit of luck of the draw in third and fourth rounds, the FA Cup could be on in a big way for Spurs.

Half-empty: While Pochettino’s side are hard to beat, I’m not sure it’s particularly hard to avoid defeat against Spurs. Both West Brom and Bournemouth put in a huge physical effort, but mentally or tactically it hardly looked exhausting. This is worrying as, for most teams, a point against Spurs is OK.

Half-full: Victor Wanyama looks like one of signings of the season at £12.5 million. What an outrageous bargain in the summer’s inflationary market. Georges-Kevin N’Koudou has shown flashes in very limited minutes in a way Clinton never really did.

Half-empty: Moussa Sissoko has started poorly, and he doesn’t have the luxury of time like a young signing. He looks awfully expensive at £30m, and a poor fit tactically. Surely better players were available for the price?

Half-full: A deeper and more balanced squad has enabled Pochettino to show more tactical flexibility, such as the 4-3-3 formation and playing Christian Eriksen in a deeper role that has me thinking “Modric” and being very happy indeed.

Half-empty: City was the only really good 90-minute performance. Too many “bad halves” have undermined the season, and shown Poch struggling to adapt to opposition switches. He still seems too slow to react at times.

Half-full: Son has added the goal threat from the inside-left that Poch has craved, like Rodriguez at Southampton. This is a whole new dynamic, and will be even more valuable when Kane returns.

Half-empty: We’re still struggling to create good chances, and lack a secondary creative passer after Eriksen. Erik Lamela hasn’t started the season in great form, although his appetite for work is outstanding. There’s a fine line between purposeful asymmetry & unbalanced predictability. The right-flank is an issue.

Thanks for reading. Comments welcome as always. Please follow me on Twitter for more chat.

 

The power of incentives and why Spurs are finally in a position to achieve success

poch3_etihad

Over the interminable international break, I’ve been thinking a lot about two things — Spurs and politics.

In politics, I’ve been following the US election avidly and trying to understand why, despite everything we are learning each day, tens of millions of perfectly sane and patriotic Americans will vote for Donald Trump on November 8th.

For Spurs, I’ve been thinking about the success the club is currently experiencing, and trying to understand if there is some deeper explanation than merely an outbreak of managerial competence and a couple of decent signings.

In these two divergent trains of thought, strangely, I’ve found myself coming back to a similar place: the importance of incentives, both good and bad, in shaping outcomes and behaviour.

To a neutral observer (at least as neutral as anyone can be given the impact the US president has on the whole world), Trump’s rise has been baffling. Trump appears to be a sociopathic, predatory conman whose hiding-in-plain-sight brazenness and questionable sexual history has more than a shade of the Jimmy Saville about it. His evident emotional, intellectual and political shortcomings threaten a dangerously volatile presidency, and this could have all manner of devastating consequences given the power of the office (like, you know, commanding the US armed forces).

However, if you’ve spent the past eight years and more watching Fox News and listening to US talk radio, it will have seeped into your subconscious that America is changing for the worse, you are the main loser from that change, and that the current political establishment, embodied by one Hillary Clinton, is creating that change. I’m generalising of course, but you can see the incentive is now there to vote Trump: If you believe the current system is the problem, you have the incentive to vote for the one guy who appears to be from outside it and is talking very loudly about destroying it.

The rest — the ability to ignore facts about Trump and believe lies told by Trump — is an unparalleled epidemic of cognitive dissonance, and will be studied by psychologists and political scientists for generations to come should, as the polls suggest, Clinton limp pathetically to victory.

If that’s an example of a “bad” incentive — although philosophically speaking an incentive is just an incentive, immune to such subjective labelling — then Spurs currently are an example of the “good”.

Arguably the most famous example of incentives in football is the other lot. For years, Arsene Wenger has been told to deliver a Top 4 finish and Champions League football, and been strongly incentivized to do so through ongoing employment on increasingly lucrative terms. Arsenal fans no doubt wonder, if Wenger had been incentivized to win a title — through either the offer of more money or the threat of the sack — he may have done more to seriously challenge for the title in the past dozen or so seasons.

Chelsea are another example of how incentives can have a fundamental impact on a football club. Despite investing millions and being a dominant force in youth football, Chelsea have failed to see an academy graduate (barring the expensive Matic outlier) given an extended run in the first team since John Terry. The problem has been that a succession of managers have been so concerned about satisfying Roman Abramovich’s thirst for trophies that none has been able to risk the inevitable ups and downs that come with blooding young players.

