Tag Archives: Daniel Levy

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.

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.

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

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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.

New stadium update: ‘More or less’ on time and budget, 500 White Hart Lane, the NFL gamble explained, and more

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Given the recent flurry of news and public comments, it is high time for another update on where things stand with the Spurs stadium project.

In recent weeks, the installation of dozens of giant “rakers” have started to finally give the structure that unique stadium shape, while along the High Road the stadium is starting to rise up high above the hoardings.

In this post, I’ll talk timelines, the NFL, training centres, housing and various other things. My last stadium update, from June, is here.

Timeline and costs

The regular board-to-board meetings between the club and the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust have proven useful in gaining insight into the state of the project.

Per the minutes of the last meeting, released on Friday, Daniel Levy confirmed that the project is “more or less” on time and budget.

Crews are working seven days a week, with the aim of being ready to move out in the summer and ensure that only one year away at Wembley is needed.

Cost-wise, “the financial model is in good shape”, Levy said, but he noted the impact of the weakened pound and 7-day work schedule. “All possible resources” were being put into construction to ensure deadlines were met, Levy said, a hint the project is currently at the higher end of its budget.

What does “all possible resources” mean, in practice, beyond extending the hours worked on site to the permitted maximum?

Earlier this month, industry website Building.co.uk published a story stating that Spurs had purchased the five cranes that are being used on the site, as they were unable to hire any when required. Obviously the increased cost of purchasing cranes, rather than waiting for rented cranes to come available, was something the club was prepared to bear in order to ensure deadlines were met.

Given the fact that crews are on site seven days a week, and are even working during matchdays when there are 32,000 fans in the vicinity, it is safe to assume the pace of work is at the absolute maximum, and there is little to no leeway for delay.

Less positive are “considerable” delays to the rebuilding of White Hart Lane station, as well as Haringey’s High Road West regeneration plan. I’m not immediately clear what impact this will have on the club and matchgoing fans when the new stadium opens. Presumably insufficient public transport capacity may require some alternative arrangements on matchdays to ensure safety, but I am speculating. I’d welcome any insight on this.

The NFL explained

Earlier this month, ESPN published the rarest of things: a Daniel Levy interview.

It was fascinating as finally, among other things, Levy’s rationale for building a stadium with NFL facilities was revealed.

Previously, I’ve had fun trying to divine what the rationale may be, but now we know — there is no clear commitment from the NFL, just a considered gamble from Spurs that ultimately, when the NFL is ready for a London franchise, the league will select New White Hart Lane as its home.

“If it ever got to a stage where the NFL decided it wanted to have a permanent team in London, this stadium could literally be, whatever the team was, it would be their stadium as opposed to an NFL team feeling they’re renting Tottenham’s stadium.

“We would welcome very much close cooperation with the NFL and a dedicated team. Obviously a decision is entirely theirs whether they do bring a team to the UK, and where it would be located is something that would be talked about. But yes, we would be very much welcome to that scenario.

“Clearly we wouldn’t both be putting all this into this stadium if there wasn’t the prospect of one day a team eventually coming to London. But there are certainly no guarantees that A) a team comes to London, and B) they have to use our stadium. I think we’re all putting the effort in in the hopes that they will do it.”

Of course, there may be more to the 10-year, two-game agreement that can be currently disclosed, but these comments are the clearest indication of the state of affairs so far.

As far as I have seen, there have been no new comments from senior NFL figures since my last piece on the subject of a permanent London franchise. New London mayor Sadiq Khan expressed support for the idea after a trip to the US, where his meetings included one with Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, widely seen as the most likely franchise to relocate.

However, Spurs are finding other ways to make themselves useful to the NFL.

In subsequent excerpts of the interview, Levy essentially pitched the club’s services in providing training facilities for the NFL should a team be relocated.

“The NFL, a number of times when they’ve come to the UK, has used our training facility and, when a foreign organisation goes to another territory, I think being in partnership with a local operator brings enormous benefits.

“We’re going into this, hopefully the intention is our relationship will expand over time and we’re working very closely together. But I think in terms of training facilities and things like that, we have discussed that with the NFL, but again that’s something for the NFL to decide upon.”

The training facility of a London NFL team will be one of the knottiest issues for the NFL. It’s not like in most US cities where facilities can be thrown up very quickly — in London, it takes years to acquire land and gain consent. Spurs have a huge training facility, and there may be ways of reconfiguring what is there for NFL use, or even expanding slightly such has been done with the new player accommodation. See this thread for more details:

Spurs have a chance to make themselves very useful to the NFL here, and are smart to exploit this angle. It should be noted, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell visited the facility last autumn so will know just how impressive it is.

One final thought: this was a great interview, and Daniel Levy should do more.

I’m not saying he should take to tweeting like an idiot or start Kardashianizing himself like Jose Mourinho, but rather in a targeted way, get out there a little bit.

Raising the profile of the club now may have benefits in the search for stadium sponsors. So go and have “Lunch with the FT”, talk to AdWeek, get Gary Lineker around for some multi-channel PR schmoozefest as he does so effectively with his Goal Hanger productions.

The football media narrative is stuck on Jose, Jose and more Jose, with an occasional bout of Klopp-itis or Pep-worship. Mauricio Pochettino, when he’s not going rogue and comparing academy prospects to Lionel Messi, is circumspect in his dealings with the media and his English is still limited in terms of expressing himself fully.

There’s a great story to tell about Spurs at the moment, and it’s not really being told, in my opinion.

The club is producing more homegrown talent than anyone and is the major contributor of English players to the national team. It is building a world-class stadium without any assistance from the taxpayer. In general terms, the club is punching wildly above its weight in on-field performance, as the recent Manchester United financial statement highlighted.

If ever there was a time to talk about Spurs, it’s now.

Pictures — then and now

Construction is advancing rapidly, but what is it going to look like come the final farewell to old White Hart Lane in May next year?

I first saw this picture posted by @HotspurSam, and it is well worth showing again. It’s just an impression, but you can see how progress will need to be seriously rapid over the next seven to eight months. The picture in the top-right corner is the most eye-grabbing — that’s what we should see in May.

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As I’ve said previously, it is going to look absolutely bizarre.

On the subject of progress, here are a couple of photos. The first is from June 2015, and the second is the latest aerial shot from the club (with blue lines and tint, but you get the picture).

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Pretty cool, huh?

The other White Hart Lane development

On September 12, Spurs received approval for its 500 White Hart Lane development, subject to a Section 106 agreement.

The industrial site was bought for the relocation of Archway Sheet Metal, but they did not take up the offer and ultimately moved elsewhere. The club then marketed the site to other occupants, unsuccessfully, before deciding to turn it into housing. It is a major project, with 144 residential units and (some) retail space.

The vote by the Haringey planning sub-committee was a close one — a motion to reject the proposal was lost by five votes to six, and then the project was approved by six votes to four with one abstention. There was noisy opposition to the project, per video of the event.

