Opinion: Gambling of passengers on the parked bus (Part 2: Poor decision-making takes its toll)

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Image: SpursWeb

For those of you who read the first part of this article, you will recall this is a serial examining the state of Tottenham Hotspur in the here and now. How did we go from Premier League Runners-Up and Champions League finalists to 8th place in the Premier League and knocked out of all cup competitions? This three-part article considers the stages of declination, the reasons behind it, and the steps that can be taken to remedy the situation. 

In this part, the decision-making of those at the top of the Club’s hierarchy will be discussed, and the following four categories of decisions examined: 

(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.

Poor Replacements Signed for Departing Key Players

This is, as demonstrated with the Kyle Walker illustration, a significant problem. The club sold Kyle Walker for £45m (rising to £50m) (BBC), and replaced him with Serge Aurier for £23m. Again, the illustration is particularly penetrative as the figures involved are comparable to the players themselves- for Serge Aurier, Tottenham paid about half of the money they obtained for Kyle Walker, and they obtained someone who was about half the player. You clearly do get what you pay for. 

Notably, the replacement of Moussa Dembele with Tanguy Ndombele does not follow this model. Dembele left for a new start in China, and Ndombele came in as Tottenham’s record signing. He was, and remains, a real coup. A player of undoubted quality, but concerns have arisen over his attitude with many claiming the signing has been as much as a gamble with AUS online casinos rated by AussieCasinoHEX.com even claiming that the North London club could cash in on him this summer.

He is not Dembele, but then there are very few players of that outstanding level of quality. So, the prospect of finding a player of Dembele’s quality, consistency, and work ethic was always going to be an uphill battle. It might not be a like for like replacement in that sense, but I am, in some respects, sympathetic to Ndombele’s plight. He joined Champions League finalists. A team who had been challenging for the title in preceding seasons. He did not (as I suspect is also the case for Mourinho) expect to join a team with so many frailties in the squad. One could argue that the impact on Ndombele has been a justifiable feeling of disappointment for him. He thought he was joining a young, enterprising, go-getting Pochettino side, which would be challenging for titles and trophies. Instead, he finds himself in a discontented, ageing squad of mixed abilities and lacking direction. For him to come in and lead the great Spurs revolution in such circumstances is perhaps unrealistic. I agree though, that more is needed from him. But perhaps more is needed of the Board to surround him with better players, rather than expecting such a young man, unfamiliar with the country, the language, his teammates, his new manager, to do it all himself.

Ndombele is included here as an illustration of a replacement who has not cut the mustard, especially in view of his price tag. However, one could argue there are mitigating factors to this; factors which are born out of the same issues the entire squad is suffering from.

No Replacement Signings or Strengthening in Necessary Areas

The words “No replacement for Harry Kane” might well have been etched into Mourinho’s Tottenham tombstone had the coronavirus pandemic never come along. The (now seemingly inevitable) mid-season injury to Harry Kane and the untimely injury to Heung-Min Son have exposed Tottenham’s lack of depth in the forward line to a greater extent than ever before. Quite why this has been allowed to happen however, is the alarming thing. This season is not the first season where Harry Kane has suffered significant injury and resultant absence for a large part of the mid-latter season. In fact, it is becoming an almost yearly occurrence. However when people talk about Harry Kane, they do so with a reverence that belies this reality. Harry Kane is undroppable. No-one wants to just sit on the bench behind Harry Kane. If Kane is fit, he starts. First name on the team sheet. The attitude towards Harry Kane’s place in the team is as consistent as it is counterproductive.

The fact is, if Harry Kane is fit, he certainly should be one of the first names on the team sheet, but that doesn’t need to be the case for every game. If Manchester City can rest Sergio Aguero to avoid burnout, surely Tottenham could rest Harry Kane? For those who say no, it must be down to no adequate replacement. There appear to be two types of replacement. The young up and comer: Manchester City have Gabriel Jesus, Arsenal have Eddie Nketiah, Liverpool have Divock Origi; or the old-timer: Chelsea have Olivier Giroud, Manchester Utd have Odion Ighalo.

Spurs have tried both over the last few years with Vincent Janssen and then Fernando Llorente. The difficulty with each of them was that they weren’t Harry Kane. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Different players offer different options. What we have learned this season is that when Kane get injured or needs a rest, anyone capable of filling in is better than nothing. 

The failure to sign replacements or strengthen does not end there. Due to the ageing nature of the squad, a number of additions are needed. Another goalkeeper, another central defender, another right-back, another left-back, another central midfielder / attacking midfielder. In truth, the entirety of the back five could be replaced. With Sanchez and Tanganga, there are signs of evolution, but the failures to sign and integrate new blood into the squad before now has led to a staggering over-reliance on players now past their peak.

