Tag Archives: Spurs

Q&A: Your questions answered on the new Spurs stadium and the state of the club’s finances

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Charles Richards / @spurs_report

I have written extensively about the new Spurs stadium and finance issues on this blog for the past two years. I get a steady stream of questions from Spurs fans keen to know more about the stadium, and the club’s financial health. In particular, the jump in construction costs to £800m has caused a considerable amount of concern.

Borrowing the idea from more imaginative bloggers, I asked my Twitter followers to send in their questions — and boy did you. I had more than 40 questions, *most* of which were serious. I’ve grouped the questions into subjects, and tried to answer as many as I can.

NAMING RIGHTS

@KarnaRohit
Any chance we can still have it called White Hart Lane ? How much are the naming rights going for ?
@hertfordlilly
How far off are we from finalising naming rights? This year’s performance must mean we are in a stronger bargaining position?

There is zero chance the new stadium will be called White Hart Lane — well, unless you have £300m burning a hole in your back pocket and want to buy the rights for the next 10 to 15 years. Daniel Levy has made clear, from the outset of this project, that Spurs will look to sell naming rights, and nothing will make him deviate from this plan. It is an integral part of the project funding.

In terms of naming rights, we’re now into the window of when the club may announce it. Levy has previously stated that a deal is typically agreed after the midway point in construction: sponsors want to know the stadium is going to be delivered on time and as specified. In terms of an “optimum” time — you think once demolition of old White Hart Lane is complete, this would be the time to do it. That should be around September — but it is just conjecture. The announcement that Spurs were renewing the AIA partnership until the end of 2022 suggested there won’t be a joint shirt-stadium sponsorship arrangement such as Arsenal have with Emirates. It seems unlikely Spurs would agree to a short extension with AIA if a naming rights deal weren’t signed and sealed.

Whenever I tweet the words “naming rights”, a bunch of people say “it’s going to be Nike”. I’m pretty confident it won’t be — it’s a building, not a superstar striker. I wrote about naming rights a while back, and urged caution on what Spurs could expect — the talked-about £30m per year seems extremely optimistic. I hope I’m proved wrong — Spurs have picked a good time to go up a level in league performance, and the NFL tie-in may appeal to some companies.

WEMBLEY

@njs10
Are we going to make more money next season at Wembley vs last season at WHL and how does that compare to season after at new stadium?
@jakemrich3
How will Wembley affect revenue? If we get nothing from food but how much of ticket sales do we get and will it counter the rent?

It is extremely hard to forecast what impact playing at Wembley will have on Tottenham’s bottom line. First, we don’t know how many tickets/hospitality packages Spurs will sell — maybe we’ll sell out every game, but I strongly doubt it — and second, we don’t know how much Spurs are paying. I’ve seen figures of around £20m per year bandied around. But do Wembley take a slice of ticketing income? And how are concession sales split? We just don’t know.

(Update: Spurs will NOT receive proceeds for concession sales. See comment below, with link to THST minutes)

However, we do know one thing: when full, Wembley is a cash cow, there’s a reason two Champions League finals and countless other major sporting events have been hosted there. If Spurs can come close to selling it out each week, and make a good stab at the corporate hospitality market, then, even with the rental fee subtracted, Spurs should easily exceed the modest £40m or so matchday revenue from White Hart Lane.

On the subject, here’s a fun fact: Daniel Levy once tried to buy Wembley. Talk about things coming full circle.

WAGES

@WindyCOYS
Do you have a feel for (or better, actual info) whether our players are *actually* underpaid compared to similar players at wealthier clubs? And, if so, how long will we need at new WHL before we can expect to see increase in wage spending (i.e. how long did it take other clubs)?
@m13tul
Revenue 2 wages we have always been 40% to 48%. If we try and up that figure to 55% will it make enough of a impact and what is he downside

Spurs had a wage bill of £100m in 2016, and revenue stood at £209m. The average wage bill of the other top six was £211m. Quite simply, Spurs have been playing in a different league to the other five teams, and it only underlines what a remarkable job Mauricio Pochettino has done.

However, things change quickly.

In the coming years, Tottenham’s revenue is going to soar: the next accounts will show Champions League revenue and the new PL deal (income from the latter alone will jump from £95m to £148m). From next season, we’ll have the additional income from Wembley, as well as another season of Champions League football. After that we should be into our new stadium and all the additional revenue that comes with that. There will also be the uptick from the next kit deal.

By my (very rough) projection, Tottenham’s revenue should jump to around £275 million next season, and the only way afterwards is up. Of course, Spurs will have stadium financing costs to absorb, but there is significant scope to increase the wage bill as required.

Spurs aren’t standing still. In the current accounting period, 13 Spurs players have signed new contracts, while Champions League participation likely will have triggered significant bonuses.

