September 21, 2018

Cockerels Coming Home To Roost

Spurs are in a bit of a pickle. It could be a minor pickle, it could be a major pickle — predicting which way this is going to go is so difficult right now due to the sheer number of variables. I’m going to look at some of those variables, be smart after the fact and see if some could have been avoided, suggest some solutions, and consider how much of an impact they might have.

Our midfield / Mousa Dembélé

Not addressing some of our midfield concerns this summer was negligent, particularly when Jack Grealish’s transfer was in our hands for the entire window. We’re now left in a difficult position, with Dembélé no longer able to do all of the Dembélé things, Harry Winks (along with his chronic ankle injury) and Victor Wanyama both still returning from injury, Eric Dier suffering a drop in form, potentially due to having no rest over the summer, and Mauricio Pochettino experimenting with his selections (as I discussed here) as a result of all of the above.

There are a lot of things we could have done to mitigate all of this:

– We could have bought two new central midfielders.
– We could have bought one new central midfielder.
– We could have spent the past three years grooming Josh Onomah to take over from Mousa Dembélé (controversial one, that, as many Spurs fans think he’s useless) rather than playing him out wide.

There are a lot of things we could *still* do to improve the situation:

– We could integrate Luke Amos and Oliver Skipp.
– We could use Under-23 matches to get Wanyama match-fit as soon as possible.
– We could revert to a formation that our midfield players are *all* comfortable with (4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3).

This does not need to be the disaster it currently is. Dembélé’s obvious decline can still be mitigated. And when I say mitigated, absolutely not by playing him at the base of the midfield with Dier in the shuttling role on the right, because if I have to watch that again I’ll snap a pencil.

Harry Kane

I’m at the point where I believe that anyone that does not think that Harry Kane is in some way broken is lying to themself. It could be mental fatigue, he could be physical fatigue, it could be the ankle injury still plaguing him, it could be a combination of all/a couple of these. But: Something. Isn’t. Right. His reduced shot volume post-injury has been discussed over and over and so I won’t repeat it again, but it’s not just his shot volume that’s the issue; he’s just not passing the eye test generally.

I also believe that we’ve adapted our whole shape to compensate for Kane’s current state; that Lucas is playing up with him because he just can’t do the running and isn’t posing his usual threat. It’s worked to some degree (i.e. Lucas is scoring) but it is arguably hurting us defensively.

Harry Kane is our best player but I can’t remember the last time he was our best player in a match. I think we could continue to play him and we’ll probably still get a reasonable tune out of him, but I’m now so firmly in the ‘give the guy a rest’ camp. Pochettino accepts that rotation is required but also says he would be ‘crazy’ to rest Harry Kane. He’s the one that needs it most! This is madness, right?

But there are things we could do to improve the situation:

– Give him four weeks off; temporarily make do with a fluid front-line of Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and Dele Alli. Watch Kane come back on a hot streak.
– Rotate him. If we’re not going to give him a proper break, at least let him have the odd game off.

Maybe I’m over-simplifying, but something has to give.

Full-backs

Yes, I’m back on message — sorry to the many Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies fans out there.

We have a major problem at full-back. We’ve gone from having the best two in the Premier League two seasons ago, to making tactical decisions based upon covering the weaknesses of our current incumbents. And part of the issue is that they are sort of opposites.

I would be a fool to still not accept that Trippier adds value offensively. It may not be to my taste — i.e. I’m a staunch believer that crossing is overrated, and particularly the type of crossing that Trippier does — but he is very, very good at it. He’s also very good at passing a football. But he’s a bad defender, he’s a bad fit for the style of football that Pochettino had us playing at our best. James Yorke‘s piece for Stats Bomb — Tottenham’s Defensive Issues: Fixing the Right Side — does a great job at illustrating some of the issues, but the problem has now become a stylistic and systematic one.

Because Trippier is not a good defender Pochettino sometimes wants to play three at the back to support him. In playing three at the back, we’re taking out a potential attacking midfielder who can run with the ball to add in another centre-back. Trippier cannot run with the ball. He’s 11th in our squad so far this season for dribbles per 90 minutes. Jan Vertonghen is ahead of him. This creates a problem; the ball frequently ends up funnelled out wide to Trippier, and unless he is already high up the pitch and can put a cross in (we have poor cross completion, and often this leads to a turnover), or has a passing option up the line (he’s very good at delivering these types of passes), the ball frequently goes right back (geddit?) to where it has come from and we struggle to progress.

The same can be said of the left-hand side, where Ben Davies is struggling to recreate the good patch of form he had at the beginning of last season. Davies’ strengths at that point were his ability to marry reliably solid defending with well-timed bursts forward which culminated in two goals and two assists in his first six league appearances. Regrettably Davies’ regression has coincided with Danny Rose’s regression. Spurs should have sold Rose when he sold his story. Alas, we’re a year on and from his perspective his bargaining position with his wages has deteriorated and from our perspective, his transfer value has plummeted. Rose is — as with Dembélé — a shadow of his former self.