Failing to Move Along Players Who Are Not of the Appropriate Level of Quality 

Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko, Toby Alderweireld, and Christian Eriksen (prior to this season), are the players who have papered over the Tottenham cracks for too long. Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen too, in times gone by, though I reluctantly concede their defensive prowess is waning. Even Lucas Moura and the mercurial (if not terribly inconsistent) Dele Alli, have served, rather more infrequently, to do the same. Jose Mourinho, looking at those names, was no doubt enthusiastic at the prospect of taking over the role as Tottenham head coach. However, injuries to Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Moussa Sissoko, and the sale of Christian Eriksen, have left Mourinho reliant on Harry Winks, Toby Alderweireld, and the inconsistency of Lucas Moura and Dele Alli to try and get a run of results going. 

More recently, the likes of Giovani Lo Celso and Erik Lamela have come back into the side and have done well. Steven Bergwijn too, prior to his own unfortunate injury, had been performing capably enough. A number of players show promise: Ndombele, as discussed, but also Sessegnon, Skipp, Foyth, Gedson, deserve some leeway to develop. Yet too many names on the team sheet have simply proven themselves to not be quite good enough for the level to which Tottenham have been performing at over the last couple of seasons, and to which the aspire to maintain.

  • Eric Dier, a player who was a reliable mainstay of the side during Pochettino’s early years, is no longer reliable- the heart is still in it, but he appears to have forgotten how to play. 
  • Danny Rose’s mouth is considerably greater in size than his remaining talent appears to be. 
  • Serge Aurier is, as discussed previously in Part 1 of this serial, a capable athlete but not quite so capable a footballer. 
  • Ben Davies (whom I am loath to include here) has for many years proven himself to be a strong squad player, but is not quite of the level required to be a first choice left back in any other the other contenders for a top-six finish. 
  • The same can be said nowadays of Erik Lamela, Lucas Moura and Jan Vertonghen. How many would be starting for clubs making a title challenge, or even for clubs aiming for a Champions League berth? 
  • Finally, Dele Alli. This will be, for many, a contentious inclusion. He is a player with so much ability, so much promise. But, similarly to Eric Dier, he is also now a player of so much experience. A mainstay of the Premier League, Champions League, and multi-capped international with tournament experience. Yet Alli does not play like it. He runs hard, like Aurier; is an amazing athlete, like Aurier; and so frequently lacks end product like Aurier. In how many games does Alli truly make the difference? Not merely ‘a difference’, where he might grab a goal or an assist, but THE difference? How often is he the player that grabs the game by the scruff of the neck and really changes the outcome? Kane does it. Son does it. Eriksen used to do it. Lucas Moura did it against Ajax. Lo Celso has shown the ability to do it. Even Sissoko and Lamela have done it. But in how many games in the last couple of seasons has Alli done so? I don’t think the answer will be very many, and certainly nowhere near as many as a player of his calibre should produce. Truth is, he has become a mixture of aimless runs with the ball and too many tricky flicks which don’t come off. His end product simply isn’t great enough. It could be, but when the chips are as down as they have been recently, Alli is a player who continues to flatter to deceive. 

The challenge with moving players along is partly the length of their contracts, as well as being able to find suitors who can offer the players an acceptable situation to move to. The Champions League has become a curse in this respect, with many players earning significant wages while enjoying playing time in the world’s premier footballing competition. Therein lies the root of the problem. High wages combined with football at the highest level creates artificial expectations within the players themselves, likely fuelled even more by the players’ agents. Why would a player earning 70k a week, playing in the Champions League, want to go to a club which might be more commensurate with their actual footballing ability, like a Bournemouth, West Ham or Newcastle? One might cite the example of Danny Rose, but he left because he knew there was no chance of game time at Tottenham. Even then, this wasn’t due to the wealth of talent occupying his position. He wasn’t down the pecking order due to his inferior game, but rather his attitude and impolitic comments.

For the rest of the players not quite so indiscreet in their views, few would likely want to leave or be required to do so, as the lack of squad depth ensures they will continue to have opportunities at Tottenham. 

The consequence is clear. The players who aren’t up to scratch continue to enjoy football at the highest level, yet for them and for Tottenham, the opportunity to keep doing so has a diminishing shelf-life. Their lack of quality leaves the team short against ever-improving rivals for a top four berth. As has been evident with the improvement of Leicester, Wolves, Everton and even Sheffield Utd this season, the divide has already been closed.

Failure to Secure the Signings of Players Who Would Contribute a Higher Level of Quality

This is an issue which compounds the rest. Without signing players of greater quality, the quality will not increase. Again, I refer to the Walker > Aurier example from Part 1 of this serial, but we have also seen it in a number of other instances. The curious case of Christian Eriksen is an interesting example. Eriksen made clear his intention to leave some 12 months before the end of his deal (reported in the The Sun, 5th June 2019), and some seven months before he eventually did leave. Questions need to be asked of the clubs handling of the matter. Eriksen’s motivation to leave was not monetary. The club offered him a significant increase in wages, but he turned down repeated pay rises. Eriksen made clear that he wanted to leave to play for a club in another league; to experience life in a different country; for he and his family to learn a new language and immerse themselves in a different culture. His reasoning was clear and consistent, and those requirements were not capable of being satisfied by Tottenham. So why did the club move so slowly to offload him when greater expedition would have increased his sale price? The risk of a lack of an alternative is a possibility, but the signing of Lo Celso appears to have been the replacement. Lo Celso has really come into his own, and appears to be a very good signing. However, the issue here is the approach. This was to replace like for like, or at least in theory. The problem with replacing like for like here, is the impact is limited due to Eriksen’s role in the team. Eriksen was critical to Tottenham. He was the playmaker, the player with the most assists, the most key passes, and his fair share of goals. When he didn’t play, or didn’t play well, Tottenham simply didn’t tick. Eriksen made the difference to Tottenham in so many ways, not least his own direct contributions through goals, assists and key passes. He made other players better. 