Are Spurs players underpaid? Sure they are — every single one could dramatically increase their earnings if they moved to another top six club. Ultimately, Chelsea and Man City are billionaire playthings and will always be able to offer more than a rationally run club such as Spurs. But Spurs, with every window that goes by, will be in a better position to compete. While we’re offering Champions League football, a chance to compete for trophies and be part of a close-knit and ambitious squad, plus the best manager in the league, we’ve got points in our favour too.

I don’t think the relatively low wages is just a case of Daniel Levy driving a hard bargain, Pochettino also appears to have made a virtue out of keeping a relatively fair balance of incomes among the squad. This will remain true through the years ahead — you’ll see the likes of Dele, Eric Dier and Harry Kane regularly sign new contracts, each time bumping them higher and higher, creating new ceilings. If Kyle Walker moves to Manchester this summer, it will be spun as “Spurs can’t afford to keep Walker”; but actually the situation is far more complex. Walker allowed his head to be turned, in the heat of a title race — for Pochettino, this may be an unforgivable breach of the team ethic by a player who is ultimately relatively easily replaced.

As for wage-to-turnover ratio, actually for Spurs it has rarely been in the 40 to 48 percent bracket. Generally, in the last decade, it has been between 50 to 60 percent. It topped out at 65 percent in 2013 — spending more on wages is no guarantee of success.

Spurs are hoping to bring it to about 45 percent through the stadium construction phase — but ultimately, keeping this special squad together has far greater financial benefits than whatever savings could be made achieving that ratio.

You can read my analysis of the 2016 accounts here, and I explored the issue of balancing stadium and on-pitch success here.

OWNERSHIP

@stevecco
THFC in unprecedented position for title challenge. Balancing the books is laudable but why is the owner so reluctant to dip into own pocket

I’m guessing, the photos that spread about “Uncle” Joe Lewis’s new yacht didn’t go down too well?

As Spurs majority owner, Lewis has been consistent through his tenure: he doesn’t speak, and he doesn’t put significant money into the club. Spurs has always been an investment — ENIC stands for English National Investment Company. It’s been a hugely successful one. When ENIC first bought a 27% share in 2001, the deal valued Spurs at around £81m. The value now is comfortably above £1 billion.

Lewis’s worth is estimated at around $5.7bn, per Forbes, but, there has never been any indication that it is for spending. Nothing is going to change at this point. Personally, I’m fine with the current ownership — Lewis isn’t extracting money from the club in dividends, or borrowing against its assets personally, while Daniel Levy is an experienced and competent chairman who cares about the club. Success earned is far more satisfying than success bought — whether it’s dodgy Chinese tycoons, unpleasant Qataris or spivs pretending to be billionaires, be careful what you wish for.

DEBT

@FrankMersland
How huge is the clubs debt stipulated to be when the stadium is built? And how much to be paid in annual mortgage/interest?
@jilllewis33
Seen suggestion Arse made big thing of making funding streams public while we’ve been more secretive. Any cause for concern/funding gaps?
@Phon1k
We will be the most indebted football club in the world when the stadium opens, cant uncle joe lewis just pay it all off?

The simple — and scary — answer: we don’t yet know how big the debt will be, or how much it will cost each year. Spurs have agreed a £350m funding package with three banks, and this will be the main element of the finance. But, with costs set to top £800m, more money is going to need to be found. Naming rights and future ticket sales are the main two elements to add to the funding mix — but it’s not clear how much Spurs will actually be able to bring in and if another debt facility may be required. By my (very rudimentary) assessment, Arsenal’s finance cost peaked at £47m, and hovered around £40m for four years before being refinanced to a lower annual payment. Arsenal pay around £20m per year on their Emirates “mortgage”. Spurs will likely pay more as we are borrowing more, but it’s impossible to say how much it will be until the details are known. We’ll get our first look in the next accounts. In terms of length, think the mortgage on your house — this will be a long-term arrangement.

The transparency question is an interesting one. There’s a balance to be struck between keeping fans informed and protecting commercial information; Spurs will reliably err on the side of the latter. It’s just part of Levy’s personality, and isn’t going to change. The club has said it will announce the funding package, and I would expect it to explain the financing costs when the annual report is published. But we’re not going to get a running commentary, as the saying goes.

Will Spurs be the most indebted football club in the world? It depends how you measure it. Here’s a handy guide.

Manchester United’s net debt, at last recording, was £409.3m — Spurs may or may not end up topping this (I suspect Spurs will, not least as the club has already invested heavily in the training centre). United have that debt for the privilege of being owned by the Glazer family, while Spurs are going to have the best new stadium in the world. Technically, there’s a clear leader in the debt stakes — on paper at least, Chelsea owe Roman Abramovich £1.053bn.

