Opinion: Too Many Passengers On The Parked Bus (Part 1: A Gradual Decline)

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Image: SpursWeb

Fourth, Third, Second, Third, Fourth (and Champions League runners-up). Five years of consistency, improvement, and for those of us who remember the long, long winter of discontent from an FA Cup win in 1991 through, really, to Harry Redknapp’s tenure when expectation finally found its way back to the Lane, achievement. 

Yet this season, Tottenham languish in 8th place, seven points away from 4th, four points away from 5th (which may yield Champions League qualification depending on the status of Manchester City’s impending European ban), and eliminated from every cup competition. The numbers, in fairness, aren’t that tragic. The prospect of Champions League qualification is not dead, but it isn’t exactly looking likely either. What is more alarming, is the lack of apparent direction within the club at the moment. This serial Article will examine the cause of the present situation, and consider how best to resolve it.

A Gradual Decline

The early Mourinho period has been, well in a nutshell, somewhat erratic. There have been games where we have carried a serious attacking threat, creating chances, shooting often, scoring with relative freedom- the games against West Ham, Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Olympiacos in particular. The flip side is there have also been games where the attacking freedom hasn’t quite been there, but we have had defensive solidity- games against Manchester City, Liverpool, and more recently Leipzig. 

The problem is, under Mourinho (and to an extent, during the early part of this season under Pochettino) Tottenham haven’t managed to achieve both. It’s been an all or nothing dichotomy. All attack with little defensive solidity, as evidenced by the proportion of games where we have scored highly and conceded highly; or all defend as evidenced by the games where we have conceded few but also scored few.

Neither Mourinho or Pochettino has managed to resolve this issue: how to get the players to satisfy both needs. 

The issues became apparent last year. The remarkable run of poor form in 2019 which yielded more losses than any other premier league side (an “honour” shared only with Brighton) indicative of problems already coming to fruition, being somehow just about masked by finally obtaining the 4th place finish in the Premiership so many clubs at the time seemed determined to avoid, as well as that incredible run to the Champions League final. 

In fact, the issues started some time before. A lot has been made of the slow turnover in the squad of the last few years. A core of players continuing to start matches now who were there before Mauricio Pochettino joined, or who were among his first signings. 

At first, this continuity served to breed team spirit and unity. It created a common cause, a vision which took Tottenham to their highest league position in 55 years. However, eventually, continuity leads to stagnation. This is what has happened at Tottenham.

I do not wish to unduly criticise Daniel Levy. He has turned Tottenham from perennial underachievers into perennial overachievers. He has backed the club with one of the most sensational football stadiums in the world, and he has backed managers with signings. Our record transfer fees have continually increased, as have the wages we pay to players. A lot is made of his so-called “wheeling and dealing”, and the idea that there is a real world price and a Levy price is well known. I am a Daniel Levy fan. I think his stewardship has been enormously beneficial to Tottenham in both footballing and commercial respects. However, this stagnation has happened, and that fact in undeniable. What’s more, only Daniel Levy has the power to recognise and change this. (Let’s hope he is reading!)

Now, despite this continuity in the core of the team, there have been signings. The real issue is that few of those signings have gone on to really establish themselves in the side. It is this singular fact which has lead to the current stagnation Mourinho (and formerly Pochettino) is wrangling with. 

One could argue the beginning of the downturn started in July 2017, with the sale of Kyle Walker to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola had spent an introductory season in English football which many denigrated as an exposure of the weaknesses in his managerial and tactical approach. Suggestions abounded that his much-vaunted tiki-taka style, so dominant on the continent, was unsuited to the speed and physicality of the English game. On that score, the rest, as they say, is history. But the impact for Tottenham was significant. After this breakthrough season in English football, Guardiola recognised a significant part of his Manchester City side’s weakness was a lack of pace in the full back positions. One of the key signings made to remedy this, was Kyle Walker. 

In their first two seasons with Kyle Walker in the side, Manchester City won the Premier League. Tottenham, by contrast, in their last two seasons with Kyle Walker in the side, reaches their two highest Premier League finishes of 3rd Place in 2015-16, and Runners-Up in 2016-17. 

The year of Kyle Walker’s departure, the 2017-18 season, Tottenham also achieved a 3rd Place finish, ahead of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. The latter fact making it no minor achievement. However, despite such a strong finish, cracks were appearing within the dressing room. Toby Alderweireld’s contract was running out, and the mythical £25m release clause (Guardian) was an agonising reminder of quite how valuable a player he was. Christian Eriksen too, was beginning to hold up talks on a new deal. Finally, Danny Rose had never quite regained his status with club or fans after his infamous interview with The Sun the summer before, where he demanded better signings and to be paid what he was worth.

In addition to these cracks, another inevitable consequence of stagnation was beginning to rear its ugly head: ageing. The physical and mental deterioration of ageing in professional sport is well documented. Years spent playing at the highest levels of the professional game take their toll on bodies and minds alike. The bodies aren’t as fast, they aren’t as flexible. They don’t recover as quickly from the injuries they become more susceptible to. The minds become similarly fatigued. Concentration wanes, as does enthusiasm and desire. By the end of that season in 2018, the young Tottenham side which had challenged for the title the two years prior were falling off the pace. 

Fast-forward to the 2018-19 season and this physical and mental fatigue became more evident. By this time, the following players were 27 or above: Hugo Lloris, Paulo Gazzaniga, Michel Vorm, Danny Rose, Kieran Trippier, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele, Moussa Sissoko, Victor Wanyama, Fernando Llorente. 

By the time of the 2019-20 season, Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela, and Heung-Min Son has been added to the list. 

Not exactly a bolt from the blue, but the squad was and is ageing. Significantly, a number of important players are ageing. 

So, to the point of this article, what can be done? The reality is that Kyle Walker’s departure is a great illustration of the decline. At the time, Walker was the best right-back in England, if not (arguably) the world. His replacement was Kieran Trippier. A capable replacement at the time, though he was a different sort of player. One could argue that if given the choice, Kyle Walker would have continued to be the first choice right-back had he remained with the club. 

Kieran Trippier went on to have a decent first season as the club’s first-choice right-back. However, his second season was ill-fated after reaching heady heights with England in the Euro’s. He was sold to Athletico Madrid where he has since established himself as a regular in the side. 

Trippier’s replacement was Serge Aurier, a player signed initially as competition for Trippier after the departure of Kyle Walker.

Aurier is a player much more in the Kyle Walker mould: a remarkable athlete; a regular attacking outlet. However, he lacks the defensive solidity Walker provided, with Aurier almost guaranteed to give the opposition a penalty, score an own-goal, or get himself sent off if faced with the prospect of defending within 30 yards of his own six yard area. 

The transition from Walker to Trippier to Aurier has been a systematic decline in quality of right-back. 

Though he may demonstrate flashes of capability, Serge Aurier is not reliable enough to be considered a player of regular Champions League quality. 

This illustration is indicative of a larger malaise in transfer activity, which has seen a number of poor decisions taken on one of the following bases:

(1) Poor replacements signed for departing key players;

(2) No replacement signings or strengthening in necessary areas;

(3) Not moving along players who aren’t of the appropriate level of quality; and

(4) Failing to secure the signings of players who would contribute a higher level of quality.

In Part 2 of this Article, I’ll expand on these poor decisions, and identify their true implications on the Tottenham team this season.”

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