Over the first two parts of this serial, we have reviewed the plight the current Tottenham squad have found themselves in this season, and examined the reasons why.
This final part will now consider how best the malaise can be arrested, and the improvements needed to establish Tottenham on an upward trajectory once again.
Create An Identity
Throughout Pochettino’s tenure as Tottenham manager, an ethos was identifiable. Buy young and develop; integrate into the system; buy into the ‘Tottenham Project’, it’s vision for the future.
Players over 26 years of age would rarely be signed. The emphasis was on youth, energy, and the prospect of becoming great players was prioritised over those considered already to be great players.
The plan was clear. Defensive solidity helped stabilise the side while enabling attacks to build from the back. Speed in the flanks was provided by pacey fullbacks, capable of attacking as well as defending. Two holding midfielders, one the ball winner, the other the playmaker. Creativity in the final third provided by a playmaker, combined with willing and pacey runners. Harry Kane up front, being Harry Kane.
The approach yielded high possession and control in the majority of games, reliability and consistency in defence, with speed and penetration in attack. It was an approach which did, after all, enable Pochettino to lead the side to successive 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes, as discussed in Part 1 of this serial.
That identity has gone now. Pochettino has gone, replaced by the mercurial managerial talents of Jose Mourinho. A classic Mourinho team has its own style, characterised by a tactical pragmatism designed to win above all else. It isn’t necessarily pretty, but it is effective. The question currently, is whether that pragmatic style can be implemented at Tottenham, and why it hasn’t been thus far. Perhaps it’s a question of time. Mourinho hasn’t had long to work with the players, and the continuous injuries to key players would affect any coach’s ability to work with the squad.
Alternatively, it might be an issue of personnel. All coach’s have an idea of the type of player they like and need. The suggestion a coach’s role is to improve players, train them into their tactics and system, and hammer any squad into the shape they want, is correct in part. However it is equally true that sometimes, the players aren’t right. They don’t do what the manager wants or needs. This is true even of what we might commonly think of as the best players. Ozil didn’t do it for Emery at Arsenal. Bale doesn’t do it for Zidane at Real Madrid. James Rodriguez didn’t do it for successive managers at Bayern.
At Tottenham, clearly Ndombele doesn’t do it for Mourinho. The trouble is, who at Tottenham is doing it for Mourinho?! Not Rose, not Alli, not Vertonghen, not Foyth, not Aurier. Not even Dier, who was formerly sought by Mourinho, and has always been thought of as a ‘Mourinho-type’ of player.
There is no doubt that whatever your opinion of Mourinho, you don’t expect him to be a miracle worker. He pulled one off against Manchester City though (albeit with the help of a Zinchenko red card), and he nearly would have done against Liverpool had a couple of things gone Tottenham’s way. But over the course of the season, we are seeing that miracles are, by their very nature, few and far between. If they happened every week, they would no longer be miraculous. What then can Mourinho do with this Tottenham squad?
This squad is, perhaps by comparison, the worst squad Mourinho has contended with during his career on an equal pairing with the Manchester United squad he took to second place in 2017-18. Using this as a barometer then, a second place finish and Europa League triumph might be the ceiling for the current crop of Tottenham players. For many, that would be acceptable, however whether that will be at all possible is, itself, a question mark. It takes a lot to achieve either however, and so to think that simply because Mourinho has done it before with a substandard squad, that he will be able to do it again. His second place finish and Europa League triumph with that Manchester Utd squad were, he has said repeatedly, his greatest achievement (ESPN). The season after, Mourinho was sacked with Manchester Utd languishing 19pts of the top of the league, with only 7 wins from 17.
The parallel with Pochettino is clear. Achieving the Champions League final while securing another fourth place with a substandard squad, was Pochettino’s miracle. However, as stated above, miracles don’t happen very often.
Tottenham tailed off as Manchester Utd tailed off before them, as Leicester City has tailed off the season before them following their miraculous title success, a Chelsea had tailed off after the season before them following their title success (though perhaps not quite so miraculous). Even, on a slightly different vein, Manchester City tailed off this season after their toe-to-toe title success against Liverpool last season.
As such, how much of an identity can be imposed on a substandard squad? What those previous clubs and previous seasons indicate, with enough quality players to unite the club and paper of the cracks of the poorer players, it is possible to forge an identity to perform a miracle for a season, and overachieve against all odds. But it further shows that in doing so, the fallout can be significant. Each of those clubs sacked their miracle performing manager the season after the miracle.
What else is clear is that the journey back to the top after a miracle can be a long one. The mental and physical fatigue must be enormous. Therefore, while any number of identities might be achievable, the identity of title challengers AND Champions League regulars AND regular trophy winners, is the reserved of either those squads who are so far superior in quality that they are capable of continuing to achieve, or else of those squads so changed in personnel that they will not feel the fatiguing effects that following performing a miracle.