And no, Uncle Joe isn’t paying off Tottenham’s debt.

NFL

@brits_endzone
Is the plan for the new stadium to be the home of the NFL London franchise (if it happens). If so do you think that’s good for spurs overall

Spurs have made clear they are building a home not just for themselves, but also for the NFL if the American league decides it wishes to put a franchise into London. The NFL has put a small amount of money in — around £10m up front plus a 20-game agreement that will be worth tens of millions — and has been actively engaged through the design and construction phase.

A year ago, I wrote that it appeared that the NFL was close to pushing the button on a London franchise, but there has been little in way of developments since then. There are major logistical hurdles: training, travel, tax, and those are just the things that begin with “T”. There’s another scenario, in which rather than having a franchise, the NFL plays a full eight-game schedule in London (or a full eight-game schedule overseas, including London, Mexico City and wherever else they take games). It works well with a 32-team league — each team plays overseas every other year, and loses a home game every four years. It gives London fans the chance to see regular NFL football, but without the risk of having to endure a terrible team such as the Jaguars on a permanent basis.

What does this mean for Spurs? The NFL deal is a winner as it guarantees that at least two of the 16 non-Spurs major event slots are used. Each one will probably be worth between £2m and £3m for Spurs, so the more they can get booked out, the better. The NFL connection may offer some marginal uplift in terms of naming rights, and modestly boost Tottenham’s profile in the USA. But if Cameron Carter-Vickers kicks on and represents Team USA regularly, that would probably be a far greater boost. If the NFL does decide it wants a franchise in London, then Spurs can help in other ways — for example in helping build a training facility, accommodating players, and so forth. Hotspur Way is becoming home-from-home for NFL players visiting the UK — they all head up there for marketing work, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has visited.

TRANSFERS

@ZevRoberts
How much money realistically do we have to spend in the coming transfer windows?

Whatever Spurs spend, it will be dwarfed by what the other members of the top six spend, and possibly a few of those below. But there is money to spend if needed — Spurs found £30m on deadline day last summer for Moussa Sissoko, for example. I’d expect Spurs to have around £30m to £40m net over the next couple of summers, plus whatever profits can be rolled in from player trading. This summer, there is £18m of Nabil Bentaleb money to spend, and likely a decent profit on Kevin Wimmer if he moves on. Plus there could well be Kyle Walker money to spend. On the one hand, we’re not going to spend as much as Manchester United or Manchester City; but on the other hand, we have far less work to do. There’s nothing that should stop Spurs competing for talented youngsters such as Ryan Sessegnon, or spending big to fill the troubled right-sided midfield position.

REVENUE

@mepfish
Current match day revenue is £40m vs Arse £100m. Post stadium build will we eliminate this differential?
@craig4589
Aside from incr revenue from ticket sales, what are the significant commercial opps the new stad brings? What extra revenue could we expect?
@lewkc1
How, specifically (like by revenue stream, can Spurs close the gap with other 5 and how does stadium help that?

The aim of the stadium isn’t to eliminate the gap in matchday revenue with Arsenal, it is to put Arsenal behind us. It’s not a design statement like Roman’s coliseum, if Chelsea’s new stadium is ever built: everything Spurs have done is about maximising revenue. Even without the NFL connection and facilities, it feels very American — designed to make you spend time there and open your wallet, whether you are in the South Stand, or in a Sky Box. Things have moved on a lot in the decade since the Emirates was built.

So aside from beers and burgers, how else can Spurs make money? There are 16 non-Spurs major events allowed each year, two of which are blocked out by the NFL. Spurs will want to fill as many of these as possible, earning between £2m to £3m a time. They may get some help from AEG to fill these slots. In addition, the club is marketing the stadium as a year-round destination, aiming to attract visitors to the Tottenham experience, restaurants and stadium tours; there will also, no doubt, be conferences hosted within the stadium. This will feel more tangible once the hotel and luxury housing is developed on the southern portion of the site — bless it, but Tottenham High Road is hardly Regents Street.

The area Spurs continue to lag most seriously is in commercial revenue. While Manchester United are a money-making machine, and Manchester City pump revenues to evade FFP, Spurs continue to fall further and further behind. The new Nike deal sums up the situation: a £30m annual fee brings parity with the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, but, seemingly out of nowhere, Chelsea tore up its Adidas deal and signed up with Nike for £60m per year. Spurs don’t seem aggressive or well-connected in this particular market, which is why I’m cautious on naming rights. For now, all Spurs can do is keep on winning and hope this brings new deals.

ACCESS

@basdaly How many Wheelchair Accessible Seats will there be in the New stadium ? Thanks

Per the planning documents, there will be 259 wheelchair spaces in the new stadium. In old White Hart Lane, there were just 51.