There are a lot of things we could have done to mitigate all of this:

– Sold Rose in any of the three windows after his comments.
– Bought a left-back. Pochettino has a great relationship with Luke Shaw, who was unhappy at United. In many ways that seemed a no-brainer.
– Upgraded our right-backs in some way: either through properly integrating Kyle Walker-Peters (if he is deemed good enough) or by signing a player more suited  to Pochettino’s best system than Serge Aurier and/or Kieran Trippier. 24-year old Ricardo Perreira (more than double Trippier’s dribbles p90) at €25million looks a real coup for Leicester, for example.

There are things we could do to improve the situation:

– We could play Kyle Walker-Peters or Serge Aurier at right-back. Aurier can run with the ball — and did a fine job of it against Inter Milan, creating chances consistently with his bursts towards the by-line.
– We could only use Trippier solely as a wing-back, but we *must* play someone who can carry the ball and hit the line (and cut the ball back) elsewhere in the side to compensate for his lack of dribbling.
– Try to find a way to nurture Rose back to his previous form, or play Kyle Walker-Peters at left-back.

So, having written the above I’ve just spotted that my mate Nathan A Clark highlighted the *exact same three issues* in his preview piece Brighton vs Tottenham: Snuffing out or just stuttering? I take this as reassurance that I’m on the right track, because Nath is great. But we do talk football together a fair bit so maybe this is an echo chamber effect. Hopefully I’ve put a slightly different slant on this to Nathan, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this despite the repetition.

If you want to do some more reading on this gloomy Friday, here are some great pieces I’ve read about Spurs this week:

Michael CaleySpurs’ midfield changes, plus lack of chances for Kane, are behind their three straight losses
– Mark (Spurs Fanatic): Inter 2-1 Tottenham: space around the six
Seb Stafford-Bloor: Something is amiss with Harry Kane – but it’s not all his own doing
Jack Pitt-Brooke: No pain, no gain for Harry Winks as Mauricio Pochettino looks to get the best out of Tottenham
– Dave Tickner (Football 365): Tottenham: Five reasons to be cheerful
Nathan A Clark: Brighton vs Tottenham: Snuffing out or just stuttering?

And here’s the piece I mentioned earlier that I wrote for Football.London post-Liverpool: Spurs players were not up to the task against Liverpool, but Pochettino’s tactics did not help

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August 24, 2018

Something borrowed

Two matches of the 2018/19, two new shapes for Mauricio Pochettino.

Pochettino was initially wedded to his 4-2-3-1 as Spurs manager, briefly becoming a 3-4-3 convert before going back to his previous shape once Toby Alderweireld’s transfer ambitions became clear. He has dabbled with a three-man midfield in both a 3-5-2 and 4-3-3, but has never stuck with either for any length of time and it seems to have largely been due to circumstance.

That circumstance has partly been a lack of available central midfielders, and that has been the case this season so far.

Thanks to WhoScored.com we can neatly see the average position of Spurs’ players in both matches.

Spurs' Average Positions vs Newcastle

Spurs’ Average Positions vs Newcastle

Against Newcastle, Dele played nominally on the left of the midfield three, with Moussa Sissoko on the right and Eric Dier as the pivot. But Dele was given the job of ghosting forward and interchanging with the unusually-advanced Christian Eriksen, whilst Sissoko was responsible more for protecting Serge Aurier on the right.

Spurs' Average Positions vs Fulham

Spurs’ Average Positions vs Fulham

Against Fulham, Pochettino ‘rotated’, as he hinted he might. He took out Aurier and Sissoko – Spurs’ least effective players against Newcastle – and brought in Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier.

Notably, the tactics changed wildly with the change in personnel. Suddenly we had a player at the back with a terrific range of passing, and a wing-back known for his crossing ability. Spurs often used Alderweireld’s passing to get the ball wide early, and used Trippier to stand in advanced areas and send crosses into the box.

To emphasise this point, only five outfield players in the Premier League (David Luiz, Conor Coady, Jonjo Shelvey, Ruben Neves, Ben Mee) have played more accurate long-balls than Alderweireld this season, and all five have played in both of their team’s opening matches. Only three players have made more crosses than Trippier (14) in the Premier League this season – Johann Berg Gudmundsson (21), Trent Alexander-Arnold (19), Benjamin Mendy (16) – and all three have played in both of their team’s opening matches. The volume of both was significant.

