The season’s over and good riddance. Out of Europe, no manager, no director of football, no manager for the women’s team. Supporters who pay among the highest prices in Europe are angry, disillusioned or overwhelmed into apathy. I’ve been all three at various times. For now, add relief it’s over. Later, add fear, the fear that the board’s continued ineffectiveness will lead to a chaotic summer precisely at the moment where we need calm, clear thinking to lead the necessary and overdue team rebuilding. Supporters can see what’s happening and feel our loyalty is taken for granted, exploited as a commodity the club can trade and if necessary, disposed of.
I read that Spurs are a club in crisis, that we’ve reached rock-bottom. This is patently untrue, a distorted perspective that comes from the arrogant entitlement that sadly characterises an increasing number of fans of the top PL sides. Bury, Rochdale, Scunthorpe, the fans of these clubs truly suffer, and my heart goes out to them.
But I support my team the same way they do. I go to games, my support is integral to my life, my emotions, to family, friendships, to who I am. My disappointment this season is crushing and debilitating. It hurts, and so much of it could have been avoided.
The protective gloss of big-name managers at a big club lost its sheen to lay bare the vanity that led to their appointment and the board’s incompetence when it comes to running a football team. To repeat an analysis that I first wrote about a decade ago, any football club depends on three elements, a manager/coach, recruitment and finance. Seldom in the twenty-two years he’s been in charge has Daniel Levy successfully aligned all three, and when he has, those fleeting moments now seem like outliers.
The underlying fundamental problems have become ingrained in the club’s fabric, which is motheaten and rotting away. There’s no plan, and there’s no plan because the board still do not know what they want this club to be. They want success but do not know how to create and sustain it. They do not understand how to pick the right coach or how to support their chosen man. This season, these faults have been exposed game after game, just like our defence.
To repeat, it’s not a question of throwing money at the problem and to be fair to the board money has been spent. To say that it hasn’t is an outdated narrative. It’s just that we have talent we valued at around £200m out on loan when gaping holes in the squad remain unfilled. This is a consequence of disruption and change, and comes back to the element of recruitment. Six managers in four years, each with different ideas about how to play and who to play, a squad with players from all these eras. It is also reasonable to ask at what point our much-vaunted stadium income will be used for the transfer budget.
Conte lifted the side to the fourth in his first season but could not sustain it. He was no doubt unhappy with the quality of many of his squad but appeared unwilling either to coach promising younger players to improve or to adapt an inflexible playing style that stifled creative instincts and, more significantly, opponents found straightforward ways to counteract. I wonder if the last straw for him was the ultimate for a manager of his record and for his self-image – he was unable to get through to them and to motivate them. And so he left because he had no reason to stay. Why bother, separated from his family, the loss of three dear friends and on a short-term contract. You can’t motivate your players if you can’t motivate yourself.
Contemporary football is tactically sophisticated, but I lost count of the number of times I bemoaned basic errors endlessly repeated. This was the ‘surely season’, fans saying, ‘but surely we won’t do that again?’ Outnumbered in midfield, starting games cautiously surrendering the initiative to opponents, failing to block shots from the edge of the box. My worst image of the season is that blocking move obviously coached where defenders stay static, turn sideways, put their hands behind their back with one knee high.
It was dull to watch but more than that, it was ineffective and outdated. I can’t recall the last team remotely successful in the league who did not play on the front foot. In passing, I read an astute quote from Arne Slot (whatever happened to him?) saying, I paraphrase, that he doesn’t like a consistent low block because it dulls the senses of the players. It’s boring, it doesn’t challenge them and they become worse as a result.
The Milan home leg was the low point in this respect. Champions League, the Lane packed and expectant ready to lift the boys and overcome a 1-0 first leg deficit. So we sat back for an entire first half. That’s not the Tottenham way in Europe.
Even worse was the lowest of low points this season, away to Sheffield United. Ahead of us was a game against a championship side resting several key players, only 4 PL teams left in the cup. The team selection was born of hubris, the performance complacent. It also represented the lack of connection with supporters, 5500 fans travelling hundreds of miles midweek because it’s Spurs in the cup.
So it’s February, Conte’s contract is up in the summer and his disillusion with the club is becoming ever more apparent, except to Daniel Levy, who sits on his hands. The club finally make a public statement via the infamous Paratici ‘hostage’ video, shot on a mobile with lighting straight out of a low budget horror film. Paratici is banned from football because he’s dodgy, a probability known to everyone who follows football, except Daniel Levy. The club wail, ‘but, but nobody told us…’. Levy shares his thoughts not with supporters but at the Cambridge Union.
It’s tough being a leader, I understand that perfectly well, but hiding is not a good look. Such fireproof self-protection communicates weakness and indecision, as do his choices about managers. This runs right through the club, a lack of direction or plan. He has the vision and no idea how to achieve it, even after all these years. His capacity to not see what is happening around him smacks of remarkable self-delusion and lack of insight.
Then, Conte torches his bridges as well as the boardroom, the players and of course we the fans, who don’t understand him. Levy acts, and appoints Stellini on a temporary basis. When change is required, the board appoint a man so steeped in his mentor’s methods that he might as well be his shadow. Stellini’s legacy is that the defending turns from dire to embarrassing. Spurs go from conceding the initiative and the first goal to conceding the first three.