I’ve not yet seen confirmation of final number of wheelchair spaces as the seating configuration has been tweaked in the past two years. But, there’s no excuse for a brand new stadium in accessibility. If you look at the stadium cameras now, you can make out some of the areas for disabled fans — right in the centre, not tucked away in the corners.

The full section of the planning statement is here:

Screenshot 2017-05-22 at 9.48.24 PM

READINESS

@pasavito
What happens if new stadium isn’t ready in Aug 2018? Could we play in a stadium that is maybe 4/5′s complete? Would we be allowed to?

The stadium, quite simply, has to be ready. The aim is to be ready for July 2018 — that will enable test events to take place before the season starts, or, heaven forbid, something like Europa League qualification. If it slips into August, there are contingencies — Spurs could open the season with a block of away fixtures, similar to what Liverpool did last summer as their new stand was delayed. Essentially, this gives Spurs until mid September due to the international break. After that, if the stadium still isn’t ready, it would be a second year at Wembley. Daniel Levy has confirmed that there is a contingency arrangement in place for that scenario. Unfortunately, Premier League rules prevent a team from having two home stadiums in a season, so there’s no chance of switching after Christmas, say.

It won’t be possible to play in a partially finished stadium — Spurs will be building the sliding pitch underneath the south stand, so it simply won’t work. Perhaps there is some leeway in terms of internal fit-out, but it promises to be an enormously difficult and stressful 15 months.

In terms of markers, Levy has said that the roof should start to go on in late January/early February 2018. If this happens, things are looking good. Spurs are pretty much working around the clock — here’s hoping they don’t discover any rare newts under old White Hart Lane.

That’s all I have time for — thanks to everyone who sent questions in. If you are looking for answers to specific queries, try the iSpurs section of the club website, or the stadium minisite — there’s a lot of information online. Some I couldn’t answer! If it’s really gnawing away at you, hit me up on Twitter or in the comments — it’s always nice to talk Spurs in the long summer month between post-season and pre-season tours.

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 review of 2016 on The Spurs Report — numbers, analysis, top posts and thanks

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As 2016 draws to a close, I wanted to do a quick post summing up the year on The Spurs Report. It’s been quite a year, with new people stumbling upon this curious little corner of the Spurs blogosphere every day.

In total, there have been nearly 200,000 views (197,447 at the time of writing) in the year to date — this compares with less than 20,000 in 2015. That’s significant growth, particularly as I haven’t posted anything new since taking a break in November.

While that’s a drop in the ocean in comparison to the traffic of bigger football blogs, and the clickbait merchants who harvest other people’s content and manufacture audiences in a fraud against advertisers and fans alike, to me this seems like an awful lot of people coming to read my occasional ramblings on Spurs.

The main referrer was Twitter, with 42,098 views, followed by Facebook (28,921), Reddit (17,257) and NewsNow (14,520). I don’t use Facebook, but really should start considering it — my pieces have only been shared a handful of times, but each one brought a large volume of new Spurs fans to my blog. Thank you to those who have shared on Facebook. As you can see from the Top 10 articles below, the biggest driver has been pieces on the stadium — there’s a hunger for information on this project.

This time a year ago, I had around 300 Twitter followers — it’s now over 3,400. Again, it’s nothing compared to the bigger beasts, but growing a readership is hard without influential friends or the backing of a news organisation or other type of network. This blog and my Twitter account now have a healthy following among Spurs fans — I hugely appreciate the help I’ve received in the past year from some of the prominent members of the Spurs community (Alan Fisher, Dan Kilpatrick and Martin Cloake amongst others) in sharing my work.

It makes a profound difference, and I try to follow the same good example when new bloggers ask me for help in turn. I’m not followed by many of the elite football Twitterati, and my blogs don’t get shared around or linked to by bigger sites — this is a resolutely niche Spurs blog. But so long as Spurs fans keep on discovering this blog and joining in the conversation, I’ll keep writing it.

Thank you all for your continued readership, comments, insight and feedback. The blogosphere and Twitter can be a rough place, but 99% of the time I find the conversations I have with other Spurs fans positive, informative and enjoyable. I just love talking (OK, sometimes ranting) about Spurs.

I’ve been working on another writing project in recent months — something utterly un-Spurs related — as well as trying to balance new work commitments. But I plan to resume blogging in 2017: the itch to get back to it is proving almost unendurable.

Wishing you all a merry Christmas and happy new year.

Charles

 

The 10 most viewed pieces of 2016 were as follows:

1) Spurs stadium update: New information on capacity, design and other details, plus analysis of timeline and finances (21,759)

A summer news wrap with exclusive information on the stadium design and construction.

2) Big but not ‘big, big’: The football media struggles to come to terms with Tottenham’s narrative-busting success (18,363)

A rant about the football media, in which I said rude things about Jamie Redknapp.