As an aside, I would add that none of Spurs’ three goals came from Trippier crosses, and indeed the opener came on one of the rare occasions that Trippier opted *not* to cross and instead played a clever, chipped pass into the corner of the box for Eriksen who was able to make a cut-back. That said, we did score from a wonderful Aurier cross against Newcastle. Personally I am of the belief that crossing is an inefficient route to goal and would rather we dropped our cross volume by at least 50%, but thats a blog for another day.

Spurs’ two three-man midfields have probably come from necessity. Aside from Dier, none of our first choice central midfielders are fully fit, with Victor Wanyama just resuming training, Harry Winks building up fitness after a lengthy lay-off, and key man Mousa Dembele not quite ready post-World Cup.

But in both matches, as Nathan A Clark points out in his latest article for RealSport, Spurs have been reliant on Dembele’s 20-odd minute cameos to reassert dominance after briefly wavering.

Pochettino has yet to find the perfect balance without Dembele, and that was particularly evident in the second half against Fulham, where the press of their physically dominant midfield became a problem, and Dembele became an essential change. This will lead to an interesting selection dilemma against Manchester United, which I will return to shortly.

But in Nathan’s article he also makes the point that Spurs’ midfields have both been borrowed from World Cup teams – the Newcastle shape from Didier Deschamps’ France, and the Fulham shape from Gareth Southgate’s England. With the latter, we can take this a step further as there are many similarities and it is useful to highlight them.

Pickford – Lloris
Maguire – Vertonghen
Stones – Sanchez
Walker – Alderweireld
Trippier – Trippier
Lingard – Eriksen
Henderson – Dier
Dele – Dele
Young – Davies
Kane – Kane
Sterling – Lucas

There are some obvious differences: England would kill for a player like Eriksen, and Ashley Young is more cross-heavy than Ben Davies, but there are plenty of similarities, and this is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Lucas Moura played ‘the Raheem Sterling role’ remarkably well against Fulham, pressing with an intensity that will have caught Pochettino’s eye, but also being willing to vary his play, one moment running in behind and stretching play, the next dropping short and using his quick feet to get himself out of tight spaces. Jan Vertonghen is a close match for Harry Maguire in terms of carrying the ball from the back, and though Davinson Sanchez is not as good as John Stones in possession, they both tidy up effectively in different ways.

The approach to the Manchester United match may see a further change in shape. United have approached both of their matches with Andreas Pereira as their deepest-lying midfielder, Fred to his right and Paul Pogba to his left. Fred in particular has disappointed and I suspect that if either Nemanja Matic or Ander Herrera are fit and able to play one or both will come in (Herrera was on the bench against Brighton).

A midfield of Pogba, Matic and Herrera will concern Pochettino, and I think he will want to start a more naturally defensive-minded player alongside Dier to counter it. Dembele seems the most ready, but he has history with Pogba.

Though Dembele had the better of Pogba in the league at Wembley last year, I have rarely seen any other midfielder have as much success as Pogba has in physically and mentally dominating him, particularly obvious in the league game at Old Trafford and the FA Cup Semi-Final.

My suspicion is that Dembele will come in with ‘revenge for the cup semi’ as motivation, as Spurs will fear being over-loaded in midfield. That creates a selection dilemma, with Pochettino probably needing to choose between Sanchez/Alderweireld and Lucas for who to rotate out. I would lean towards leaving out Sanchez, as the prospect of a fresh and confident Lucas running at United’s vulnerable centre-back pairing is one which excites. I think a diamond-ish midfield could be a nice compromise, but it would put pressure on Davies and Trippier to cover the flanks, which is a concern, neither being particularly naturally athletic or possessing ball-carrying ability.

Spurs vs Man Utd - Football tactics and formations

Eriksen has had a quiet start to the season, looking far looser than usual in possession, but he will be a key man at Old Trafford if we are to play this shape, as he will be required to protect Trippier against the threat of United’s winger (be that Martial, Sanchez or AN Other) as well as be our chief playmaker. Having Lucas up with Kane may relieve some of that pressure, as it gives us an out-ball and an option in the channels.

Jose Mourinho has often had the upper hand on Pochettino, but early season form suggests that Spurs stand a good chance of some sort of result despite history pointing towards a home win. Though it would be just our luck if Mourinho stumbled into a balanced midfield after the Brighton disaster.

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August 10, 2018

So Here We Are

Dear Mr Levy,

No wait, that’s that other bloke.

As Mauricio Pochettino delivered a staggeringly philosophical press conference yesterday, which moved between the ever-so-slightly sanctimonious and pure, glorious serenity, some of the cracks of the transfer window were smoothed over. He’s wonderful in these situations; a true company man, protecting his team, his boss and himself with pragmatism, the odd joke, plenty of smiles and a warmth rarely seen in such arenas.