In North London (yeah, take that, any Arsenal fans who read this), Spurs have been having some incentive problems of their own through the ENIC era. Specifically, the “buy-low, sell-high” business model that powered Spurs up from the middle of the Premier League pack to the “best of the rest” may have inadvertently created the incentives that prevented the club from taking the next step.

Think of that giddy time when Gareth Bale was beginning his metamorphosis, or Luka Modric was making Harry Redknapp’s team hum in central midfield, or Dimitar Berbatov was oozing class up front. There was always that fear we had as fans: “If he keeps playing this well, we’ll never be able to keep him.”

And this wasn’t mere pessimistic terrace talk — this was simply a statement of fact, given the financial model of the club at the time. This model created perverse incentives — success in player development and coaching could mean instability and the loss of key players, and what could be a step forward in fact turned into a step back. Little wonder, then, the club churned through a succession of managers.

The debacle that was the post-Bale reboot brought into full view the flaws of this strategy. The vision for how the club was supposed to be run hasn’t changed on a strategic level since Daniel Levy decided to move on from Harry Redknapp: an ambitious young manager committed to playing dynamic football and running the club in a modern, professional way.

Andre Villas-Boas, for all his personal shortcomings, was hamstrung by conflicting incentives and objectives: he had to sell his star player, yet somehow mould a collection of cheap replacements into a winning team without a sustained dip in performance. There were many reasons that AVB failed, but the incentives were never right.

I’m pretty sure that AVB was supposed to become what Mauricio Pochettino is now, but for Pochettino the incentives now are perfect.

He is charged with building a team that is greater than the sum of the parts, without the need to sell key players but accepting as a consequence that there are limited funds to acquire new ones. Instead of trying to compete with the moneybags clubs in the transfer market, Spurs are forced to do things in a different way, and are benefitting from doing so through squad unity and a vibrancy other clubs lack. Pochettino and the club have every incentive to develop young homegrown talent, especially since Harry Kane has shown how worthwhile it can be. Crucially, with no need to sell, there is no upper limit now on what can be achieved — when Pochettino talks about building the “project” and competing for titles, he means it, because that is the aim.

No doubt the club’s ability to resist cashing in on star players will be tested in years to come. But curiously, the new stadium, while hindering the ability to spend, creates a further incentive not to sell.

Spurs will be borrowing a lot of money to build the stadium, but the success of the investment ultimately rests on selling the 25,000 extra tickets each match and filling the lush new hospitality areas. This will be much easier with a successful and appealing team — as the ability of the club to sell out Wembley against three deeply uninspiring Champions League opponents this season attests. Spurs, therefore, have every incentive to keep Kane, Dele Alli and so on, no matter how easy Manchester United fans seem to think it will be to eventually tempt them away.

There are many reasons why I’m excited about Spurs at the moment, and there are many explanations about why the club is now moving forward even at a time it is increasingly financially disadvantaged compared to cash-rich rivals. This isn’t to take away credit from the remarkable job that Pochettino is doing, and the contrast with AVB is stark. Pochettino has immense sway at Hotspur Way now — a strong manager has the power to shape incentives.

A lot of things have to go right for a football club to succeed, but if the incentives aren’t right, change is just going round and round in a circle.

Think of the current team, if the old problem of selling star players reared its head again. Instead of building a single, ongoing project, Pochettino would be facing the challenge of replacing departing talent with cheaper, younger alternatives. You can’t defy footballing gravity forever, and Pochettino wouldn’t have the incentive to risk this damage to his reputation. Eventually he’d would walk away, reputation enhanced, like he did at Southampton (or, if he left it too late, leave sacked and heading back down the managerial pyramid, like most of his predecessors at Spurs).

There are many ways to describe the state of affairs at Spurs currently, but when we talk about stars aligning, virtuous circles, everyone pushing in the same direction or whatever expression it is (i’ve used a fair few…), key to it all is that the incentives are right.

Long may it continue.

And now, having written all that, I’m off to put a fiver on Trump to beat Clinton and West Brom to beat Spurs on Saturday.

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

Big but not ‘big, big’: The football media struggles to come to terms with Tottenham’s narrative-busting success

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Twenty minutes before Spurs took on Manchester City, Sky Sports aired an interview with Dele Alli, in which the young midfielder talked honestly about the ups and downs of the past year for club and country. Asked what his plan was for the next 12 months, Dele had no equivocation: “To win the league.”

Cutting back to the studio, the anchor invited Jamie Redknapp to offer his opinion on the player.