This is an interesting project in so much as Spurs are doing it at all. After Archway opted against taking the site, the easiest thing to do would have been to sell it on (no doubt at a nice profit given ever-rising land values in London). But, clearly, Spurs have a taste for property development and opted for the more ambitious option.

What Spurs do with 500 White Hart Lane — develop it themselves, or sell on a consented scheme to another developer — may offer hints for what will happen to the final stage of the stadium project.

Once the stadium itself is completed in (hopefully) the summer of 2018, attention will turn to the “Southern Development Land”. This in itself is a huge development, including a 180-room hotel, 585 housing units and other facilities.

While the stadium itself will cost around £500 million, this final phase will take the bill for the project to the £675m-£750 million figure. It is a huge challenge, and the general assumption is that Spurs will ultimately sell this off as a consented scheme and allow someone else to take the risk on it. It may not be that easy, though, as the scheme has a low “internal rate of return” — a measure of the appeal of a potential development to investors.

Either way, it’s one to keep an eye on — the focus at the club now will be firmly on getting the stadium done on time.

Until a decision is made, I am going to keep using the £675m-£750 million figure for the project. Ultimately, the hotel and housing has to be built, and currently the obligation to do so lies with the club.

And finally

I’ve written a couple of pieces recently related to the stadium — this one on naming rights, and this one on the challenge of balancing spending between the stadium and the team.

Do have a read if you’ve not already done so — they are detailed pieces, and should be of interest to those following this project.

Meanwhile, over at Chelsea, the club is now in a second period of public consultation due to changes to its plan to redevelop Stamford Bridge.

There’s a Twitter thread here with various links.

I wrote in May that this second consultation would be required — so I’m pleased that what I reported proved to be accurate.

However, from my initial reading of Chelsea’s changes, I’m not entirely clear how the concerns raised by Network Rail about safety and access to the railway that will run under the West Stand have been assuaged.

Any journalists or bloggers interested in a story could do far worse than give Network Rail a call — this stadium simply won’t be built until they sign off, and they were far from happy with the initial plans. My blogging time is limited now so I can’t follow this project as closely as I have done previously.

Thanks for reading, please follow me on Twitter for more stadium chat. Comments welcome, in particular on issues concerning delays to public infrastructure and the plans for the Southern Development Land.

The balancing act: Can Spurs find a way to remain competitive through the stadium construction phase?

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If it didn’t already feel real, the sight of the new stadium starting to rise up from the ground illustrates that a new era is finally dawning on Spurs. The next five years promise to be one of the most exciting, and most risky, periods in the club’s history.

Spurs are borrowing at least £350 million from banks, plus securitising future commercial and matchday revenues, in order to fund the stadium project and associated development.

The debt load will surpass what Arsenal took on to build the Emirates a decade ago, and will only be topped by Manchester United, who last year paid around £35 million in financing and £15 million in dividend payments for the privilege of being owned by the Glazer family.

Having spent a decade wading through the planning process and acquiring the land, now the club has the challenge of delivering a 61,000-seater stadium in a densely populated part of London on a tight timeframe, and to budget.

Things appear to be on track at this early stage, but an extraordinarily challenging few years await. The reward is clear though — New White Hart Lane promises to be a world-class stadium, and a true sporting cathedral that is everything the dreary Olympic Stadium will never be.

I have previously written about the stadium financing issue in great detail. In this post, I am going to take a look at the broader state of the club’s finances, and the challenges that lie ahead through the stadium construction phase.

Moving away from pragmatic player trading

A look through the recent financial history of Spurs reveals a number of distinct eras, layered on top of each other like sedimentary rock.

From 2001 to 2007, you have the “Early ENIC” years, in which Daniel Levy inherited the mess from Alan Sugar and piled on more mess as he tried to get to grips with the intricacies of Premier League chairmanship.

From around 2007, the “Wheeler Dealer” era truly began. This was a period of frenzied transfer activity that gradually pushed Spurs from mid-table to the fringes of Champions League contention, but without any sense of stability or sustainability beyond the confidence that more bargains would be found, and more mega fees extracted. This era came to a shuddering halt with the failure of the Bale money splurge, and the realisation that Spurs were never going to be able to compete with the moneybags elite when needing to sell as well as buy.

Since 2014, a new era has emerged, with a more prudent approach to player trading and a greater focus on cost controls. How much this is connected to the stadium funding, or the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, is unclear. Certainly, you suspect Andre Villas-Boas was supposed to be ambitious young manager to lead Spurs through the tricky stadium construction phase, but there was a problem with a beanie hat and not everything works out.

Pochettino has made a virtue out of having a young, hungry and therefore relatively cheap squad, and the narrow band into which most of the player salaries reportedly fall is seen as a contributing factor to squad unity. Likewise, the club has had the incentive to ensure its accounts are glistening as it struck agreements on financing — a little money saved now could mean a lower rate of interest on the £350 million stadium loan.

Tottenham has been a consistently profitable club in the past decade, but has been reliant on player trading (profit on disposal of intangible assets, as it is known) to achieve this, as the following chart shows:

ProfitandTrading

In the past decade, the club is £152 million in profit. However, in that time, accounting profit on player trading is £295 million — without player trading, the club would have theoretically lost £143 million. Of course it’s not nearly that simple, but it illustrates the degree that Spurs have needed to sell in order to buy.

When Levy referred to “pragmatic player trading” in the club’s rather panicky statement to reassure disgruntled fans in September 2015, it didn’t sound right to me due to the suggestion of a continuation of the “buy low, sell high” era that had already started to pass. “Prudent player trading” would have been a better phrase — no need to sell players the manager wants to keep, but limits on what can be spent and a more cautious approach to acquisitions.

What the stadium financing phase needs is as great a degree of stability as is possible in the anarchic environment of Premier League football. Player trading is the biggest uncertainty of them all in football’s financial landscape. Now that Pochettino has cleared out the flotsam inherited from the Franco Baldini era, fans can expect the “churn” to reduce in transfer windows to come.

Cost controls in action

If you read any analysis of THFC finances from recent years, you’ll see some variant on the following phrase: “Daniel Levy runs a tight ship”.

There are many stories of these cost controls in action — my personal favourite was Mido being told to run across the tarmac to ensure he got a seat with extra legroom on a budget airline flight to London after being bought from Roma.

For a couple of months a year, this gets frustrating. The club’s approach to transfers is akin to dental surgery — deals are done painfully and slowly. Contract negotiations seem to drag on endlessly, key targets are missed, players leaving the club are left in limbo while the market is scoured for someone desperate enough to pay the premium.

Part of this, undoubtedly, is personality driven, and there appears a genuine relish in tough negotiations and brinkmanship. But part of this is necessity — with matchday revenues at their limit, and the club unable for various reasons to match the commercial growth of the richer clubs, it has become increasingly important to find value in the transfer market and control player costs with the stadium financing ahead.