3) The Pochettino Revolution: How Tottenham were transformed from also-rans to title contenders (14,980)

A feature on Mauricio Pochettino and his work at Spurs. A labour of love, and the feedback to this one made it 100% worth the time spent on it. Have a read if you haven’t yet.

4) The £300 million funding question and the dangers of “doing an Arsenal” — New Spurs Stadium Deep Dive (Part 1) (13,757)

My first major stadium piece, examining the financial side of Tottenham’s stadium plans.

5) Deep Dive: Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge redevelopment — Trying to keep the train on the tracks (9,927)

A look at Chelsea’s stadium plans, and the huge headaches our rivals face in securing planning consent.

6) Tottenham’s most expensive signing, relative to revenue (8,428)

A look at the relative cost of signing players in the wake of the Paul Pogba deal. A bit of fun, this one was picked up quite widely on non-Spurs Twitter.

7) New stadium update: ‘More or less’ on time and budget, 500 White Hart Lane, the NFL gamble explained, and more (7,115)

The most recent stadium news piece. I’m hoping to do another one in January or February as there have been one or two new lines since this was published.

8) The balancing act: Can Spurs find a way to remain competitive through the stadium construction phase? (6,684)

An assessment of THFC’s finances and what impact the stadium spend will have. Somewhat technical, but some good numbers in there.

9) Naming rights and wrongs: Tottenham begin the search for stadium sponsorship deals (6,254)

A look at the stadium sponsor market, and a warning for fans not to expect too much.

10) Spurs take a gamble on the NFL — New Stadium Deep Dive (Part 2) (5,886)

A long piece (in hindsight, too long…) on the relationship between Spurs and the NFL. We’ve had more insight into it since this was published.

As you can see from this list, the stadium dominates. But encouragingly, many of these pieces are longer ones that took a lot of time and effort — there’s an appetite for detail.

Thanks for reading, please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs-related chat.

What is behind the great Premier League switch-off?

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Last Sunday, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t watch any football.

I wasn’t busy, it wasn’t an international break, and there wasn’t another major sporting event that I wanted to watch between 2pm and 6pm. Instead, I looked at the two Premier League games that were being shown by Sky Sports — Middlesbrough vs Watford, followed by Southampton vs Burnley — and thought: “Nah, I’ll pass.”

The uninspiring choice of Sunday games came at an awkward moment for Sky, following a report by the Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale that viewing figures were down 19 percent year-on-year. The broadcaster will have pinned hopes on Monday’s game between Liverpool and Manchester United, the clubs with the two biggest fanbases, to quell talk that the Premier League bubble is starting to burst.

So, how real is the dip in Premier League audiences? And what are the factors that could be behind Sky’s audience dropping so dramatically?

First, it should be noted that the season is still young, and normally viewing figures increase as the evenings draw in, particularly in the Sunday 4pm and Saturday 5.30pm slots. But, as someone who tracks audience figures for Spurs matches out of personal interest, there are signs that the numbers tuning in are indeed low.

The most-watched Premier League game so far this season (excluding Liverpool v Man Utd, which isn’t publicly available yet), by BARB’s “average audience” measurement, was the Manchester derby on September 10. This drew 1.18 million in the lunchtime Saturday kick off. The equivalent game last season, a Sunday 2pm kick-off, drew 1.98 million. The reverse fixture in March, in the Sunday 4pm slot, drew 1.82 million.

After the Manchester derby, by my count, the second most-watched match was Spurs vs Manchester City on October 2, which averaged 1.06 million viewers in the Sunday 2pm slot. This just pipped Chelsea vs Liverpool, a Friday night offering that averaged 1.04m.

While 1.06m is more than respectable for Spurs v Man City, it is below the average for televised Spurs matches last season, which was 1.13 million. When Spurs travelled to Manchester City in February last season, that drew 1.78m in the prime Sunday 4pm slot.

One area in particular where Sky is apparently hurting is the Sunday 4pm slot, normally the prime selection of the week. The last four matches — Swansea v Chelsea, Spurs v Sunderland, West Ham v Bournemouth and Burnley v Arsenal — all failed to crack the 1 million mark. In the equivalent fixture block last season, these matches averaged over 1 million.

(BARB’s average audience measure isn’t perfect, and the broadcasters prefer to refer to the “peak” audience figure. However, the average audience is the only one that is made public, and it serves a purpose of enabling comparisons. More explanation in my previous piece on the subject.)

So, what could be behind it?

There have been some interesting explanations raised, from the tedious football being played by some of the Premier League’s lesser lights, to piracy, cost of subscriptions and crap coverage.

These explanations are all, no doubt, true to an extent.