Assuming Lo Celso will be able to contribute the same, it means the Tottenham team will be as good as it was with Eriksen pulling the strings. As good, but not better. 

The approach is wrong. The decision to sign better players should not only be taken to replace better players. The basis of any improvement is to replace inferior players with superior players. In the last couple of seasons alone, so many opportunities have been missed or passed up. Bruno Fernandes, Philippe Coutinho, Jack Grealish, James Maddison, Richarlison, Hakim Ziyech, Xherdan Shaqiri. All would have provided improvement to the squad, and would have also relieved some of the creative burden on Eriksen and Lo Celso. In respect of these players, some have greater price tags than others, but in view of the fact Shaqiri went to Liverpool for £13.5 million(TeamTalk), Maddison went to Leicester for £20 million (BBC), and Grealish was likely valued two seasons ago at £25 million, these costs wouldn’t all have been prohibitive. Indeed, all three of those players could have been signed for the £58 million we offered for Bruno Fernandes (Evening Standard). 

Now, I do not profess to know the ins and outs of the Tottenham budget, and I appreciate the stadium commitment will have taken a significant chunk out of it. But the money is there or it isn’t. This means that either the bid for Fernandes, if accepted, couldn’t have been substantiated, or it could have been, and the rest of these players have been purchased instead. I also appreciate the cost of Lo Celso was in the same ballpark as the fee for Fernandes. This suggests the real question is whether the singular signing of Lo Celso, as good as he is proving to be, would have been preferable to the triple signings of Grealish, Maddison, and Shaqiri? I would suggest the answer is no.

Prior to last summer and January of this season, Tottenham’s transfer expenditure (factoring in both player purchases and sales, as per Transfermarkt) during Pochettino’s reign was between £25-50 million. The Evening Standard has the figure at £29 million (as reported on 30th October 2018, and as is well known, no signings were made the following January). So the figures may vary, but in view of the hundreds of millions of pounds spent by rivals during that time (Manchester City (£518m), Manchester United (£466m), Arsenal (£225m), Chelsea (£200m) and Liverpool (£183m), as reported in the Evening Standard on 30th October 2018), whichever figure is correct, it is still very conservative. To put it into perspective, that’s the figure during Pochettino’s reign prior to last summer. That’s the figure between May 2014 and July 2019 (when Spurs eventually signed Jack Clarke from Leeds Utd). That’s been £5-10 million per season. That’s the figure. 

Just let that sink in for the moment. 

To put this even further into perspective, during the same period, Newcastle Utd under the stewardship of the much maligned Mike Ashley, have spent in the region of £108 million (Transfermarkt). That’s an average of £21.6 million per per season. 

There is a counterbalance to be borne in mind, with the stadium costs an enormous drain on resources, but regardless, there are real question marks over so few players being acquired to improve the squad. 

Consequences of Poor Decisions

The consequence of the above is an imbalance in the squad. The proportion of players who are good enough isn’t enough to create an entire 11 of quality. There are always four or five weak links in the chain. When facing up to a side like Liverpool or Manchester City in the Premier League, or in Europe facing a Barcelona, Juventus, or Bayern Munich, there really aren’t any weak links. That proves to be so even when their strongest eleven isn’t on the pitch. When the quality of the opposition’s reserve players exceeds the quality of some of your first choice eleven, you will be up against it to obtain a result. There might be the occasional outlier- Tottenham obtained four points against a far superior Manchester City side this season (though anyone who watched either game probably wouldn’t be able to suggest the outcomes were wholly deserved on the overwhelmingly one-sides balance of play)- but when seven or your ten defeats this season have come against teams above you in the table, it is an indication they have superior quality and squad depth to your own. Dropping further points in four of your ten games against bottom six opposition exacerbates this.

The reality is, the league table doesn’t lie. You can’t finish the season in 8th and say you deserved to be 4th. If the season finishes today (as it very possibly may already have done), Tottenham are in 8th. They are in 8th because they deserve to be in 8th. I would suggest, because of the poor decision making of the last few seasons, Tottenham are in 8th because seven other teams have better squads than Tottenham currently do. The table doesn’t lie. 

Daniel Levy might be able to point to the stadium and say to the fans “Look how far we’ve come.”

In return though, the fans will be able to point to the League table and state of the squad, and say “Look how poor you’ve allowed us to become.”

So what can be done? How do this Tottenham team stop the rot, and where does the club turn next?

The steps that need to be taken to improve the outlook for the future will be analysed in Part 3 of this serial Article. See you then.

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