Spurs only have themselves to blame for this mess — if, indeed, it is one; I’ll come back to that — which began two years ago when we signed Vincent Janssen, Georges-Kévin N’Koudou and Moussa Sissoko, three players we’ve presumably been looking to shift in every window since.

We have a squad bloated with problems — some players are not good enough, some want to leave — and Pochettino’s ‘We didn’t sell players and with 25 players in the squad it is difficult to add players.’ comment pretty much explains that it is difficult to do ‘in’ business without first doing ‘out’ business.

The plan over the next few weeks needs to be to find loan takers for some of those players that we ultimately want to flog and those players that are ultimately going to potentially cause unrest. Which is, I presume, why we’re talking to Schalke about a loan move for Danny Rose.

Within the bloat, however, is a core of excellence. Our first fourteen or fifteen players are a match for nearly any other side in the league, and comfortably top four worthy. The rest? Well, we have to make it work. Pochettino’s brilliance comes in his ability to improve. To squeeze extra from a starting point which doesn’t seem to have any slack. Every year we see growth from within the squad; last year it was Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies, this year someone else will step up, that’s simply inevitable with a coach as good as ours.

There is untapped potential there too, some of which we’ve seen in pre-season (Oliver Skipp, Luke Amos, et al) and some of which we haven’t (Josh Onomah and, whisper it quietly, Marcus Edwards). Many fans have given up on Onomah and Edwards, but if we can harness that talent, the upside is huge. Onomah can do some of the things that our long-term target, Jack Grealish, can do, possessing both the ability to drive with the ball from central midfield and to pass the ball effectively, illustrated by the fact that he was statistically one of the best progressive passers in the Championship last season:

Edwards has had well-documented problems — before and during his loan spell at Norwich, but all need not be lost and a clean slate and change of approach from both club and player could finally see both benefit. Perhaps I’m deluded and both will be on loan by September.

But I do think this window has been a mess. I think Daniel Levy has failed in this window, as he did in August 2016, as he did in January 2017, as he largely did in August 2017 and as he did in January 2018. But the failing, in my opinion, is in not putting an appropriate structure in place as much as being one of (lack of) ambition or his famed negotiation tactics. He invites pressure onto himself by being so closely involved in the process, and by not having recruitment experts on hand to do what he cannot.

We accept that Spurs cannot match the spending power of other Premier League clubs with bottomless pits of cash — certainly not having just spent a billion quid on a stadium, and certainly not until we are at a point where we can stretch our wage structure (after a year of increased match-day revenue, perhaps). So we need to be canny, we need to dig that bit deeper, we need to use other methods to identify players. It all seemed to be going so well with the (albeit short-lived) appointment of Paul Mitchell, his black box, a new analytics team, and an increased focus on using ‘modern’ methods to recruit, rather than relying on word of mouth and ‘the eye test’. This has not yielded results.

As I’ve spoken about on The Extra Inch, my biggest hope for this window was that Spurs had got their act together and would act early to secure targets which may be a little under the radar, making the deals that bit easier to do. Pochettino’s pre-World Cup comments implied that the intention was to do business early, to have signings available for pre-season. Clearly, our inability to sell has inhibited our ability to buy, and we have to consider that in future windows. Perhaps we need to accept less. Or better, to not buy trash in the first place.

I hope that this will lead to a change in approach. Where a signing is simply squad fodder, let’s promote from within instead. Let’s utilise the talent already at the club to fill those squad places. This has multiple benefits, but the main two being the savings in outlay (of course), which frees up funds to genuinely improve the first team, but also creates the sense of a progression route being in place from the Academy, which will hopefully put an end to us shedding our top talent in the way that we have over the past two years.

It is clear to any sensible observers that Spurs have basically stood still this summer whilst, at least on the surface, those around us have improved. The window has been a disaster in many ways, but the disaster is within context and — just as importantly — is containable.

Even having signed nobody, we probably have the fourth best squad in the league, and we probably have the second best manager in the league. A manager capable of over-achieving, and so third place again would be no great surprise to anybody.

We are short on fit first teamers for now, sure, but we have a relatively ‘easy’ (with the caveat that ‘there are no easy games in the Premier League) start to the season that will hopefully allow us time to get players fit before we play United.

The positivity that the new stadium will bring can provide the same bounce as a new signing and whilst we might be left wondering what might have been had we strengthened, I still foresee a positive season for Spurs, and hopefully this will be the year that we finally bring a trophy home.

On a personal level, I have negotiated flexible working for the next few months which will give me a little more time to write, to podcast, and to engage more generally, and I can’t wait for the season to get going.

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July 21, 2018

25-Man Squad Update – July 2018

With the transfer window closing at 17:00 on Thursday 9th August, there are fewer than 19 days left on which to do business. At the end of the window we will be required to notify the Premier League of our 25-man squad.