I want to illustrate “where the money goes” at Spurs, and demonstrate what these cost controls actually look like.
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I’ve gathered data from the past 10 years for revenue and the two major outgoings, namely wages and transfer spend.

(For transfer spend I will use the figure for amortisation. Amortisation is an accounting method whereby the cost of buying players is spread over the lengths of their contracts. There’s an explanation at the bottom of this piece, but essentially amortisation is an annual figure that shows how much the club is actually spending on transfers. The advantage of this is that, while most transfer fees are undisclosed, the amortisation figure is listed in the accounts.)

Here is a chart:

RevWageandAmort

This gives you a picture of how revenue and wages are rising, but transfer spending has actually been quite flat.

However, if you combine wages and amortisation, something interesting happens:

RevWplusA

As you can see, wages plus amortisation tracks revenue remarkably closely from 2007-2014, to the point that it is almost a mirror. It is only in 2010 (financial year) when the gap becomes close. You can see the balance-sheet management in play to ensure spending remained at the desired level.

Why am I so confidently proclaiming a new financial era? Look at 2014. For the first time, revenue starts to diverge, and there is every indication that the divergence will grow starker over the next two financial years.

In the next accounts, the following senior players will come off the books, or be added:

OUT: Paulinho, Holtby, Capoue, Kaboul, Stambouli, Chirches, Soldado, Lennon, Adebayor.

IN: Wimmer, Trippier, N’Jie, Alderweireld, Son,

While there have also been a number of new contracts, and there are hints some of Adebayor’s contract pay-off may have been factored into the 2015 accounts, in all likelihood the wage bill is going to be level or even lower in the 2016 accounts. Meanwhile, the strong league performance means TV money will increase. In the 2017 accounts, we’ll have both the new Premier League TV deal kicking in, and Champions League revenue, to counterbalance a series of new contracts and the signings made in the past window.

My prediction is that revenue and first-team spending will continue to diverge in the next two years. This puts Spurs in opposition to most other Premier League clubs, which are frantically offloading the new TV money on transfer fees and wages as fast as it is pouring in.

As it stands, here are the combined wages and amortisation for the four clubs arguably “closest” to Spurs financially (United are on a different planet, and Chelsea and City are billionaire playthings, so a comparison isn’t worthwhile):

Arsenal — £244.1m
Liverpool — £227m
Tottenham — £139.4m
Everton — £97m
West Ham — £94.3m

In previous years, Spurs have been all alone in “sixth” place in spending on wages (among several other indicators of club “size”) — we will start to see other clubs narrowing the gap. Some may interpret this as a lack of ambition, but ultimately Spurs have a £750 million stadium scheme to fund, which seems pretty ambitious to me.

The growing gap between revenue and first-team spending means more funds that can be rolled into the stadium project. Spurs appear to be positioning themselves to absorb the spike in financing costs that is to come.

In short, since 2014 Spurs have been shifting to a more sustainable model that relies less on big transfer fees to balance the books. The emergence of home-grown stars like Harry Kane, smart acquisitions like Dele Alli and Eric Dier, and the strong management of Mauricio Pochettino have turbocharged this shift. Sometimes you need a bit of luck.

Learning from Arsenal

Over the next five years, the period of peak financing, Spurs need to strike a balance between funding stadium construction, and remaining competitive on the pitch.

Over the next two seasons in particular, the financial benefits Spurs can accrue from being competitive (Champions League money, greater share of British TV money, improved receipts from Wembley), relative to the amount of money that can be saved, justify continued investment in the playing squad. A competitive and appealing Spurs team will greatly help the club sell the increased number of tickets and long-term hospitality packages that is the rationale underpinning the whole project.

Levy has repeatedly stated that there is no need to sell players to fund the stadium, including at the last board-to-board meeting with the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust. This isn’t just a statement of confidence in the funding package for the stadium, but also recognition of the need to ensure Spurs field a strong team on opening day of the 2018/19 season.

However, there is a difference between not needing to sell players, and having limits on what can be spent to secure new ones. The extent to which Spurs can compete for new players over the next five years will depend on how much Spurs will have to spend to finance construction. Spurs will be taking on huge debt — at least £350 million — but the key will be controlling the amount that is spent each year on interest payments and repayment of principal.

(Why do I keep saying five years? As previously reported, the £350 million loan will be a five-year loan, which will then be refinanced — per the Viability Report for the project submitted during the planning process. Until I hear otherwise, I will assume the basic funding plan is the same.)

As the only other club to have built and financed a comparable project, the best example for what lies ahead is Arsenal. I don’t want to go into too much detail as the comparison isn’t perfect, but there are a few points worth making.

Arsenal, notoriously, felt the squeeze during construction, creating a need for parsimony that some fans argue Arsene Wenger has never really shaken off. Spurs have the great advantage of learning from Arsenal’s experience. From my understanding of what I have read, Arsenal ploughed ahead without all the required funding in place, which made it more expensive and at one stage forced construction to stop. Spurs can’t afford such a delay given the tight time schedule imposed by the need to play away from White Hart Lane.

I’ve attempted to gather data for the finance costs paid out by Arsenal, to demonstrate, not so much the amounts, as the “profile” — how finance costs will peak and then reduce and flatten to a tidy annual sum. This is extremely hard — Arsenal have refinanced their debt load on several occasions, making it hard to track. The chart below gives the club’s stated figures for interest charges in the period, and debt payments due in the coming year (repayment of principal).

Arsenal raised debt for both the Ashburton Grove stadium project, and the redevelopment of Highbury — likewise, Spurs will be funding property development (on the “southern development land” on the stadium site and at 500 White Hart Lane) as well as stadium construction. I can’t be sure all the debt payments relate to stadium/property development, so take the figures with a pinch of salt. But, it is a consistent measure.

Arsenal Emirates Financing

The 2007 figure isn’t right, as I can’t find the “repayment of principal” number due to refinancing, frustratingly. But for the first four years, you can see how total financing costs were between £35m and £45m — quite a burden. From 2008, things levelled out, and Arsenal continues to spend around £19m a year on its Emirates “mortgage”.

Spurs can expect a similar profile to this. For five years, repayments and interest will be high, but then the bank loan will be refinanced into a long-term debt package at a lower rate of interest. Arsenal’s debt is split about 80-20 between fixed-rate and floating-rate bonds, at 5.8 percent and 6.6 percent interest respectively. More than any aspect of this whole project, I expect Daniel Levy to get the best possible terms on this sort of financial jiggery-pokery — he has years of experience.

We won’t know how much Spurs are spending on financing costs (I could ask, but I will get a polite note stating the commercial sensitivity of the topic, I guarantee) until the accounts covering the financing period are published — we’ll have to wait for the 2016 accounts, published in April/May of 2017. Any attempt to put a figure on it on my part would be conjecture. But it will be substantial.

