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Tottenham Hotspur’s failures in squad building

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APRIL 17, 2023

Tottenham Hotspur is in crisis.

Another serial winner has left the club. Antonio Conte’s parting gift was a fiery tirade against both his own players and team ownership.

Managing director Fabio Paratici has been handed a 30-month ban from football over financial dealings at former club Juventus.

Star striker Harry Kane — Spurs’ greatest modern player — is out of contract next summer, with no plans to extend.

The club is floundering on the field as well. With eight matches to go, the Lilywhites are barely in contention for a Champions League place.

Worst of all, cross-town rivals Woolwich might win the league.

This is a far cry from just five years ago. In 2018, Spurs had the world at their feet. Mauricio Pochettino had turned an underdog cast, led by Kane, into Champions League regulars. For the first time in decades, Tottenham could seriously challenge for major honors. The following June, it had even reached a Champions League final.

Although Pochettino never delivered Tottenham’s white whale — a first trophy since 2008 — his tenure raised supporter expectations. Spurs are nowhere near competitive right now, and the onus is on chairman Daniel Levy to fix that.

The chief criticism levied against Levy is that he, and thus owners ENIC, are unwilling to spend enough to rival the top teams. Per Capology, Spurs have a yearly wage budget of £101.344 million, and Transfermarkt reports a net spend of £335.523 million since 2020 — the club ranks fifth in both. Among the so-called “big six,” only Arsenal spends less on wages, and Liverpool less on transfers. Tottenham’s wage budget is actually closer to the seventh largest, Leicester City, than to Liverpool in fourth.

Although cheaper than their direct rivals, Spurs aren’t frugal. Competing for the Champions League is the bare minimum with £100 million in payroll. The North London side did more with less under Pochettino, as have teams like Brighton, Leicester and even West Ham in recent years.

More money will always be welcome at an ambitious club like Tottenham. But, as Chelsea has proven this season, it’s no guarantee of success. While awaiting further investment from ENIC, Spurs should spend the money they have more wisely. Years of poor recruitment have left the squad stale and bloated — a key reason for the club’s decline.

Let’s recap how Pochettino’s squad was built. The Argentine inherited cheap British talent: Fullback duo Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were bought for a combined £7 million, not to mention academy talents like Ryan Mason and some lanky kid Kane.

Poch continued this trend, signing Kieran Trippier, Ben Davies and Eric Dier for £8 million all-told. Dele Alli was his crown jewel. Under Pochettino’s tutelage, he became one of the league’s best forwards, and only cost £5 million. Despite never reaching his potential, Alli outperformed more expensive players for several seasons, like Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£27 million, Man United), or Alexandre Lacazette (£46.5 million, Arsenal).

Pochettino kept bargain hunting internationally, as well. He had precedent to follow: Andre Villas-Boas had brought in Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen from Ajax for £27 million total, as well as triggering Mousa Dembele’s £15 million release clause from Fulham. The Argentine added Son Heung-min for £22 million — cheap for the time, but a daylight robbery in hindsight. Pochettino also raided his former club, Southampton, for defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama and backup goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.

Not every signing was a hit. I’d forgotten about Benjamin Stambouli and Clinton N’jie until researching this piece, and I wish I could forget Federico Fazio’s time in North London. But we were getting so much more bang for our buck than our rivals that we benefitted overall. Where United spent £30 million on Eric Bailly, we brought in Vertonghen’s international center-back partner, Toby Alderweireld, for just £11.4 million.

Pochettino deserves plaudits for developing these purchases. But he can’t claim to have discovered them. That honor belongs to Spurs’ then director of recruitment: Paul Mitchell. Mitchell had worked with the Argentine at Southampton, and followed him to North London. Mitchell brought future Liverpool legend Sadio Mané to Saints, as well as Wanyama and Gazzaniga.

It was Mitchell who snatched Alli out of League One — from MK Dons, where he’d once played — and insisted Spurs sign an unknown Korean winger from Leverkusen. Alli, Son, Trippier and Alderweireld: Spurs could thank Mitchell for their true standout signings.

Mitchell’s time at Spurs was brief: He resigned in August 2016. The cause? A falling out with none other than Levy. The Guardian reported that “his dream job had become a nightmare.”

He left N17 when key players were aging out. In his absence, the club wasn’t proactive. Spurs went 18 months from January 2018 to July 2019 without signing anyone. When asked about this, Mitchell responded, “You need new signings year on year just to continue being competitive at the very top.” Not subtle.