“He could become one of the best midfielders in the world,” Redknapp Jr said, pausing ever so slightly in that way he does, the flicker of calculation betraying his affected Proper Football Man brogue. “He could play for a big, big club. I know Tottenham fans won’t like to hear that, but a big, big club.”

Funnily enough, I didn’t like to hear that, especially not the tone in which it was said. The Redknapp family vendetta against Spurs has grown tiresome, and everyone bar the Redknapps themselves have moved on from it in the years since ‘Arry’s departure from White Hart Lane.

But the comments were an example of the awkward position the lazier sections of the footballing media find themselves in with regard to Spurs.

Last season, the prevailing narrative was to lump Spurs in as a fluke candidate alongside Leicester City, and when it needed spicing up, build Spurs up as the least convincing bad guy since Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies.

Before the 2016/17 campaign, just one of the BBC’s 33 (!) pundits tipped Spurs for the title — ex-Spurs player Chris Waddle. Jermaine Jenas was alone in tipping his former club for second, although in a bold and timely column before Sunday’s match, he threw his support behind Spurs to win it all.

Awkwardly, Spurs are confounding the expectation that’ll we’ll return to our rightful sixth place. Spurs are the only unbeaten team in the league after turning over Pep’s City comprehensively, and sit in second, a point behind City and a point ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal.

“If Liverpool are being touted as potential title winners after their fourth successive Premier League win at Swansea City on Saturday, then it is positively insulting to Tottenham not to elevate them to the same bracket after this pulsating performance,” wrote the BBC’s Phil McNulty, in the awkward manner of someone having his own quotes read back to him.

The king of football narrative, Henry Winter, summed up the dilemma even more acutely.

“The title race may be more open than anticipated,” he declared, as though the idea of Spurs winning the league this season was utterly unfathomable up until this point. “Tottenham are definitely in the race.”

Thanks, Henry. Do you need me to sign anything to make that legally binding?

If Jamie Redknapp wants to take shots at Spurs, fine. You expect it at this point. But in his post-match podcast, Gary Neville, a pundit at the complete opposite end of the spectrum in terms of quality of analysis and balance, made an almost identical point.

After heaping praise on Spurs, in particular the strides made by the two fullbacks, he turned his attention to the magnificent job that Mauricio Pochettino has done since taking over in 2014.

“This isn’t being disrespectful to Spurs,” Neville said. “He deserves one of the biggest jobs in the world. He’s giving the best dress rehearsal possible.”

It’s like pundits run out of superlatives with Spurs, and the only thing left to say is that everyone should leave.

For Neville, you know he means Barcelona and Real Madrid when he is talking about “the biggest jobs”, but deep down, you know he’s also thinking Manchester United when Jose Mourinho flames out. I can understand how, from his perspective as a pivotal figure in the Sir Alex Ferguson era of dominance, United will always be a step up from Spurs.

Sure, United have more money, a bigger stadium, a larger global fanbase and dozens more sponsors. But what Neville doesn’t understand, yet, is that this will forever be intertwined with Fergie himself and in all likelihood peaked with him. Whoever follows in his footsteps will, at best, extend United’s dominance a little longer, or come close to matching what Fergie achieved.

The opportunity at Spurs, with the world-class academy, the new stadium and a young, hungry team with a strong homegrown identity, is bigger than that offered by United for Pochettino and players like Dele Alli.

It’s not about continuing a dynasty, but instead building a whole new one. Neville only needed to turn his head to the right and look through the gap in the northeast corner of White Hart Lane to see the potential of Spurs.

There are no guarantees, of course. In the past five years, Manchester United have a net transfer spend of £393 million, compared to £5.5 million for Spurs (Manchester City have a net spend of £403 million). Yet Spurs have finished above United two of the last three seasons, we’re in the Champions League while United slog around in the Europa League periphery. We’ll finish above them again this year, you watch.

I was going to ask what it will take for Spurs to shake the footballing media out of its mental cul-de-sac, but I think the answer is obvious. It’s just to keep winning, first match after match, then title after title. Just like the only way to shake the “selling club” tag is to not sell pivotal players over a prolonged period (three years, evidently, is not enough).

Neville is getting closer to understanding what Spurs can be, as his brilliant Telegraph column from last year demonstrated (some of which he repeated in his podcast). The fact that, in the heat of the moment, he still finds himself reaching for his old preconceptions shows that old habits die hard.

But we’ll know Spurs have really made it when we see Jamie Redknapp, legs splayed, hair immaculately natural, tight suit shimmering under the Sky studio lights, declaring us a “big, big club”. Either that or hell will have frozen over.

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