One final point of comparison with Arsenal is the shift in the broader financial environment of a Premier League football club in the past decade. Here are the comparative revenues of Arsenal at the peak of Emirates financing, and Spurs last year:

ArsSpurRev

As you can see, Tottenham’s revenue is nearly £60 million higher, due to more commercial income and TV money (and that number will spike in future accounts with the new TV deal).

On the one hand, Spurs are taking on a bigger finance package — £350m versus £260m. On the other hand, Spurs are doing it from a stronger financial position — £196m revenue versus £137m.

The ability of Spurs to control financing costs and maximise revenues during the construction phase will ultimately determine the amount that is ringfenced to be spent on transfers and wages.

Capital expenditure

What shouldn’t be forgotten amid the talk of the massive new financial burden is that, for years now, Spurs have been investing heavily in both the stadium project and the training centre.

In the meeting with the THST in May this year, Daniel Levy stated that £150 million had been invested in the stadium project to date. Per the last accounts, the “cumulative” spend on the stadium (professional fees and “enabling works”) was stated to be £59 million, up from £40.9 million in the previous year. On top of that £59 million are property acquisitions, professional fees/other costs for the previous design that will have been written off, and construction costs in the six-week period between when Spurs gained the final green light and the board-to-board meeting.

As for the training centre, upon opening, it was capitalised at £27.5 million — in line with the £30 million price tag that is generally put about for the wonderful facility.

This £177.5 million capital expenditure has taken place over the past nine financial years (prior to 07/08 there was none). The average spend is about £20m per year, although of course it is far from a straight line. This investment has been funded by a combination of equity contributions, bank loans and club profits.

As an aside, I was curious to see how much money has been put in by ENIC to fund this sort of expenditure in the past decade, and how much has come from loans/profits.

This stuff gets hard to track as the club accounts are pretty complex. But from what I can make of it, in 2014 there was a £40m injection, while in 2010 there was a £15m injection plus a further £18.4m “investment in group companies”. This refers to the many subsidiaries that are mostly focused on property, so it would be reasonable to suggest this was for property purchases.

From my chats with people who know about this stuff (OK, that’ll be @ztranche), this equity contribution has been in the form of loans converted into preference shares.

The combined equity contribution is £73.4m, meaning the rest — £104 million or so — has been funded by loans and from profits. This is equity contribution is fairly modest, given the size of Joe Lewis’s Tavistock Group portfolio and the way the value of the club is going to soar once the stadium is complete. I’d compare this level of investment to adding a conservatory to your house to increase the value, rather than being a sugar daddy and sticking a helipad on the roof. But the money was found, and the investment now will help the club in years to come (and help “Uncle Joe” cash in, if and when he sells).

Overall, while not on the level of the stadium financing costs once the £350m loan kicks in, this £177.5m is not an inconsiderable amount of capital investment in the period. It will have given Spurs experience in managing its balance sheet to ensure not all the TV money is pissed away on agents and transfer fees. There is an adjustment coming, but won’t be like Spurs are accelerating from 0 to 60mph — we’ve already been cruising along at 30mph for a while now.

Final thought

The next five years is about finding the right balance between funding the stadium and funding a competitive team. It’ll be hugely challenging, and even if Spurs get it “right”, events out of the club’s control — luck, relative performance of others, macroeconomy, you name it — may mean it looks like the club got it “wrong”.

Underinvestment in the playing squad could have a negative impact on the viability of the stadium project, just as overinvestment could. It is safe to assume Spurs will be on the cautious side of this spectrum — the unofficial target of a 45 percent wages-turnover ratio hints as much.

But, building a new stadium doesn’t mean the club must put away the chequebook for a few years — in fact, the club must not. A drift back towards mid-table would be counterproductive in terms of both lost revenues, and the potential loss of Champions League calibre players that would harm the effort to sell tickets and hospitality packages in the new stadium when it opens.

I don’t want to see the club hide behind the stadium project as an excuse for not sufficiently strengthening the playing squad. The fact that Spurs were prepared to overpay on deadline day to secure a player like Moussa Sissoko shows the money is there, and the club is prepared to spend it. Likewise, continued investment in Hotspur Way through the construction of player accommodation shows the bigger picture isn’t being ignored, and the club is not being stretched beyond its limits by the stadium scheme.

The data I have gathered shows, in my opinion, that Spurs are well positioned for the huge leap that is now being taken. Years of pragmatism in the transfer market, and stringent cost controls, mean Spurs are as well prepared as they could be for the jump in stadium-related spending that is coming.

The spike in Premier League money, improvements in performance under Mauricio Pochettino and emergence of a clutch of homegrown talents are perfectly timed and give Spurs a little more leeway, arguably, than Arsenal had when building the Emirates. Of course, the Premier League TV deal has an inflationary impact on transfers and wages, which makes finding value harder.

Investing big bucks during boom years on capital projects such as training centres and stadium upgrades is exactly what a football club should be doing from a business perspective. Personally, I am very happy with what is being attempted and fully supportive. Some readers will disagree — that is your right.

For Daniel Levy, the new stadium is his vision and the defining project of his chairmanship. He has skin in the game — as the owner of a significant portion of the club, his net worth will soar if the stadium project is completed successfully.

The incentives for him to get things right are clear. But finding the right balance will be hugely challenging, and involve much guesswork. It’s going to get interesting, folks.

Thanks for reading, please follow me on Twitter for more chat. I welcome comments and criticism (preferably constructive) — I’m not an accountant or economist, so there are bound to be areas where my analysis falls short.

Tottenham’s most expensive signing, relative to revenue

“Has English football gone mad?”

With Manchester United set to smash through the £100 million barrier with their deal to bring back Paul Pogba, and Manchester City considering spending £50 million on a relatively unproven John Stones, the sentiment is frequently expressed by journalists and fans.

No doubt, similar questions about the game’s financial sanity were asked 20 years ago when Newcastle spent £15 million to bring favourite son Alan Shearer back to the northeast from Blackburn.

Of all the transfer deals I can remember, it was the Shearer one that stood out and made me think: How much?!?

It seemed an incredible amount of money for Newcastle to spend on a single player in 1996. By contrast, huge fees paid by Real Madrid, for example for Gareth Bale, have always seemed more understandable given the vast wealth and global reach of the Spanish club.

This got me wondering, how expensive was Shearer for Newcastle at the time? Adjusted for inflation, £15 million would now be £25.4 million. But more, my question was how big a deal was Shearer for Newcastle at the time, compared to its total revenue as a football club back in the very early days of the TV boom?

For the 1996/97 season, Newcastle’s revenue, according to club accounts filed with Companies House, was £28.97 million. The deal for Shearer, at £15 million, was equivalent to 51.77 percent of the club’s total revenue.