The players who came in before this spell — without Mitchell’s involvement — didn’t impress. £42 million Davinson Sánchez remains a defensive liability. £23 million loose cannon Serge Aurier eventually saw his contract terminated. Amsterdam aside, £25 million Lucas Moura has flattered to deceive since arriving.

A photo of athletes standing together.
(Steffen Prossdorf/Creative Commons)

Though Mitchell is gone, Spurs keep hunting the bargain bin. Although eight of our 10 record signings have come in the past five years, we’ve only broken £50 million twice. Liverpool — having spent less net — has done it four times, and Chelsea a whopping 12.

We target bigger clubs’ castoffs (like Emerson Royal and Clement Lenglet) and cheap buys from around the league (Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg). Even after replacing Pochettino with veteran-loving Conte and Jose Mourinho, the club continues to chase youngsters. £21.6 million-plus Erik Lamela for Bryan Gil (21), £10 million for Jack Clarke (18) and £12.5 million for “club signing” Djed Spence.

Spurs have continued Mitchell’s lucrative strategy, yet so many recent signings have underwhelmed. The missing piece is the man himself; or rather, his talent identification. Scouting for potential is always a gamble. Every Alli has three John Bostocks. For every Son, there’s a Helder Postiga. Mitchell’s eye simply stacks the deck.

Sans Mitchell, we went for £42 million Lo Celso over £55 million Bruno Fernandes, £11 million Joe Rodon over £62 million Ruben Dias. It’s easy to chalk these blunders up to Levy penny pinching. More accurately, he’s tried and failed to replicate Mitchell’s steals — and hasn’t learned his lesson.

When signings underperform, it’s not just results that suffer. Player values decline, making them impossible to sell without losses. No business wants to bleed money, so the deadwood rots on the sidelines. Case in point is our dogpile of loanees, which includes record-signing Tanguy Ndombele.

These costly flops don’t contribute on the pitch and can’t be replaced without the money from being sold. In this Catch-22, the squad itself stagnates.

But even Poch’s high-flying Tottenham couldn’t sell well. Spurs’ biggest profit under him was £44 million for Walker, who publicly forced a move to City. Spurs missed a bigger opportunity with the now-maligned Dier, who Mourinho wanted at United in 2017.

Worst of all was star playmaker Eriksen. In summer 2019, the Dane had just 18 months left on his contract. Real Madrid were willing to offer £60 million, and Eriksen sought a new challenge. Poch refused to sell a key player, so Levy held out for more. Instead, we got six months of poor form and only £17 million when forced to sell to Inter the following January. The fact that we still made a couple million in profit attests to Eriksen’s quality.

But Pochettino would soon regret his stubbornness, being sacked that November. An extra £45 million could’ve kickstarted the “painful rebuild” he wanted. Instead, the squad remains stale: this expensive error continues to haunt Spurs four years on. With a contract stalemate looming over talisman Kane, Levy should remember this debacle.

Spurs can neither buy, nor sell players effectively. Our busts depreciated in value, and Pochettino never struck while the iron was hot.

Teams can offset bad business via their youth academies. Youngsters either join the first team for no fee (like Kane himself) or develop and get sold to finance future signings. London rival Chelsea excels on both counts: Reece James and Mason Mount have become regular starters, while Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori were sold to Italy for a combined £60 million. For all their own transfer failures, the Blues can always bank on youth.

In recent years, only Oliver Skipp has made the leap from academy to first team, and the last notable academy sale was Mason’s ill-fated £13 million move to Hull in 2017. Fans often attribute our shift away from homegrown players to our recent choices of manager: Conte and Mourinho are both system coaches, whose styles often clash with youthful flair.

But that idea discounts the work they did put in with Spurs’ youngsters. Mourinho bet big on Japhet Tanganga, even handing him his league debut at Anfield. Though Skipp made his bow with Pochettino, Conte cemented his place in the team. More importantly, our academy began struggling under Poch.

His early years were fruitful for Hotspur Way, with the “Stand by Me generation” of Kane, Andros Townsend and Mason coming through. After that trio, Poch’s only breakout was the jellied-eel Iniesta, Harry Winks.

Prospects like Josh Onomah and Nabil Bentaleb fizzled out after bright starts, and Noni Madueke never got a look in. Pochettino himself called a young Marcus Edwards “mini Messi,” but clashes over attitude saw him flogged off to Portugal.