To summarise the rule, as I do each year, we are able to name a 25-man squad if eight of the players are ‘home grown’. We could name fewer than eight home grown players, but would need to also name fewer than 25 players in our squad — for example, if we only have seven home grown players, we can name a 24-man squad, 6/23, 5/22, etc. A home grown player (HGP) is defined as follows:

An HGP means a player who, irrespective of nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to The Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons, or 36 months, before his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21). – Source: Premier League

We do not need to name players who are under 21 on our squad list; for the 2018/19 campaign, players considered ‘under 21’ will have been born on or after 1st January 1997.

Since the beginning of last season we have added one non-home grown player in Lucas Moura.

Also, since last season, Harry Winks, Connor Ogilvie, Dele Alli and Davinson Sánchez have all passed the age threshold and will need to be named in the squad, whereas last year they could all simply be included in our list of under-21 players.

Our ‘named’ 25-man squad might consist of the following (* = home grown player):

Hugo Lloris
Michel Vorm
Paulo Gazzaniga

Jan Vertonghen
Toby Alderweireld
Davinson Sánchez
Kieran Trippier*
Serge Aurier
Ben Davies*
Danny Rose*
Connor Ogilvie*

Mousa Dembélé
Victor Wanyama
Eric Dier
Harry Winks*

Christian Eriksen
Dele Alli*
Heung-min Son
Erik Lamela
Lucas Moura
Moussa Sissoko

Harry Kane*
Fernando Llorente
Vincent Janssen

NB: there are only 24 players and Georges-Kévin N’Koudou has been left out in this example, as we only have seven home grown players over 21.

Of course, we are then able to select any players who were born on or after 1st January 1997 without needing to register them. This means that any of the following (plus the other first and second year academy scholars) would be available for selection. NB: I have presented them in age order.

Luke Amos
Anthony Georgiou
Kyle Walker-Peters
Josh Onomah
Shayon Harrison
Tom Glover
Cameron Carter-Vickers
Juan Foyth
Shilow Tracey
Alfie Whiteman
George Marsh
Kazaiah Sterling
Marcus Edwards
Brandon Austin
Jaden Brown
Dylan Duncan
Jack Roles
Japhet Tanganga
Sam Shashoua
Jonathan Dinzeyi
Charles Freeman
Jamie Reynolds
TJ Eyoma
Tashan Oakley-Boothe
Jonathan De Bie
Tariq Hinds
Reo Griffiths

As it stands, we have 25 players over 21 and not all of them can be named on our Premier League squad list, as only seven of them are home grown players. This means that we have ‘squad space’ for one more grown player, but no space for more non-home grown players without first removing one.

From next year (2019/20), Luke Amos, Anthony Georgiou, Kyle Walker-Peters, Josh Onomah, Shayon Harrison, Tom Glover, and Cameron Carter Vickers would need to be named on our squad list should we wish to use them as they were all born before 1st January 1998. The fact that all seven of these are considered home grown is useful, though I would suspect that some of them will be permanently transferred before the start of next season.

Commentary

That’s the facts dealt with; now some commentary on the above. Firstly, a number of players listed in my example squad list are seen as expendable (Vincent Janssen, Fernando Llorente, Moussa Sissoko, Connor Ogilvie*), but rumours suggest that we are struggling to sell unwanted players and, indeed, only have loan offers on the table for Janssen, Sissoko and Nkoudou. Alderweireld, Rose and Dembélé were expected to leave, but all has currently gone quiet.

The state of the squad – bloated with a lot of deadwood – points towards an at-least-partially unsuccessful transfer policy, and helps to explain in part why our summer has been quiet so far. Mauricio Pochettino likes to work with a small squad, but is also presumably acutely aware that being left with players that cannot be listed in the Premier League squad is not an efficient use of his wage budget. In essence: we need to sell before we can buy.

Also: Jack Grealish makes total sense. Central midfield is a problem position, with Harry Winks needing to prove his fitness and Mousa Dembélé 1. visibly declining and 2. rumoured to be leaving. As a homegrown player, we could add Grealish to the squad without having to sell. He is not yet 23, covers some of the skills missing from the squad (driving runs forward, creative passing from deep-ish midfield) and is available for a reasonable price for various reasons.

Finally, we are being linked with wingers and I don’t really know why. We signed Lucas Moura in January, and are now looking pretty well-stocked for players who play wide in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3, with Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Son Heung-min, Erik Lamela, and Lucas Moura all used in these roles (I’m assuming we will sell Moussa Sissoko and GK Nkoudou). One may argue that Christian Eriksen will be moved back into a three-man midfield this year, but that would then assume we would switch to a system (4-3-3?) that allows just three forwards, which you would have to assume would be Kane, Son, and Dele, with Lamela and Lucas as rotation options.