Newcastle’s total revenue, according to the last accounts, now stand at £128.8 million. If you fired up the time machine and did the same deal today, Newcastle would be spending £66.8 million on Alan Shearer.

As Newcastle fans will be painfully aware, Mike Ashley is more likely to offer his Sports Direct slaves permanent contracts than spend that much on a footballer.

Using the same 51.77 percent figure, this would be equivalent of Manchester United spending £204 million on Pogba, or Manchester City spending £182 million on Stones.

For Spurs, it would be the equivalent of spending £101.5 million on a player. Can you imagine Daniel Levy sanctioning that?

This in turn got me wondering, who is Tottenham’s Shearer? While Erik Lamela is the club’s record signing, at £30 million (£25.8m plus clauses), who was the most expensive Spurs player, relative to the club’s revenue at the time?

I dug out some data* and created the following chart.

TransferRevenueHistory

As you can see, the most expensive, at the time, and by quite some margin, was Sergei Rebrov. His £11 million move from Dinamo Kiev was equivalent to nearly 23 percent of the club’s annual revenue that year.

Rebrov is followed by Les Ferdinand (19.4 percent) and Chris Armstrong (18 percent). In fourth is Lamela.

When I first thought about this, my guess was Darren Bent, but his transfer was funded by one of the biggest jumps in revenue (with a new TV deal kicking in), so he is only in fifth place on the all-time list. I daresay Sandra Redknapp would have been higher.

Of course, this is just a snapshot and not to be taken too seriously. As a club that has been run for a profit, rather than as a plaything, what Spurs spend is a reflection of what has been received.

But nonetheless, as a snapshot, it is an interesting one. Some of those names — Fazio, Bentley, Reid, Vega and Rebrov himself — are a reminder of what a massive crapshoot the transfer market is. Which is why spending an amount equivalent to 51.77 percent of your revenue is a crazy idea, and one unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

English football may well have gone mad, but it went mad a long time ago. If anything it has become a little more sane, but as the numbers get bigger, it just doesn’t seem that way.

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

*Revenue data from Companies House. Transfer data from @ztranche

The Pochettino Revolution: How Tottenham were transformed from also-rans to title contenders

By Charles Richards/@spurs_report

Poch_cover

Sky Sports, via Google Images

As a Spurs fan, you can pick your nadir.

Maybe it was Lasagne-gate, or the night when Chelsea snatched our hard-earned Champions League spot in 2012. Perhaps it was the sight of Arsenal celebrating the league title on the pitch at White Hart Lane, Sol Campbell among them. For some the pain predates the Premier League era, while for others each new misstep supersedes the last and it is the final-day faceplant against Newcastle in May that stings more than anything.

For me, rock bottom came on March 8, 2014:

Chelsea 4 Tottenham 0.

I had some things going on in my life at that time, and more than ever before or since, I needed my team. I needed that temporary uplift, that two hours of escape, that feeling of togetherness that a good Spurs performance brings. Instead, I witnessed one of the most abysmal displays in recent memory.

The BBC summed up the shambles in its match report:

“Spurs fell behind to Eto’o’s 56th-minute strike, which came after Jan Vertonghen’s slip and aimless pass, before more mistakes – from Sandro and Kyle Walker – led to Chelsea’s third and fourth goals at the death. Chelsea’s second came from Hazard’s penalty after Younes Kaboul fouled Eto’o, a challenge that also saw the French defender sent off.”

That Tim Sherwood, parachuted into his first managerial role mid-campaign, was out of his depth tactically was already clear. But as he appeared before the TV cameras and lambasted the players, it was becoming evident that he wasn’t psychologically suited to the task either. It wasn’t what he said — the performance was gutless, the squad did have players who didn’t care — but rather the way that he said it. As he lost control, he lashed out; his attitude appeared to be, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me.” There was a real risk that his interim appointment could cause lasting damage, and the few positive legacies from the lean preceding years, such as Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen, would seek a departure as the club stumbled blindly into the next false dawn.

Spurs as a club wasn’t just fractured, it was broken. Daniel Levy’s schizophrenic switching between “continental” and “English” strategies had gone into overdrive, bordering on parody, with the transition from the “Emperor’s New Clothes” vacuity of Andre Villas-Boas and Franco Baldini to the cartoonish footballing provincialism of Sherwood.

When Levy, rebuffed by Louis van Gaal, turned to Mauricio Pochettino in May of 2014, this was an appointment that simply had to work. The club’s “best of the rest” status, that ambition of Champions League football that could be sold to potential recruits even if it wasn’t quite achieved, was threatened as Spurs drifted back towards the mid-table pack. The stadium project was stalled, while the new training ground was an expensive new facility that no-one appeared to know how to make the most out of, like an iPad only used for playing Angry Birds.

I don’t think, in hindsight, we can overestimate the scale of the job that faced Pochettino when he first joined. Aged 42 and with little more than five years of managerial experience, he became the 10th Spurs manager in 12 years on the strength of a hugely impressive, if low-pressure, spell at Southampton.

Two years on, Spurs are back in the Champions League, playing vibrant football, and have a young and united squad with a strong homegrown core. The success appears sustainable, and I can’t recall ever feeling that the future was so bright. Only the most attention-seeking of contrarians will argue that Pochettino hasn’t succeeded in every respect.

Which begs the question, how on earth has Pochettino prospered where so many of his predecessors have failed?

Heading into the Argentine’s third season in charge of Tottenham, now is the perfect time to look back at what Pochettino has achieved, and the work that still needs to be done.

 

The Kaboul Cabal and a dressing room revolt

Poch1_angry

For the first 11 league games of Pochettino’s tenure, it had all the hallmarks of another trademark Tottenham false dawn.

Eric Dier’s late winner against West Ham and a thrashing of QPR raised expectations, only for a crushing defeat by Liverpool to send Spurs back down to earth. A point at the Emirates was fine, another inept thrashing at the Etihad a sign that nothing had really changed.

The real problems occurred once the Europa League campaign kicked in, and those early Sunday kick-offs at White Hart Lane, fans and players equally unenthusiastic, returned. First was a narrow defeat to West Brom, which happens, then a farcical defeat to Newcastle in which Alan Pardew’s side scored seven seconds into the second half, which really shouldn’t. When Stoke went 2-0 up within 33 minutes on November 9, with Spurs devoid of ideas and any clue how to defend, for the first time the atmosphere turned mutinous.

There’s a story, which I heard from THST Co-Chair Martin Cloake on The Tottenham Way podcast, about the Spurs dressing room after the Stoke match. Returning down the tunnel, the boos ringing out after a 2-1 home defeat, it was business as usual for the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor. At this point, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason stood up and took control, informing the dressing room that this wasn’t acceptable. There was a rebellion, and Pochettino needed to decide who to back.