A young footballer’s development is multidimensional, and no manager can control every variable. But it is telling that our youth-centric coach had so many duds.

There’s no smoking gun for Hotspur Way’s demise either. The squad staleness we’ve discussed certainly doesn’t help. Deadwood blocks first-team pathways, so youngsters either have to take scraps or go on loan. Some loans kickstart a player’s development, like Skipp’s at Norwich. Others lead to plateaus, like Troy Parrott’s disaster class at Preston this year.

Location is another obstacle for Spurs. London is an ocean of footballing talent, but Tottenham isn’t the biggest fish. Hale End and Cobham both have much greater pedigree for player development. Unless you’re a boyhood Lilywhite, Arsenal and Chelsea are just more attractive launchpads for your career.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t promising players out of N17. Whisper it quietly, but striker-cum-midfielder Jamie Donley could be Kane’s heir, and winger Romaine Mundle offers hope on the flanks. Players like these will just be harder to come by at Spurs.

Tottenham Hotspur is a shadow of its former self. What was once a lively, dynamic side is now inert and static. Spurs’ plight is a lesson in squad renewal (or a lack thereof). The club has stuck to Mitchell’s discount shopping methods, but lacks the talent identification to back it up.

The resultant flops become benchwarmers that prevent youth from breaking through. Though London is a footballing paradise, its academy can’t outproduce those of its rivals.

Just acknowledging Spurs’ problems doesn’t solve them. As someone whose genius is only matched by his love for Tottenham, I’d love to offer my two cents.

Photo of a crowd in a sports stadium.
(Katie Chan/Creative Commons)

Fixing this mess starts with fixing recruitment. If Levy insists on the Mitchell model, he needs a chief scout on par with Paul. We might’ve had this in Paratici, whose reunion with Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur proved a masterstroke.

Paratici now has one foot out the door thanks to his FIFA sanction. Newly-hired “chief football officer” Scott Munn, formerly of City Football Group, could take on this job (though his actual duties are currently unknown). If Tottenham really meant business, they could poach the chief scout at a prominent “selling club” in Europe. Benfica’s Pedro Ferreira, whose recent discoveries include Enzo Fernandez and Darwin Nuñez, presents one intriguing option.

Next is the club’s deadwood. Although most sales in the current Spurs squad would result in losses, they’ll still add to the transfer budget and free up wages. It’ll kickstart the “painful rebuild,” better late than never. One of the new manager’s first duties — if we ever appoint one — should be to decide which current loanees have futures at the club, so the rest can be shifted off.

Repairing the academy pipeline will be the greatest challenge — even with the first-team path cleared, more foundation must be laid. It’ll take years of time and investment for Spurs to rival Chelsea and Woolwich as London’s top academy. Until then, Tottenham should leverage its lesser status, and become ta safe haven for those released from or out of favor at “bigger” clubs.

On this count, Tottenham is a step ahead of me. We’ve already signed Jude Soonsup-Bell from Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge, Soonsup-Bell was considered one of the most promising strikers in England. But he soon stagnated, and a first-team breakthrough felt more likely at Spurs. Jude isn’t going to be the next Kane, and he might not even be the next Fernando Llorente.

Yet if Spurs’ youth coaches can get this young man firing even somewhat, they’ll have another valuable asset to sell down the line. Developing Soonsup-Bell and other such signings will raise the profile of Hotspur Way and attract more ballers in the future.

These wonder-kids will need minutes to improve. Real life isn’t “Football Manager” — we can’t just throw teenagers into the 11 and hope for the best. Spurs should emulate Chelsea and strike loan partnerships with other clubs. When a rising star needed game time, the Blues could always rely on Vitesse Arnhem to give it. Mount, Armando Broja and Dominic Solanke all played in Holland, among 28 loanees. As long as Levy keeps things above board (unlike Roman Abramovich), informal partnerships like these will help prepare our starboys for the Prem or put them in the shop window.

These steps will mark a sea change for Levy: He’ll have to delegate negotiations, accept losses and reinvest in the academy. But he’s on the hot seat with fans, and I’d expect long-suffering Lilywhites to turn up the heat if he stays stubborn.

The ball’s in Levy’s court, and he’d best kick off for his own sake.

Contact Daniel Gamboa at 


AUGUST 24, 2023