Another suggestion is that the wingers we are being linked with – Anthony Martial, Wilfried Zaha, Malcom – could cover Kane too. We have some reasonable squad cover for Kane through Son (and, I guess, Llorente if he stays), and Lamela showed potential as a false nine last season if we were short. Essentially, I personally think funds are better spent elsewhere in this team unless Pochettino has given up on Lucas already (which would seem hasty).

The good news is that the World Cup and lack of signings means that young players will get opportunities on the pre-season tour, and will have a chance to impress Pochettino; this could ultimately lead to some squad gaps being filled from within. Cynically, I think it’s a problem that our young players tend to only get a chance when we are down to the bare bones, but that’s another article. Walker-Peters, Onomah and Amos are all now 21 and probably need to make decisions about their long-term futures, or will risk becoming versions of Ruben Loftus-Cheek (just 2,442 Premier League minutes – the equivalent of 27 matches – at the age of 22 despite having such ability). Perhaps this was the long-term plan all along, and Pochettino has timed it perfectly.

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May 18, 2018

Consolidation

This has been a season of consolidation. In the league we’ve finished higher than expected. Pre-season predictions generally suggested that Spurs would finish anywhere from 4th – 6th, particularly given the Wembley factor. The cups were, yet again, a case of what might have been. The League Cup exit to West Ham — having been 2-0 up — was one of the low points of the season. The FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United felt painfully inevitable. And the Champions League exit to Juventus came on a day where expectations were relatively low, but was a bitter pill to swallow because the match had been going so well. The Champions League campaign on the whole was one of which we can be proud; some historic moments, some wonderful atmospheres, and Harry Winks’ coming of age at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.

Mauricio Pochettino has, yet again, overseen improvements in individual players to levels not previously thought possible. I’m particularly looking at Ben Davies, who has come on significantly. Previously thought a mediocre back-up, Davies is now an important squad member who has made 38 appearances in all competitions, scoring twice and getting six assists too.

Other than Davies, we’ve seen big improvements elsewhere, even from players who were previously already established. Christian Eriksen has gone up another notch, and is now arguably, along with Harry Kane, our best player. I voted for him as Player of the Season, such is his importance, his influence. When he’s not there, we are infinitely slower and less able to create. He could play for any club in the world, and I would personally be making him captain or vice-captain (I do like a captain in the middle of the pitch…) in an attempt to convince him to stick around longer.

Son Heung-min has become near enough elite. He managed 18 goals and 11 assists in 53 appearances in all competitions, at a rate of a goal or assist every 116.5 minutes, which is quite brilliant. He showed his versatility again too, playing from the left, from the right and through the middle, covering for Kane when necessary. Next season we need to learn when to take him out and give him a breather, as he seemed totally exhausted by the season’s end, though finishing the season with an injury didn’t help.

Jan Vertonghen has been immense. With Toby Alderweireld absent for long periods, we have been somewhat reliant on Vertonghen to marshal our defence, nurturing new boy Davinson Sanchez in the process. Sanchez’s first season has been unbelievably impressive — he is a mega-talent — and I am sure that he would say that the reliability and quality of Vertonghen alongside him has been a great help and has allowed him to bed in smoothly. Vertonghen has always been a lovely player; his quality on the ball often out-shone his defending in his early years at Spurs. But he has become more robust over time, his decision-making is 99% perfect, and he still steps out from defence like few other players in the Premier League, swaggering forward in a fashion that says ‘I could play anywhere, but I choose to play at the back’. I did notice towards the end of the season that Vertonghen started to look a little creaky on the turn when we played a particularly high line, and I wonder if — at the ripe old age of 31 (lol) — we may find that he needs our back line to start a few yards deeper over time.

Mauricio Pochettino’s post-season comments regarding the direction of travel at the club were fascinating, two comments stood out in particular:

“I think it’s a moment where the club needs to take risks and try to work, if possible, harder than the previous season to be competitive again because every season will be worse and will be more difficult.”

And:

“I think after four years we need to assess this period and if we want to play and be really contenders for big, big trophies, I think we need to review a little bit. It’s fantastic today all that we achieved, but it will be so important to create again, assess all that has happened and create a different, not project, but add different ideas to help the club to move on and be closer to winning titles in the next few years.”

I think there are two key points to take from this. Firstly, Pochettino is clearly urging Levy to take a slight change in approach, to be a little less risk-averse. And secondly, and possibly more specifically, to make some fairly significant changes to the squad.