This match would prove to be a watershed, above all in Pochettino’s understanding of his squad’s willingness and ability to carry out his instructions. Adebayor, who didn’t care, was cast aside, as were the likes of Kaboul and Etienne Capoue, after being deemed inadequate technically and tactically. The “Kaboul Cabal” was born — even if the term was harsh on Kaboul himself, a committed player for whom injury rather than attitude had been the (primary) downfall.

Others would find themselves pushed to the sidelines. Aaron Lennon, the club’s longest serving player, was a walking, talking (and rarely playing) version of the “needs a new challenge” cliche. By February he’d be at Everton on loan. Paulinho continued to appear, occasionally and never effectively, while Roberto Soldado’s crisis of confidence deepened. New signings like Federico Fazio and Benji Stambouli were evidently sub-standard. In their place, the young guns led by Kane, starting to embark on his rise to national prominence, would be given their chance.

In hindsight, Pochettino’s biggest achievement at Spurs may have been surviving his first season. He inherited an unmotivated, fractious and poorly assembled squad, but one that was expensive enough to raise expectations. Ditching the “Kaboul Cabal” was the right move, as was turning to the likes of Kane, Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. But there was also an element of luck that these players were able to step up. Was it good management, or just good fortune?

This “lucky vs good” question would be an issue through the 2014/15 season. All those late Eriksen or Kane winners that kept the campaign afloat — was that the mark of enhanced fitness stemming from superior training methods, or just the rub of the green? The Pochettino pressing game wasn’t just poorly executed, it was positively dangerous, with Spurs shipping 53 goals. Southampton conceded just 33, yet we finished fifth while they finished 7th.

If the dismal Stoke defeat was one milepost, another would come on New Year’s Day against Chelsea. For the first time, Spurs fans witnessed the sort of performance that we’d allowed ourselves to dream about in the most optimistic moments when Pochettino was appointed. A young Spurs side descending on Chelsea’s league leaders like a pack of wolves, ripping them apart and scoring five.

For many fans, this was seen as a turning point, the moment when the Pochettino project found its feet and the club kicked into the next gear. But perception is a funny thing, especially when it comes to gauging success. Even though we all felt that performances were finally improving, and revelled in the thought that a brighter future was starting to take shape, actually results didn’t really improve much. In the 19 games before we played Chelsea, we averaged 1.63 points per game, in the 18 games after we averaged 1.66. The reality was Spurs were playing a bit better, had one or two excellent performances (notably against Arsenal), but were still a flawed unit with huge holes in the squad (and in the defence).

Ultimately, Pochettino did enough in his first season. Spurs got enough points, there was enough hope about the future, enough signs that his methods were working, enough understanding that a lot of the failures could be laid at Baldini or Levy’s doors. But going into 2015/16 there were precious few hints of what was going to come.

“I hear people say stuff about Tottenham and I don’t like it”

Poch_Dier

After a familiar slow start to Pochettino’s second campaign in charge, and a frustrating summer where key areas of the squad (central midfield and striker) were not strengthened, it soon became clear that something was happening at Spurs.

It wasn’t like the previous season, where, rightly or not, the 5-3 win over Chelsea could be seen as a visible turning point. Instead, after there was a steady drip of events, information, quotes and social media buzz that pointed to a more positive dynamic emerging.

After losing narrowly at Old Trafford, Spurs were unbeaten for the next fourteen games. The defence was miserly, and for the first time in years we had a proper central defensive partnership in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. In front of them, Eric Dier was starting to demonstrate that he was much more than a centre-back slotted into midfield due to a shortage of options. Dele Alli was proving that the impish nutmeg of Luka Modric in pre-season really was the precursor to greater success that we’d hoped for. Even Erik Lamela, so lost in his first two years and nearly shipped out on loan to Marseille, was starting to get it. Harry Kane, after a slow start, rediscovered his shooting boots.

Above all, the penny had appeared to drop about the type of play Pochettino wanted. The pressing was notably better, the way the centre backs split and the fullbacks zoomed forward was smoother than a Swiss watch, while Dele Alli’s ability to get beyond defences unlocked space for Eriksen and Kane. The passing became crisper, the ball and players fizzing around menacingly.

After his first season, Pochettino diagnosed two primary problems with the squad he inherited. First, there were the players who weren’t up to it, for a variety of reasons; second, the squad was simply too big. It was counterintuitive, given how widely accepted has become the Mourinho doctrine of two quality players in each position, and how Spurs have struggled with Europa League demands in the past. But Pochettino wanted a more united and cohesive squad, and placed faith in the quality of his fitness work and injury prevention record to withstand the rigours of the schedule.

“Character” is a tainted word in football, thanks to the Proper Football Men’s overuse of the word to describe a myriad of situations and problems. But anyone who has followed Spurs in the past two years will agree that a greater emphasis has been placed on identifying the “right” sort of player. Call it character, mentality, psychology, attitude or personality, the dressing room at Spurs hasn’t come together by accident. Pochettino and has staff have created an atmosphere of hard work and common purpose, and on the recruitment side, more attention has been paid to finding players who buy into this.

There were softer touches too. The club invested in improved social media over the summer of 2015, bringing in The Times journalist Henry Winter to advise players on how to communicate. Unlike other clubs, the players were always on message, but nonetheless it felt natural and not contrived PR fluff. The Dier-Alli bromance blossomed, photos of the squad eating together were shared, a mid-season trip to Barcelona was a roaring success, and created an impression of harmony. Even Pochettino and his staff got in on the act, larking about on a jog around Baku before the match against FC Qarabag, brightening what could have been a long and boring trip. The players genuinely seem to get along, and be happy at Spurs.

In previous years, the leaks out of Hotspur Way were negative, the internal politics spilling out into the open and undermining the attempts at unity from whichever manager happened to be in charge at the time. Gone were the stories about strikers falling out with managers over beanie hats and and transfer blame games, now it was all positive — little vignettes such as the players all joining in board games, shooting competitions after training, the tough fitness work seen as a badge of honour, not a cause for complaint.

This shift in mentality, the new toughness and determination emanating from the camp, was summed up by Eric Dier after Spurs thumped Man City at White Hart Lane:

“I don’t think we get the credit we deserve. We are an extremely young squad. I hear people saying stuff about Tottenham and I don’t like it. I don’t think the other boys like it either.”

I hate it, but the term “Spursy” was coined for a reason — too many sloppy goals, weak performances, decades of prioritizing style over substance. “Spursy” became a catch-all term to explain how it felt for success — however you cared to define it — always being just out of reach. We were Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football, and maybe, just maybe, things were starting to change.

Gary Neville, before embarking on an annus horribilis that would see his reputation in tatters, declared Pochettino his favourite manager in the league. “There is not one negative word I could use,” Neville said of the Argentine’s work. “There is nothing I dislike.”