I watched Burnley v Watford a few weeks ago, or rather started watching it and switched off and watched a couple of old episodes of Elementary for the third time instead. The standard was abysmal, but not entertainingly so, and anything was better than watching that.

Piracy continues to advance in terms of quality and accessibility, through streaming services like Kodi and other new technology. I subscribe to both Sky Sports and BT Sport, but last Saturday at 3pm I was forced to find a stream to watch Spurs. I have zero sympathy with the Premier League (and yes, there are a number of parties that would need to agree to a change) on this score. In 2016, there is simply no justification for viewers in the UK not getting the same choice as fans everywhere else in the world. It borders on cruelty and has created a market for piracy.

When the pirated offering is better — or at least, more comprehensive — than the paid offering, it’s going to mean less people pay. How you measure this, however, I don’t know — Sky’s revenues continue to climb, but subscriber growth is growing, per the last quarterly report.

Cost is undoubtedly a factor too, especially given broader economic trends that have seen a divergence in incomes both geographically and generationally. Football on TV is incredibly expensive now. A full subscription to BT and Sky will cost over £1,000 for a household, and this doesn’t even get you 2/3 of the matches. It doesn’t feel like great value now.

I’d add here, an argument gets made that we are experiencing “overkill” due to too much football on UK TV — personally I think it is the opposite, with too many fan bases getting too small a selection of games, meaning limited incentive to subscribe. Leicester, for example, were only shown eight times in total in the season before their miraculous title-winning campaign — hardly a huge incentive to subscribe to both Sky and BT. This season, with many more Premier League games and Champions League football, it is much better value for a Leicester City fan, and you can be sure that Leicester’s audiences have crept up somewhat as a result.

Rising prices, and advances in illegal streaming, may have led to a reduction among rated audiences. But it’s impossible to know how many, and it’s not like streaming sites have only sprung up this season. Also, while it seems like many, many people must be doing this if you judge by Twitter, it’s useful to remember that Twitter is a small sample and generally a terrible reflection of reality.

As for punditry, I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. While Jamie Redknapp and Thierry Henry are dreadful, Sky still boast three of the best of the business in Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness. Sky’s coverage certainly hasn’t gotten worse compared to last year. But either way, it is fairly inconsequential — most fans tune in for the game, not the talking.

However, there are also some other explanations for Sky’s poor ratings that are worth a mention.

First, swapping their Saturday slot with BT was always going to be bad for Sky’s audience figures.

The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off routinely draws a low audience, as people have, well, life to be getting on with at that time of a weekend, whereas by 5.30pm you are far more likely to be ready to put your feet up and watch a game. The Saturday 12.30pm kick-off, however, is excellent for fans in Asia, so the Premier League will still want its big guns in that slot even if it doesn’t suit Sky.

Second, the Premier League is missing some “big” clubs this season, and this is harming ratings.

When Aston Villa played Newcastle last month, an average of more than 500,000 tuned in — that is the first time that I’ve seen a Championship match on BARB’s Top 30 weekly ranking.

The 2016/17 Premier League must feature the smallest number of “big” clubs of any edition to date.

That’s not to say the likes of Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford don’t deserve to be there, while Leeds, Villa and Newcastle should automatically be in the top flight in some Charlie Stillitano-inspired ratings stitch-up. But when you have big fanbases out of the top flight and not engaged with the Premier League, this may have an impact on TV ratings.

There are a couple of ways to quantify this idea.

Of the Top 30 club stadiums in England, just 13 are hosting Premier League football this season. Huge stadiums like Villa Park, St James’ Park, Elland Road and Hillsborough host Championship football. Stadium size is a historic measure of how big clubs once were, rather than still are, but it’s still a decent gauge. I watched Sheffield Wednesday’s Championship playoff semi-final last May at sold-out, 39,000-capacity Hillsborough. The atmosphere was extraordinary, and it sure as hell felt “big” as a TV viewer.

Further to this, there are demographic factors that may be having an impact on Sky’s ratings. While Greater London (9.8m) and Manchester (2.5m) are well represented, the West Midlands (2.4m) has only one club — and arguably its smallest in West Brom — in the top flight, while West Yorkshire (1.8 million) has none. Tyneside (774,000/7th largest in England, and that it excludes Sunderland), Nottingham (730,000/8th), Sheffield (685,000/9th) and Bristol (617,000/10th) are all major urban areas without a Premier League club.

To make a comparison, this would be like a US major league such as the NFL not having teams in Miami, Houston, Washington, Atlanta and Boston. Ratings would surely suffer.

It doesn’t mean no-one is watching Premier League football in these urban areas, but given the local nature of the majority of football support in England, this may have an impact on how many are tuning in. With all due respect to Burnley (149,000/54th) and Swansea (300,000/27th), they can’t drive the audience numbers in the same way.

