The Blame Game
My thesis is that Mauricio Pochettino is more to blame for the state of our current first team squad* than Daniel Levy. Hear me out.
I find myself getting irritated reading every thread on Twitter or Reddit or on Spurs forums that blames Daniel Levy and Daniel Levy only for what our squad has become. Of course, Levy placed restrictions on us in terms of our spending. We know that; we are not Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City**. ENIC are an investment company and they operate as such. That is not a point for debate but we could debate (and by god we do, some people even make naff little signs) the merits of having an investment company as our owners. Let’s park that for now — the reality is that we do have an investment company as our owners. And, despite that, we build a top-class squad with a top-class Manager. Mauricio Pochettino is undoubtedly owed a tremendous debt of gratitude.
With Levy’s persona — always lurking in the background at games, rarely communicating to fans, physically looking like a movie villain with his bald head and sharp features, his reputation for being a fearsome negotiator*** — he is a far more convenient figure to blame than lovely, cuddly, handsome, warm, human, front-facing Mauricio Pochettino.
Let it be said that Mauricio Pochettino is, in my opinion, the best Coach that Tottenham Hotspur have had in my lifetime (I was born in 1984). What he achieved with the squad at his disposal was — at times — miraculous. He gave us some of the best attacking football I have ever seen my club play and some of the happiest memories I have as a football fan. I recently wrote an article for this excellent piece of work called ‘A Transformative Tenure’.
But Pochettino was not perfect, and I believe that he was flawed in terms of his role as a Manager and specifically in terms of building/maintaining his squad.
Pochettino was our Manager. He made a big deal about his job title being changed from Head Coach to Manager partway into his tenure because he had felt he was always more than just a Head Coach, that he had always truly had the full remit of a Manager.
Pochettino was also incredibly close to Levy, a point that was reiterated over and again throughout Brave New World****. Levy has at no point tried to “play” Pochettino. This is evidenced by Pochettino regularly briefing the media on our club’s need to operate differently; he was onside, he toed the party line. He was keen to put across the financial confines that he was working within and only late in his Spurs career did he start to lament them. More on that later.
And this is where it gets tricky; some fans will say ‘well Levy should just remove some of those restrictions and back the manager’. I can see the point (I am even halfway to agreeing if I’m honest), but even with all of this in mind — knowing the restrictions in place at the club and being its Manager — Pochettino still had options available to him. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some potential ways of operating given the financial restrictions placed upon him:
- Develop youth players for the first team – easier said than done, perhaps, but the recent introduction of Japhet Tanganga (and indeed, the success this season of Marcus Edwards in the Primeira Liga*****) arguably shows that the gap between Academy players and first team players is not as wide as perceived, and squad places could be filled by Academy players with the hope that one may turn out to be Harry Kane (or even Harry Winks).
- Develop youth players to sell and generate funds; by loaning young players and exposing them to first team football, they gain value and can then be sold for large profits which can be used to fund first team signings. Historically we did this with Jake Livermore (£8m), Steven Caulker (£9.25m), Alex Pritchard (£8m), Andros Townsend (£12m), Nabil Bentaleb (£17m) and Ryan Mason (£13m).
- Use data to unearth under-valued players in other leagues. Arguably this is how we ended up signing Georges-Kévin Nkoudou and Clinton Njié, so this strategy could be said to be ‘risky’; equally, other clubs have unearthed gems for very little money.
- Sign under-valued players with potential from within the English Football League. Over the past five years we have looked at, and decided not to bid for: Demarai Gray, Ademola Lookman, James Maddison, Ryan Sessegnon (when he was 16 and valued at under £5m), Jack Grealish, Tom Bayliss, Max Aarons, Eberechi Eze. All of these players could have been signed for under £10m each, and well under £10m in some cases. NB: we have recently looked at Jayden Bogle (Derby County), Nathan Ferguson (West Bromwich Albion), and are still monitoring Eze (Queens Park Rangers) who is now said to be worth over £20m.
- Try to anticipate when first team players may be about to start declining and sell them at their peak value; arguably we attempted this with Kyle Walker.
- Sell one or two big-name players at peak value and use the money to re-invest, i.e. what Liverpool did with Philippe Coutinho.
With all of this in mind, Pochettino:
- Dropped £55m (plus huge wages) on Moussa Sissoko and Serge Aurier; he could have signed all of the young, English (with homegrown rules in mind) players that I listed above for less than this amount.
- Decided to try to patch things up with Danny Rose (after his hatchet job interview with The S#n newspaper) rather than sell him for circa £30m and re-invest that money.
- Decided to keep Christian Eriksen (with contract running out and no plans to re-sign) and attempt to convince him that he could win something with us.
- Decided to use a very small, tight-knit squad with limited rotation which put tremendous strain on the bodies of our key players, which has possibly led to long-term damage to the likes of Harry Kane and Harry Winks.
- Decided to keep our promising young players in-house to develop but not actually play them, leading to many years of stagnation where several of our best ever Academy talents have essentially played no football (at any level).******
- And, finally, he decided to get rid of Fernando Llorente and not sign or develop a replacement striker. I was no fan of Llorente, but not replacing him now seems very short-sighted.