We then move to our second caretaker of the season, Ryan Mason, always one of our own and passionate and articulate about what the club needs and should be, but his inexperience shows. I prefer a back four and hoped the change would work. It’s understandable that Mason wanted to make an impression in the short time available to him but it would have been better to settle for a three with extra beef in midfield.
And so here we are. The disappointment comes not merely from a poor season but from knowing what might have been, maybe what should have been. Pochettino was by no means perfect but whatever we had then has now been thrown away with no lessons learned, except that we appear to be looking for an up-and-coming man with some experience but for whom Spurs are a step up, and who plays attacking football.
I say ‘appear to be looking’ because with this board, there’s no plan. Rather, they are rootless tumbleweed, buffeted in the breeze and blown whichever way the wind blows. Names come and go, as do the theories why we, apparently, have not appointed them. However outlandish these theories are, the past behaviour of the board gives them credence. Haggling over a release fee, not allowing them freedom to bring their own people in, pretending they haven’t spoken to candidates when it seems they have, not even ringing Poch because someone had a row with him, I have no idea what is true but all this and more is perfectly possible given their past ineptitude.
Moreover, their choices are limited as a consequence of their own behaviour. Word is out that Spurs is a toxic place to work, where promises are not kept. With all due respect to Dutch football, you’d come to the Premier League if you had the chance. You’d come to the world-famous home of the Spurs, except now, you wouldn’t. Who could blame Slot for the choice he made. It might change if Munn has some influence over the football side – it could indicate a change of tack by the board but frankly, history makes me sceptical. I hope I’m wrong, but to paraphrase the words of Logan Roy, someone also concerned about succession planning, “I love the club but you’re not serious people.”
The players need a jolt up the backside too. Some are decent footballers but jaded. They’ve been here too long, and we, and they, will do better for a change. Not to let them off the hook, but modern players expect coaching and familiar patterns. I watch games as a fan not as an analyst, but look at Villa, Newcastle and Brighton, Brentford too, all of whom achieve their potential because of good coaching that suits the players they have available.
But if we don’t have a manager, what do we need? What’s our shape, what are our tactics? Once more, we are way behind our competitors, and next season, it will be even tougher because the top six all have something to build on, whereas we have no foundations. And that’s before we think about the transfer budget.
I read we’re not far off being competitive again. I’m not so sure. We need a new goalkeeper, two centre halves and some extra creativity in midfield. Bentancur, his status enhanced by his absence, is not back at least until November. He plus Bissouma, Sarr and Skipp give us something to work with in midfield. I still see Kulu as an attacking midfielder and hopefully there’s more to come from him, that’s assuming we pay his fee as he’s still on loan. We also easily lose sight of the absence of a midfielder who is comfortable and best suited in defence, as opposed to players who can fill in.
Up front, Richarlison has more to give, Sonny’s still there and Harry, we’ll have to wait and see. Full-backs are a big problem if we go four at the back because we’re overloaded with wing-backs. To inject some optimism into what I concede is an article full of pessimism, we have the nucleus of an up and coming set of younger players, including Porro, Spence and Udogie, that a coach could work with and impose his ethos. There’s real promise there.
We need to move players on. I wish Sanchez, Hugo, Moura and Tanganga well. I would keep Davies – he’s underrated, covers centre back in a three and full-back and is loyal to the club. Hojbjerg has been poor lately and there is apparent interest in him so he could be sold to generate transfer income, as could Sessegnon, who has not progressed significantly and we have alternatives, although to be fair the same could have been said before Christmas for Emerson. Dier has been injured – while he could one of those who has gone stale, I wouldn’t sell until we had a replacement, and keep him if not. Same goes for Perisic, who I doubt would move anyway given his salary.
N’Dombele, Reguilon, Winks, Rodon, Gil and Lo Celso are all talented players with a future elsewhere They don’t feel part of the club and I can’t see how motivated any of them will be, given their experiences with us.
And so like our season, this piece drifts away into oblivion. Sincere thanks to everyone who has read TOMM this season and who has commented, apologies for not replying to you all. I’ll be back at the Lane and in these pages next season. Where else would I rather be?
Lots of love and good vibes to my good friend Pete Haine and to Jilly. Pete, I’m sure you won’t mind if I end with a word about Harry Kane. Harry is a marvel. Watching greatness is hard to judge at the time, without the perspective of history, but he is a true Tottenham great, a wonder, a marvel, a delight, one of our own. This is arguably his best season. 30 PL goals in an average side, time and again lifting us bodily from the floor, rising above the chaos. Arguably our best midfielder too, best at heading corners away. All this after virtually a year of non-stop football including the pressures of being England captain at the World Cup, bearing in mind those dodgy ankles and the number of times he gets kicked.
On no account sell him. I don’t care about cashing in with one season to go, anything he gives us outweighs that a hundredfold. Pay him a fortune – he is the marquee signing we need, a message to football that Tottenham matter and are worth playing for.