A lot has gone right at Spurs in the last two years. Recruitment has improved with the arrival of Paul Mitchell and Rob MacKenzie, the return of Ian Broomfield and (unofficially) David Pleat, and much-needed investment in the scouting network. Assistant manager Jesus Perez is a sports scientist, and the standard of physical training (and injury prevention) has improved remarkably. A pathway for youngsters fostered by academy guru John McDermott has been established.

Perhaps most important is the relationship between Pochettino and Levy. In his rare media or public outings such as the Q&A with fans last year, the chairman has appeared unusually relaxed. He even undertook the “Ice Bucket Challenge” — remember that? — although the two players who soaked him didn’t last long. Pochettino revealed he’d watched one of the Leicester games at his house with Levy in last season’s title run-in.

It seems, more than anything, like Levy has finally “found his guy” — a manager who offers middle ground between the continental and the English styles. Levy is able to focus on non-football things — things that arguably he is far better at — such as the stadium project and other property ventures, as well as the money side. There is a balance of responsibilities and a structure that has previously been lacking at the club. Pochettino’s title change from head coach to manager reflects the extent to which he rules the roost at Hotspur Way, and the trust he has earned from a chairman with a reputation for micro-management.

It isn’t all handshakes and hugs at Hotspur Way either. Pochettino has shown he can be tough, and will treat expensive imports and homegrown talent equally firmly if the situation requires. When Andros Townsend threw a tantrum during a warm-down after the match against Aston Villa, Pochettino’s response was swift and firm: “When you behave in the wrong way, you have to pay.” Townsend was suspended, and left the club a few months later.

According to Toby Alderweireld, the key change under Pochettino was the team spirit: there were “no longer any heroes” in the Spurs team.

“When one makes a mistake, the other one picks it up. We have a togetherness. We want to achieve something this season and I think you can see that on the pitch. There is confidence and self belief — not arrogance — that we can beat everybody. We know that if we don’t put the effort in, we are a normal team.

“He [Pochettino] only puts in guys who work very hard. A lot of guys have left the club. If you do not follow the path, you don’t belong in Tottenham.”

Pochettino doesn’t seek credit, and when he signed his new contract, he made sure his team of coaches were signed up too. But, undoubtedly, when looking at the progress made by Spurs in the past 24 months, the Argentine is the common denominator.

“When your face isn’t smiling, your feet aren’t smiling”

Poch_kane

Pochettino doesn’t court publicity and he keeps his opinions to himself. There are no mind games, no taking of the bait, and rarely any insight into how he goes about his business.

On a personal level, two years on, we know practically nothing about him. We know Pochettino works incredibly hard — arriving at Hotspur Way very early and leaving very late. We know his son Maurizio is in the youth set-up. We know nothing about Mrs Pochettino — beyond the fact she thought he’d put on some weight last season forcing him to spend time on the treadmill over lunch. We know he insists on organic meat. We know Marcelo Bielsa is the dominant influence, from the day El Loco signed Pochettino up on the strength of his legs.

The contrast with Jose Mourinho, whose PR blitz for the Manchester United job would have made Kim Kardashian blush, couldn’t be starker.

The lack of soundbites and storylines from Hotspur Way frustrates journalists covering the team, and there have been communication problems with fans. Comments appearing to de-emphasize the importance of finishing above Arsenal last season, while reasonable, did not come out quite as intended and added to the frustration of slipping down to third.

We have rarely seen Pochettino flustered. About the only time last season was after comments about him wanting to manage his former club PSG in the future, again reasonable, emerged and took on a life of their own. His subsequent announcement that he had agreed a new deal with Spurs seemed impromptu. The sense above all is that he sees media duties as an obligation, not an opportunity. Because of his still-limited English, it is the one part of his fiefdom where he doesn’t have the degree of control that he would like.

But despite this, we all know what the Pochettino mantra is. Performance in training is crucial, fitness is paramount, the process of improving mentally is continual. Homegrown talent must be given the same opportunities as expensive imports, players are treated like adults and expected to behave as such. The sum of the parts must never be greater than the whole.

Over the busy Christmas period in 2014 and with three days before the next match, Pochettino was asked by a TV reporter if his plan was to “rest, rest and rest.” He replied, quick as a flash and with a smile, “No. Train, train, train.” Not every footballer will like this approach, and those thinking of joining Spurs will know exactly what is in store. It’s like the Spartans leaving out their newborn boys — it filters out the weak.

Rare insight into the way Pochettino works was given by John McDermott in a talk in California that was transcribed and posted on Reddit.

McDermott revealed that he spent several hours a day working with Pochettino. He considered Pochettino by far the best manager he had worked with, and described him as the “best strategist in terms of how he got the club working.”

“Pochettino is a leader of people, a very warm, Latin, touchy feely man, he has got something about him, an X factor. If you took Pochettino from Tottenham right now, they would not be half as successful. Pochettino will often say something doesn’t ‘feel’ right, he uses his intuition. For example, (he said to) Bentaleb, ‘When your face is not smiling, your feet are not smiling’. It is an intuition allied with statistics.”

For McDermott, who has spent years trying to work with Spurs managers, some of whom have shown no interest in the young talent he is developing, he now has a very different problem keeping him awake at night.

“How do I make sure our academy keeps up with Pochettino? He has taken it to another level.”

“We are ready to compete against any team”

poch3_etihad

I have always thought captaincy is a good indication of the health of a squad. When a squad seems united, potential captains, vice-captains and future captains abound. When a squad seems short on “character” — perhaps Man United in recent years — there appear few, if any, choices.

If Pochettino could have one mulligan from his time at Spurs, it would be appointing Kaboul as captain and Adebayor as vice-captain. In hindsight, it was a horrible decision, but it was also an indicator of the extent to which the lunatics had taken over the asylum. The artful way that Pochettino buried the likes of Kaboul and Adebayor for the rest of the campaign was testament to his man management skills and the way a previously leaky club was starting to tighten up.

Now, you could happily see any of Alderweireld, Danny Rose and Dier joining Lloris, Vertonghen and Kane among the Spurs leadership group.

No-one speaks in more positive tones of Pochettino than Lloris. The France and Spurs captain revealed to the Guardian not only how close he had coming to leaving the club, but also how immediate Pochettino’s impact was.

“I had some concern and I question a bit myself two years ago, after AVB and Tim Sherwood were in charge. I think the first meeting with Mauricio Pochettino was very clear for me, for my future. I think I trust him since the first second I meet him, and because I understand what he wants, fully agree about his football view. I can say we have the same football view and he’s brought a lot to the team and the players.”

“The credit is for the gaffer. I think he changed all, inside the training ground, inside the squad, it’s about his mentality, his personality. We can feel we improved a lot. We have a real identity now and, from outside, it’s very clear. We try to play good football but don’t forget that we need to be aggressive, especially in the Premier League.”

“If you’re not aggressive, it’s difficult to be competitive and so if you have a good philosophy of football, you add aggression, hunger, because of course we are young but we can feel the team is very hungry. It means a lot for me. It’s about competitive mentality. Now we can feel we are competitive, and ready to compete against any team.”