Latterly Pochettino went to the media saying that we needed a painful re-build, that we had to operate differently. This was his attempt to try to coerce Levy to change his long-established way of operating. This was — in my opinion — largely an attempt to protect himself, protect his ego, because he could see the issues within the squad and was now desperate having not dealt with them over the past two-and-a-half years. But, by then, it was too late; the problems had stacked up over too many transfer windows and were not going to be fixable in one hit. The toxicity of Rose’s situation, of the contract situations of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen had already permeated.
Given what we know about Levy’s negotiations in transfers, some people reading this may say that Pochettino identified reasonably-priced transfer targets, such as Jack Grealish, but that Daniel Levy did not go out and get them. I would answer that in two ways. Firstly, that we should have signed Grealish a year earlier for a lot less money but Pochettino was not convinced at that point. Secondly, that Aston Villa got taken over at just the wrong moment and the new owners pulled the rug from beneath the transfer. If Pochettino really wanted a player, Levy was prepared to back him: £55m on Tanguy Ndombele, £42m on Davinson Sanchez, £25m on Ryan Sessegnon, £12m on an ageing Fernando Llorente, £23m on Serge Aurier, £30m on Moussa Sissoko all speak to that. The net spend is not what you would expect of a top four club, but it’s unfair to say that Pochettino had no backing, and no parameters to work within.
One could argue that Levy backed Pochettino by allowing him to keep Rose when selling seemed the most obvious option, by allowing him to keep Eriksen when we could have sold for £80m+.
I actually think Daniel Levy should have been firmer. He should have insisted that we get rid of Rose and probably Eriksen too. He should have insisted that we revisit the old strategy of signing young, English players and loaning them out to develop (and, just as crucially, build reputation and value). And most importantly he should have put a Director of Football in place to manage all of this. Okay, fine, I think I’ve talked myself round into thinking that Levy’s as much to blame even within the financial constraints because he should have checked Pochettino’s naivety. Okay, as you were.
Ultimately, trying to find someone to blame is fruitless — it’s never as simple or clear-cut as picking your least-liked guy and running with it. There are grey areas and unknowns and constraints. We all moan about senior management at work not having a clue about the realities on the ground — they should have done this and that — but then when you get that exposure at a more senior level you realise that it’s far more complex than you previously thought; you see how focussed they are on a higher, over-arching strategy. As well as having to appease shareholders and managing their own KPIs. Daniel Levy doesn’t look at not paying that extra £5m-10m to sign Jack Grealish as a turning point like some fans do — he looks long-term at the fact that he’s built a world-class Academy base and the best stadium in the world. That he’s delivered years of Champions League football culminating in reaching a final.
Whilst the minutiae will not be lost on him, he is operating at a level where it simply is not so important. We moan about things which, to them, are lower priority than the over arching strategy; they might care and the things we moan about might ultimately feed in but we don’t understand the bigger picture and context they’re working within so our moans are themselves out of context. I am not saying that Levy and ENIC should not be held to account, but we need to appreciate that we don’t have the wider knowledge available to us that they do.
I like to try to end articles on something pertinent, where I wrap up an argument into a cohesive statement, but I don’t think I can here so I will instead offer some hope.
The re-build has started. Christian Eriksen will go this window and with a bit of luck Danny Rose will follow. Toby Alderweireld has signed a contract, and Jan Vertonghen is likely to sign-on for another year as well. We will probably sign Giovani Lo Celso******* permanently, we have a huge, huge talent in Tanguy Ndombele, and Ryan Sessegnon has unlimited potential. We have unearthed a gem in Japhet Tanganga and there are more Academy players who can fill squad places over the coming years (Troy Parrott, Oliver Skipp, Dennis Cirkin, Harvey White, Jneil Bennett, to name a few with many talented younger players hot on their heels). We are two first-team players away from having a very good, cohesive team and five to six players away from having a very good, cohesive squad. This can be fixed across the next three windows. We now have a revenue stream with the new stadium that will allow us to do this at a level where we can punch our weight. It’s going to be okay.
This piece is dedicated to Paul Newman from The Daily Mail.
*A total mess.
**With Financial Fair Play it seems unlikely that we ever could be now. And, frankly, morally I am not sure we would want an owner like any of theirs.
***Which is a good thing to be honest.
****The less said about this god-awful publication the better.
*****Edwards is expected to move to a ‘big’ club in the summer having been one of the stand-out players in the top league in Portgual so far this year for his club Vitória de Guimarães. Spurs have a 50% sell-on clause, but he has a release fee of €15m, so at most we will get €7.5m.
******In some cases, agents and parents of players have literally had to beg the club to let them out on loan in order to get their players exposure. Or they have waited for their contracts to expire and have left or forced moves: Milos Veljkovic, Marcus Edwards, Josh Onomah, Keanan Bennetts, Reo Griffiths. This has a big knock-on effect as parents and agents of younger players clock on. In summer 2018 we lost our best U15 (Omari Forson – Man Utd), and best first-year academy prospect (Noni Madueke – has now made his full debut at 17 for PSV). Other young players will be choosing clubs other than Spurs to go to; it could take us a decade to change the perception of the club.
*******Our Lord and Saviour.