It is likely that there will be a number of players leaving the club in the summer, most notably Toby Alderweireld. I foolishly convinced myself that the ITK was true and that there were some off-pitch issues surrounding him not playing, but it seems clear that he will leave in the hunt for trophies and market-value wages. Danny Rose may have back-tracked on his comments of last summer, but I wonder whether that’s mainly because his stock has fallen somewhat. In hindsight we should have sold him at his peak value, and we may end up hanging onto him despite everything — I cannot see why we would sell to Everton, who seem to be the only interested party now. Mousa Dembélé’s body has finally given up on him and, after years of carefully managing his schedule to maximise him, his performances have begun to dip. He had some real highs this season — particularly in Europe — but he had several really rough games too, and he now seems destined to move to China. He’s approaching 31, but I would say that he’s an ‘old’ 31 due to his niggling hip injuries, so I don’t begrudge him moving for that one last, big pay-day. One would have to imagine that Fernando Llorente, Moussa Sissoko and Vincent Janssen will all leave, and all have to be seen as transfer failures. I cannot see that we would recoup anything like what we paid, but between them they will be on big money, and that saving will be useful.

That is five or six players and all would probably need replacing in some way, adding up to arguably more major surgery than we have done under Pochettino than at any point other than his first season, so his comments were particularly timely.

We have another area of weakness which would be fairly easy to upgrade, but it’s problematic. Kieran Trippier is a good, solid player who has a skill set which is not suited to the way that we play. He is all about holding his position in the opposition half, receiving the ball and delivering early crosses for onrushing players. Crossing is an incredibly inefficient way of scoring goals, and our style requires someone who is able to carry the ball forward at pace, get his 10-20 yards up the pitch, and then ether hit the byline and play cut-backs, or lay the ball off for our attacking midfielders to probe centrally; i.e. exactly what Kyle Walker was so good at. Serge Aurier shows signs of having some potential to do elements of this, but there remain concerns over his rashness in defence, and his ability to beat a man. Certainly he is more agile and dynamic than Trippier, able to shift his weight more quickly and launch us from defence into attack more naturally, but he will require a lot of moulding from Pochettino to become a success. Then we have Kyle Walker-Peters. Two Premier League matches, two Man of the Match awards. If I’d had my way, he would have been fully integrated over the past two years and we might not have needed to sign Aurier, but we are where we are. Walker-Peters has all the balance and dribbling ability to be a success, plus the recovery pace to allow him to play further forward. In my opinion he is a far more natural fit for our 3-4-3 than either of the alternatives. We have been at our very best under Pochettino with two high quality, in-form wing-backs and, as such, my personal preference would be to sell Trippier (who is approaching 28) *and* Aurier (who I think will require rather a lot of fine-tuning), to sign a high calibre right-back (I rather fancied Porto’s Ricardo Pereira, but it seems that Leicester have got in there first), and to use Walker-Peters as rotation. My gut feel is that we will start the season with all three of our current right-backs, and I just hope that Walker-Peters has the opportunities to make the position his own.

Normally a club will go into the summer with a couple of key areas to strengthen, but this time around we will likely require reinforcements in almost every area of the pitch, and that includes goalkeeper with Michel Vorm coming to the end of his contract and expected to move on. Some of these squad spaces could be filled by young players *prepares self for rant*.

Spurs have sold Keanan Bennetts to Borussia Mönchengladbach this week, amidst talk that Reo Griffiths — scorer of 32 goals in the Under-18 league this season, twice as many as anyone else — may also move on, and may also move abroad. The loss of Bennetts and potential loss of Griffiths follows a trend of us selling talented young players to German clubs – Milos Velkovic, Ismail Azzaoui and, of course, Nabil Bentaleb all followed that course. Bentaleb would likely get in our current matchday squad. Veljkovic is going to be a high-class centre-back. Azzaoui has been unfortunate with injuries but has played 1000 minutes this season and is going to be worth a fair bit in the future. Veljkovic in particular is an interesting one, and his situation seemed to pre-empt what’s happening now. He wanted assurances that eventually he’d get first team football, but Spurs wouldn’t give him those until he signed a contract. The stand-off intensified and he joined Werder Bremen for a token gesture fee in February 2016. He will be in the Serbia squad for the World Cup. He’s a ball-playing centre-back who would have been ideal for us in the long-term, but we would not compromise.

Had Bennetts been on the bench for a couple of League Cup matches earlier in the season he’d probably feel integrated and like he wanted to stick around. Heck, he could have been used at left wing-back when Walker-Peters (a very right-footed full-back) was having to fill in there — he’s certainly physically ready, and he has the pace to scare opposition defenders. Had he played, he’d have suddenly been worth £3/4/5m and, had he done well he’d have been worth double that, perhaps more. Not all youth players are going to become first team players but we should maximise profit. So even from the ‘our Academy players aren’t good enough for the first team’ perspective, it’s worth giving them *some* minutes just to add value. Ultimately he’s a player that will likely be worth multiple millions one day, so even if you don’t think he’ll be first team material, we could have at least built his value up with strategic first team involvement and loans.