“We show this season a lot of character. Of course, it will be interesting what will happen next season but I think in the way we work, we are improving every month so it’s not about this season. It’s also about the next season and the project of the gaffer.”

Mentality. Hunger. Aggression. Project. These are the new buzzwords at Hotspur Way.

For decades, I feel we’ve misunderstood what Bill Nicholson was trying to tell us when he said “It’s no use just winning, we’ve got to win well.” For Nicholson, the winning part was assumed. In the Premier League era, Spurs have been so fixated on winning well that we’ve forgotten to win.

It turns out, winning matches and competing for the title is far more entertaining than playing pretty football and finishing 10th. We can add the flourishes in years to come, but first of all we must win.

I still believe the most exhilarating football that I have seen from a Spurs team in the Premier League era was for a short spell under Harry Redknapp. Gareth Bale was metamorphosing in front of our eyes from unlucky left back to world-class winger, leaving Aaron Lennon free on the other flank. With Luka Modric pulling the strings, the ball always seemed to find the right man.

Redknapp secured two top-four finishes, which sometimes gets forgotten, but his was a flame that burned brightly and then faded. Redknapp — you could imagine Levy cringing in embarrassment whenever the car window got wound down on transfer deadline day — carried so much baggage he needed a roof rack. Redknapp turned Spurs around, and history will judge him as a successful Spurs manager once his tiresome self-promotion fades, but it was never clear that he was able to put in the foundations for longer-term success.

At its best, the defining characteristic of Pochettino’s football has been the intensity, rather than the swagger.

There have been spells, usually in the biggest matches, when we’ve torn the opposition to shreds. Against Manchester United last season, once Spurs had the breakthrough, we savaged them. Likewise in the second half against Arsenal in 2014/15 when Harry Kane scored twice.

But to me, the peak Pochettino performance — not in result but in the manner it represented what the Argentine has been able to change in his two years in charge — came against Manchester City at the Etihad in February.

Manchester City, embarrassed by a thrashing at home to Leicester the previous weekend, were desperate to bounce back. An inconsistent team even before Manuel Pellegrini’s regime began to run out of steam, they were fired up against Spurs. For 80 minutes, Spurs absorbed City’s blows and got a few in of their own. Aguero buzzed around like a hornet and Yaya Toure strode forward like he used to in his prime, none of the old-man shuffling that was seen so often last campaign.

In the 81st minute, score 1-1, four Spurs players surrounded Toure like muggers in a dark alley, stealing first the ball, then the three points. Pochettino celebrated like we’d not seen before, because he must have known that this was not only a huge moment in the title race, but also a vindication of his methods. All that hard work on fitness and mentality, the drilling of the press so tired players could still execute it effectively late in a top-of-the-table clash, had come to fruition.

It was the clearest indication that the plan was working, even if Spurs would eventually come up just short.

“Going down like Tony Montana”

poch_stamfordbridge

Ultimately, while the match at the Etihad would be a high-water mark, the match that will be remembered last season is the Battle of the Bridge. It showed how far Spurs had come, but also the room for further growth.

Fans of other clubs say Spurs bottled it, ignoring with standard footballing myopia that Spurs were still in the title race with three games to go, unlike everyone else. Some Spurs fans were critical of the performance, considering the aggression unattractive and indicative of a team that had lost its head.

Comparing Spurs’ disappointment to Manchester City’s limp defeat against Real Madrid, the (brilliant) Rob Smyth wrote one of those pieces which seemed to capture my every thought at the time:

“Spurs and Manchester City both missed out on major prizes this week; one went down like Tony Montana, the other closed the door quietly behind them. As a neutral or a fan, what would you rather watch? … Spurs stood up to Chelsea in a way that would never have happened in the past, and that burst of aggression is intrinsically linked to other qualities that make this the best Spurs side in decades. It is almost impossible for a team to excel in the Premier League without those qualities. In their darkest hour, Spurs looked like winners.

“If that happened every week it would be an issue, but these were unique circumstances. Spurs gave a human response to crushing disappointment; as such, they deserved a bit more sympathy and a lot more empathy. They had been battling for the title all season, and saw it disappear, at a time when they were being goaded by 40,000 fans, not to mention a number of Chelsea players. What were they supposed to do, smile sweetly and take a selfie?”

I’ll view every game at Stamford Bridge through the prism of the misery of March 8, 2014. Watching Spurs go down all guns blazing made me feel proud. I can live with disappointment, I can’t live with surrender.

What the Battle of the Bridge showed, however, was that fighting and togetherness wasn’t enough. I don’t buy the argument that inexperience was the problem that night, given it was more experienced players like Mousa Dembele and Kyle Walker who lost their discipline first. When HMS Dier went into Destroyer mode, the game was already gone.

The 2-2 draw, more than the two defeats of an emotionally exhausted team that followed, highlighted what Spurs lacked, and offer the blueprint for what needs to happen next.

Spurs need better squad options when players are injured, rested or suspended. We need reliable impact players off the bench, both defensive and in attack. We need to get better at controlling games we are leading, and seeing out the close ones. When teams like Chelsea, who have world class players and who hate our guts, throw everything at us, we need to be able to withstand it better. We didn’t lose that night, even though it seemed that we did — but we needed to win.

In his first season, Pochettino got by with a makeshift central midfield of Bentaleb and Mason, who’d made a combined 24 senior appearances for Spurs before he took over. In his second season, Dele Alli and Eric Dier, combined Premier League midfield appearances zero, became first choice for club and country. Dembele, seemingly destined to see out his career at somewhere like Sunderland, finally found a way to fulfil the potential he’d flashed for the past ten years.

Can you imagine what Spurs will be capable of as the quality of the squad improves, with a squad that is a year older and a year wiser, and motivated by the anger of how the season ended? There are still a thousand things that can go wrong, not least given the unprecedented arms racing taking place among the big-money Premier League rivals while Spurs are forced to cut the cloth more conservatively while the stadium is financed. But optimism is no cause for embarrassment.

I wrote last season that Pochettino has an opportunity to build a dynasty at Spurs, and what encourages me more than anything is that he knows it too.

“When you compare Tottenham with big sides people can see our approach is for the long term. We have the youngest squad in the Premier League yet here we are fighting for the title. The project is fantastic, because we are ahead of the programme – we are only going to get better. This is true because for a lot of players this is their first season in the Premier League and next season they will be better because they will have more experience. In football you always need time to develop to your full quality.”

“It is impossible to set limits. It is also important to improve our squad because this is always our idea to improve. Our idea is to keep the main group for the next few years and to try and build and add players that can help us.”

I love the line about it being impossible to set limits. It’s going to be tough for Spurs to take that next step and win a title, but we will never have a better platform. Let season three begin of the Pochettino era begin.

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