Refresh the Squad
This is it really. The other teams referenced above arrested the fallout from their achievements by starting to reconfigure their squads. For Manchester City, had the coronavirus epidemic not struck, this coming summer would likely have seen significant adjustment to a City squad which has fallen so far behind Liverpool. (However, seeing whether Liverpool will be able to repeat their title success in all but name of this season, would have been interesting to review next season).
Take Leicester as an example. From their title winning side to now, Leicester have replaced core centre-back due of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan with Jonny Evans and Calgar Soyuncu; fullbacks of Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs with Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell; central midfield pairing of Danny Drinkwater and N’golo Kante with Youri Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi; and attacking midfielders of Riyad Mahrez and Marc Albrighton with James Maddison and Ayoze Perez.
Kasper Schmeichel continues to keep goal and Jamie Vardy is still the focal point of the attack, but otherwise the entire team has been replaced (Leicester Mercury).
This rebuild took place over three summers, but the level of change is clear. Not a rebuild to regain the title however, but merely to be back in the mix. And it is necessary, as other sides are ready to break through and perform their own miracles- see the Sheffield Utd charge of this season, as well as a revitalised Wolves team which has real pace and quality.
For Tottenham, a similar rebuild will need to happen, and the likelihood is that it will take longer than the three years it took for Leicester if the reported diminution of the transfer budget is realised.
The difficulty when it comes to rebuilding is that Levy’s traditional approach and Mourinho’s traditional approach are light years apart. Levy seems to prefer to buy younger, less established players, whereas Mourinho favours older, more experienced players. The consequence of the two approaches is Levy’s is (usually) significantly cheaper than Mourinho’s. This is for the simple fact that inexperience means you don’t quite know what player you’ll be buying. Will you get a Kevin De Bruyne, purchased by Chelsea for £7million (Daily Mail) although subsequently sold, or will you get a Davy Klaassen, signed by Everton for £24 million (Guardian)?
Mourinho’s approach at least means you have an idea of the capabilities of the player, though as any Manchester Utd fan who got excited over Sebastian Veron, or Chelsea fan who got excited over Andriy Shevchenko will tell you, it does not necessarily result in happily ever after.
The question then, is whether it is possible to find a middle ground. Is there a way to obtain experience at lesser cost? The answer, certainly this summer, appears to be yes. Loan deals or free transfers. Lesser or no initial outlay for a player enabling a commitment to higher wages.
This summer, if Tottenham approach their transfers in the right way, they could sign Willian from Chelsea. A player outside of the usual mould, but who still has undeniable quality. The same can be said of Adam Lallana at Liverpool and Ryan Fraser at Bournemouth. Each would provide reinforcement and a degree of creativity so lacking in the current Tottenham midfield. At fullback, both Layvin Kurzawa and Thomas Meunier of Paris Saint Germain are available, and with Tottenham in dire need of both left and right fullbacks, sure the club could do worse than securing the signings of two players with significant European experience. Olivier Giroud of Chelsea, a signing to provide back up and support for Harry Kane.
On a loan deal, the potential for Philippe Coutinho is so exciting.
There are players available who could transform this Tottenham squad. Not to the extent that they could win the Premier League or the Champions League, but that would not be the aim. The time for rebuilding for a title challenge or trophy pursuit comes later. The time for stopping the decline is now, and must come first. Signing those players will stem the tide, and will enable qualification for the Champions League. That is the priority. Continued and sustained membership of that exclusive club. The money and prestige that comes with it is what enables a further rebuild to take place. But it won’t come with signing one or two players now.
If Tottenham can begin next season (whenever that may be) with a line-up such as the one below, that Champions League qualification becomes far more likely.
Aurier Alderweireld Vertonghen Davies
Lucas Moura Alli Son
Subs: Gazzaniga, Tanganga, Sanchez, Skipp, Lamela, Ndombele, Bergwijn
Meunier Sanchez Alderweireld Kurzawa
Willian Coutinho Son
Subs: Gazzaniga, Tanganga, Aurier, Lallana / Ndombele, Alli, Giroud, Bergwijn
In conclusion to this serial article, the Tottenham decline has been steady, caused by poor decision-making and stagnation in the squad. The team needs a new identity, and the squad needs freshening up. There does not appear to be a significant budget available to strengthen however, and so the club needs to take advantage of the quality that is on offer this summer through free transfers and loans. One thing is certain though, the club do need to act. Every team over the last few seasons, and I daresay beforehand if you continue to search back, which has performed a miracle has suffered a decline afterwards. That decline is only ever arrested by change. Pochettino has already gone, and Mourinho has come in to produce similarly erratic and often underwhelming performances. The change of manager holds real significance though. They say a bad workman blames his tools, however, if two workmen blame the same tool, does that mean they are both bad workmen, or is it perhaps that the tool was broken after all?
Pochettino and Mourinho are not bad workmen. They are not bad managers. Unfortunately, their squad is broken. All a lowly fan like me can do now, is hope Daniel Levy and the Board are willing and able to act to the extent needed to change the downward course.
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