(Obviously, football in Yorkshire has been struggling for a long while with Leeds and the Sheffield clubs a long way from the Premier League, but the loss of Newcastle and Aston Villa is sure to have an impact this season.)

More subjectively, how we view teams changes very slowly. I still see Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday as “big” clubs in a way that Swansea or Watford will never be, or at least not be for a long time.

To me, Newcastle, Villa, Leeds, Wednesday, Forest and Wolves still rank ahead of Watford, Burnley, Stoke, Swansea, Hull, West Brom, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. There are too many games that just lack that “big match” aura — and when an early-season encounter between lower-ranked teams like Burnley vs Watford is so abysmal, it hardly encourages you to watch them again.

The final theory, that I’m still collating data for but want to throw out there, is that Manchester United’s audiences aren’t quite what they have been in previous years. Doing my weekly checks last season, the United average audience outside the derbies against City and Liverpool was often somewhat on the low side. Understandable, really, given the dross that was played by Louis van Gaal’s team.

Liverpool still carry massive audiences as a legacy of their two decades of success, and United will continue to be a draw even as a similar dynastic decline sets in. I’m sure, in 20 years, articles will be written about whether Tottenham’s dominance is starting to wain and if broadcasters should start diversifying away to other rising teams.

But seriously, with all six of United’s opening slate of games selected for coverage (by Sky and BT), there is an argument to be made that broadcasters need to be a little more imaginative. Quite how Spurs v Leicester, the two title challengers last season, has escaped live broadcast on October 29 is truly baffling.

The Premier League’s decline comes at the same time as a sharp drop in NFL viewership, bringing the issue to greater relevance. However, trying to connect the two would be yet more conjecture, although US audiences for the Premier League are also down. Here’s a good read on the NFL issue. It should also be noted that this is only Sky’s ratings, we don’t know what is going on at BT Sport. BT Sport’s ratings for live football are routinely so low they fail to crack BARB’s weekly top 30 of non-terrestrial channels, so even though Sky’s ratings are down, at least they aren’t so low they can’t be tracked in this way.

In conclusion, in all likelihood a combination of factors are in play here. More commonly discussed factors such as cost and piracy, combined with poorly chosen matches, the absence of a number of big teams and the loss of the Saturday evening timeslot have combined to harm Sky’s ratings.

Has the bubble burst? It’s way too early to say, but I’ll be keeping an eye out, for sure.

It’s also been a very dry, warm September and October, so you never know, it may just be down to that, no matter how silly it sounds.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more chat about Spurs and other things.

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.

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

By Charles Richards/@spurs_report

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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

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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”

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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.

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

Pochettino’s full-back magic starts to rub off on Kyle Walker

Getty via Google Images

Mauricio Pochettino, in his short time in English football, has earned a reputation as something of a full-back whisperer.

In the three years he has been a Premier League manager, almost every full-back he has coached has made massive strides forward.

Under Pochettino at Southampton, Luke Shaw developed rapidly into one of the most sought-after young left-backs in Europe, culminating in a £30 million move to Manchester United. Nathaniel Clyne made the leap from good prospect to England international, and subsequently moved to Liverpool for £12.5 million.

At Spurs, Danny Rose has blossomed into an extremely competent Premier League full-back. Having started out as a winger, at times his defensive instincts were painfully lacking. Many Spurs fans winced when he was selected ahead of Ben Davies at times early last season, but game by game, he has improved his positioning and cut out the errors.

On the right flank, however, Spurs desperately struggled in Pochettino’s first season. Kyle Walker played just 15 Premier League games. The rest of the time, it was Eric Dier and Vlad Chiriches being forced to play out of position, to varying degrees of success.

This summer, Spurs finally added cover and competition in the form of Kieran Trippier, who had performed impressively over the past couple of seasons for Burnley and was available for a relatively cheap £3.5 million release fee. But, finally fit again and able to play a pre-season, Walker was very much first choice.

Aged 25, it felt like a make or break season. Is Walker the dynamic, Premier League-class right-back we saw emerge under Harry Redknapp and impress in the early days under AVB, or is he “Bonzo”, the injury and error-prone weak link of the past two seasons?

It is still early days, but the signs are good.

Perhaps as a result of some residual trauma at our right-back performances in the past couple of seasons, I keep thinking we are due a Walker error. Against Palace, he made a poor back-pass that nearly created a chance. And most recently against Man City, he gave the ball away for the opening goal. While it was a poor pass, it was way upfield on a set piece and took a world-class breakaway from Man City to punish it to the maximum. Since then, there has been nothing — no sloppy back-passes, no positional mistakes that I’ve seen, no headless challenges that leave the defence exposed.