Spurs losing young players is not confined to scholars and above — last season we lost Nya Kirby to Crystal Palace at 16, and this year it seems Noni Madueke will be joining Manchester United as a scholar. These two are big talents and, whilst it’s not unusual for 16-year olds to change clubs before their scholarships, it does make you wonder why potential stars would leave our wonderful training centre, and the lack of progression opportunities may be one reason.

As a whole, Premier League teams are failing to bring through talented young players (England are strong across the board from Under-16 to Under-21), instead choosing to spend millions on (often sub-standard) players from abroad. German clubs have now identified that within English academies there’s an untapped pool of top class technical talent, available cheaply and willing to move for first team football.

We’ve seen players like Ademola Lookman, Reece Oxford, Jadon Sancho make the move, and they are rumoured to soon be followed by Rhian Brewster, and now Bennetts and potentially Griffiths. If I was a Sporting Director at a European club I’d be all over the English market, there’s so much talent — and it’s a money-ball dream because all they need is opportunity and suddenly they’re worth a fortune!

Spurs need to develop a coherent plan for bringing players from Academy to first team, as that is currently failing. We’ve built an incredible training complex, have elite coaches at various age groups, and are producing excellent Under-18 players (the team finished 4th this season behind some very good sides). But it seems to stop after that, and there’s a lot of work to do with the Under-23s, with the loans, and with the link to the first team. Let’s hope that next season we can develop a plan for bringing young players through to our first team squad to back-fill, save us some money, and to hopefully develop the next Kane, Winks or Walker-Peters.

So onto next season. If this season has been one of consolidation, next season appears set up to be one of transition. We will likely have a number of key positions to fill and will also have a reduced pre-season due to the World Cup hampering preparations. We will have our third home stadium in as many years and so new routines, a new pitch and a new atmosphere. Pochettino will, more than ever, have to get a new group up to speed efficiently, and will be reliant on some of his key players to carry the weight initially. We could do without Harry Kane blanking in August, for example, and we could also do without too many coming back from the World Cup with burn-out.

This is possibly Pochettino’s biggest challenge yet, and he will be judged by the summer transfer business, since he now has more control at the club.

Looking at his transfer business to date (below – taken from the legendary Topspurs), I would suggest, perhaps generously, that there are eight hits, eight misses, and six maybes. That ratio could do with tweaking, and I think that explains his recent comments about a change of approach.

2017/18 Lucas Moura Paris Saint-Germain Jan-18 £25,000,000
2017/18 Fernando Llorente Swansea City Aug-17 £12,000,000
2017/18 Serge Aurier Paris Saint-Germain Aug-17 £23,000,000
2017/18 Juan Forth Estudiantes Aug-17 £8,000,000
2017/18 Davinson Sanchez Ajax Amsterdam Aug-17 £42,000,000
2017/18 Paulo Gazzaniga Southampton Aug-17 Undisclosed
2016/17 Moussa Sissoko Newcastle Aug-16 £30,000,000
2016/17 Georges-Kévin N’Koudou Marseille Aug-16 Undisclosed
2016/17 Vincent Janssen AZ Alkmaar Jul-16 £17,000,000
2016/17 Victor Wanyama Southampton Jun-16 £11,000,000
2015/16 Son Heung-min Bayer Leverkusen Aug-15 £22,000,000
2015/16 Toby Alderweireld Atlético Madrid Jul-15 £11,500,000
2015/16 Clinton N’Jie Olympique Lyonnais Aug-15 £8,300,000
2015/16 Kieran Trippier Burnley Jun-15 £3,500,000
2015/16 Kevin Wimmer FC Köln Jun-15 £4,300,000
2014/15 Dele Alli Milton Keys Dons Feb-15 £5,000,000
2014/15 Benjamin Stambouli Montpellier Aug-14 £4,700,000
2014/15 Federico Fazio Seville Aug-14 £8,000,000
2014/15 DeAndre Yedlin Seattle Sounders Aug-14 £2,500,000
2014/15 Eric Dier Sporting Lisbon Jul-14 £4,000,000
2014/15 Ben Davies Swansea City Jul-14 Part-Ex
2014/15 Michel Vorm Swansea City Jul-14 £5,000,000

As ever, fans will be desperate for a cup triumph, and perhaps some lessons will have been learned this year, though frankly I feel as though I’ve said that before. The team selection against Manchester United — with Alderweireld and Lloris on the bench — was certainly questionable.

We have some major surgery to do this summer, but the potential is great, with some wonderful players throughout the spine of our team. Do this right, and we can challenge on all fronts. Get it wrong, and we could find ourselves taking a backwards step.

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