I’ve pulled together some stats from WhoScored that I feel illustrate changes in Walker’s game from the previous two seasons. Sometimes, it looks like he is returning closer to the strong play of the 2011/12 and 2012/13 campaigns, at other times the early signs from this season — still less than a 1,000 minutes played in the league — suggest some new developments in his game or the Pochettino magic having an effect.

kylewalkerstats

A few things jumped out:

  • In core defensive categories of tackles and interceptions, Walker is notably up on previous seasons. On tackles, he is at 3.1 per game currently, in previous seasons he never got above 2.6. On interceptions, again he is way up on 3.2 per game, compared with his previous highest of 2.4.
  • His average passes are way down. He is currently at 39.3 per game, compared with averaging over 50 in the past two seasons. In his two strong seasons, he was averaging in the 40s. This feels like a “less is more” scenario — the less Walker is passing, the more likely it is that more creative players like Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli or Erik Lamela are passing. This can only be a good thing! Our play under AVB became very sterile — a lot of possession but it never went anywhere. The fact that the ball was with the right-back so much probably explains this. It took Pochettino a while, but he appears to be fixing this.
  • Walker’s clearances are down. He is averaging 2.4 per game, in the past two seasons it was 2.8 and 2.7 per game. In AVB’s first season he was averaging 5.1 per game! What on earth was going on there? My guess, his low clearance numbers are a symptom of Spurs solid defensive and midfield play, and there being fewer balls that require clearing. Though it may not necessarily be such a positive. By way of comparison, Nathaniel Clyne averages 2.7 clearances per game through his career.
  • Walker is dribbling less. He averages 0.3 dribbles per game currently, in all previous seasons it was in the 0.7 to 0.9 range. To me, this feels like Pochettino saying “Kyle, please dribble the ball less”. Perhaps as a consequence of fewer dribbles and fewer passes, Walker is being dispossessed a lot less. He averages 0.5 instances of being dispossessed per game. In the past two season, he was dispossessed 1.1 and 1.3 times per game, while in his stronger two seasons it was 0.8 and 0.7 times per game. So some reversion to when he was playing well, with a little bit of improvement thrown in for good measure.
  • He is being fouled more — despite passing and dribbling less. This may be linked to fewer dispossessions. But certainly, this again feels like a potential impact of good coaching — drawing a foul is always a good piece of defensive play as it relieves pressure, while in an attacking situation it can mean a set piece.
  • He is mis-controlling the ball more. This isn’t a good stat, though perhaps indicates that Spurs are moving the ball at a much faster pace now. So work to do on his technique — all those quick passing drills you see in training, basically.

I haven’t been able to find any sprint or distance stats, so this is far from a complete picture of Walker’s season so far. If anyone can point me in the right direction in terms of finding such data, that would be greatly appreciated. But, I’d say there are some promising signs there that support the feeling that Walker may be returning to his best form, and in fact improving. It is still just 11 games into the season, so early days. Let’s check back in later in the season and see if Walker sustains his strong tackling and interception numbers, and also if he stays fit.

Of course, even if Walker’s numbers are improving relative to his past couple of seasons, how does he stack up to his rivals in the position? Is he actually, to use the technical term, any good?

I had a quick play on the Squawka comparison tool — I don’t know much about the site and how reliable it is, but the comparison tool is quite fun. I compared Walker to some of the top Premier League right-backs in interceptions, tackles won and total duels won.

kylewalkercomparison

You have to say, he stacks up very well defensively. (He fares much less well offensively as he isn’t scoring and directly creating chances, it should be noted in this age of two-way full-backs. I’m old school though, I like full-backs who can defend.)

For Spurs, it is a huge boost if Walker can re-establish himself as a right-back of high calibre. While the stadium is being built, expenditure will be limited —  money that needs to be spent on a right-back is money that can’t be spent on strikers and midfielders. It is also pleasing for fans to see someone who has been at the club so long, and experienced some low points, bounce back. Walker has always seemed an engaging fellow and a committed professional, even if he has been frustrating.

His improvement is another feather in the cap for Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching team. Walker appears to be benefiting from being part of a solid defensive unit and a consistent tactical approach. Under AVB, too much of the attacking play came through Walker due to a failure by the Portuguese in getting the team to implement his tactics. Tim “Tactics” Sherwood had no idea what he was doing at all, and even put Walker in midfield against Chelsea. It didn’t go well.

Personally I’m very encouraged by what we are seeing from Walker, and am glad to have some consistency at the right-back position. The numbers would appear to bear out my gut feeling that he is playing well, but it will take a longer period of solid play before I can really start to relax when he sets himself, with a defender pressing, for a back-pass to poor Hugo.

Please follow me on Twitter for more random musings on all things Spurs. My handle is @spurs_report

All data from WhoScored and Squawka — thanks to my fellow Redditors for the pointers. And yup, they are print screens — I laugh in the face of modern technology.