At Spurs, change and uncertainty have become institutionalised. In the absence of direction and stability, the club drifts aimlessly without plan, purpose or foundation. We don’t know who we are any more. Do we stand for expansive football, or do we need to defend first and foremost? Top four or muddle along? Win something, perish the thought? Without purpose, the outcome is inevitable: we achieve nothing.
Managers come and go. Change masquerades as a solution. In reality, it leaves us trapped in a quicksand of problems of our own making. In organisations with a closed culture, nothing changes.
I described Nuno as a pragmatist. He knows he wasn’t first choice for the job, knows he only has a two-year contract (informed rumours suggest there’s a break clause after 12 months), effectively receiving the chairman’s infamous vote of confidence before he even starts the job. The players know this. Impermanence enshrined.
He took on the job of making the best of what he had been given, which is probably a key reason why he was given the job in the first place. He was willing to accept the limitations of working under Daniel Levy, as presumably was Paratici. I understand that, and therein lies the real underlying and deeply entrenched problem at Spurs.
Progress and change often comes through constructive critique and having a critical friend, somebody who knows about the organisation and, crucially, cares about it too, and because they care sees that change is required. I was involved in something a while back, work not football. Something went wrong. Managers and staff acknowledged this. We agreed to learn lessons, no blaming individuals, work together to move forward. If you don’t want to, fine, leave, goodbye and good luck.
At Spurs, Levy has created a very different environment, where he takes advice from an ever-smaller, closed coterie. There is consensus but at the expense of new ideas, new ways of approaching the same problem. As I have repeated over the years, I believe Levy when he says he sees himself as the club’s custodian and wants success through attacking football in our tradition. The problem is, he does not know how to achieve that. And if he continues to encourage a culture of groupthink, he never will.
He has enough football acumen to use the right words in the plan but not enough to know how to put it into practice, who to appoint in key positions (manager and player recruitment and retention) or how to support this in the transfer market. A victim of groupthink, he doesn’t know how to appoint someone who does and delegate to them. There is no curiosity about innovation and alternatives, only a search for voices who tell him what he wants to hear.
This is how it’s been, most of the time. I know this, but it really came home to me when writing a short ‘fan’s eye’ history of Spurs for this book of terrific interviews by Toby Benjamin with ex-players and staff. Sixty years in 20k words, so Levy needed an overview. Time and again he changes tack with short-term appointments. He’s tried ex-players, experience like Santini, so-called new breed of coaches like AVB and Ramos. He’s tried directors of football, who come in and out again without establishing roots or passing something tangible on to the next person. Pochettino becomes an outlier. Success is unusual, and even then he didn’t seem to recognise what could have been possible with a little more investment.
After a solid start, Nuno has tried different formations with different players, although he’s not opted for the 3-5-2/5-3-2 that established him at Wolves, which in passing might be a reasonable choice given that we have full-backs comfortable going forward, need strength in the centre of our defence and where cover could protect our centre backs.
My initial optimism has evaporated. Nuno has taken us from the average to awful in double quick time. Under any sort of pressure, the team folds, at the back and moving the ball forward. No shots on target in three halves of football with Kane and Son in the side is some achievement.
Yesterday saw the hallmarks of real deterioration. Giving the ball away is partly an individual fault, mainly a team problem, because players were given no passing options. They don’t know how to support each other. No pattern, little desire and few options to make any changes. Individuals have to take responsibility but professionals give their best within a system with familiar, comforting patterns in attack and defence. No evidence of that recently.
Nuno has so far not found the way to unlock the potential of players, and he may never get the chance at this rate. However, it’s not an excuse to say there are fundamental underlying problems here. As a result of managerial churn, Spurs’ squad is a mixture from three different eras, each with a different approach to building a team and to buying players, and with very different styles. Lo Celso and N’dombele were bought to rejuvenate Pochettino’s flagging side, Dele at his peak playing to his strengths in that team. Doherty bought to fill a gaping hole in the squad without any success. He made his reputation under Nuno, who sold him then doesn’t play him, which says so much. Rodon seems to be fourth choice.
It’s all square pegs in round holes. Tanguy has only just got back into the team in the only position he could possibly play in this squad. Suggesting he starts deeper neglects his inability to defend, and we don’t have cover for him. I still don’t know what Lo Celso’s best position is. Dele doesn’t fit anywhere with this set up, or he doesn’t if Tanguy plays. Bergwijn’s development has been hampered by injuries but has never had a real run in the side. Moura does his best but better defences deal with him easily enough.
Paratici comes in. We don’t know what budget he had at his disposal. We do know that we have no cover for Kane, and have to play a 17-year-old in Europe. No alternatives in defensive midfield either. Skipp is a fine prospect but no team pushing for the top should have to rely on a man just turned 21 in his first season in the PL. Many things astound me about Spurs recent performances, but I can’t get over how many times in the last six years I’ve written that we have no cover in deep midfield, the heart of any team, and up front.
Nuno stays, he’s still learning about the players. Nuno goes, more changes, more finding out. Nothing is established. Everything is always beginning again and we are as far from a solution as we ever were.
And how will Spurs respond to this defeat? Levy will meet with one or two people in the club he is close to and with Paratici. The same people who took the decisions that got us where we are, people he appointed, pass judgement on themselves. And round and round and round we go.
Thinking about this from Levy’s perspective, one changing element in this noxious, closed system is that the income generated by the stadium, money designed to fund the club’s status as a contender into the future, is beginning to flow again. Given the situation on the field, he may be emboldened or compelled to enter the transfer market in January, the worst time to buy but we are desperate, and at the same time re-evaluate decisions about which players stay or go. Kane, Dele, Winks and Roden, N’dombele perhaps, I advocated keeping all of them but they may have reached the point where they can’t improve at Spurs and are better off elsewhere for their sakes and that of the club. But that implies long-term planning.
Sack the manager, but any manager comes into the same environment that caused the problems in the first place. Same unbalanced squad, at least to begin with, same suspicions about the leadership’s questionable capacity to understand the game and the club. The same director of football who by all accounts wields considerable power within the club. To compete on a limited budget, Spurs must build over time, but we have no way of creating a long-term plan. And round and round and round we go.
I was reminded this week of a quote from the legendary Jimmy Greaves when I spoke with him several years ago. He never fancied becoming a manager when he retired, adding, “If I’d known that you could get millions for being absolutely crap and getting the sack, I’d have been in like a shot.” There will be another manager, but Tottenham Hotspur used to be a place where managers, players and staff wanted to come to. Now, it has a bad reputation. Word is out. Nuno is the eighth or ninth choice because other thought better of entering this toxic, unsupportive place. Over the past months, several non-playing staff, loyal to the club, have moved on.
Yesterday, supporters’ frustration spilled over into vociferous, righteous anger. It’s been building, and it took the spark of a comparatively minor incident, Moura’s substitution, to light the fire. It’s not about Moura and Bergwijn, not really about Nuno as an individual. Rather, it’s an accumulation of anger at the way the club is being run, of glaring opportunities missed and the crushing sense of what might have been. Supporters deal with ups and downs, unnecessary defeats, points dropped, but when long and secretly cherished hopes and dreams are snatched away at the very point when they could have been fulfilled, the hurt is real.
Amid the justified euphoria as tickets for the new stadium first went on sale, I and others raised a note of caution. Prices were high, sustained by supply and demand, and I understand that the ground needs to be paid for. But Levy planted seeds of dissatisfaction, that loyal fans were exposed to the impact of high costs if and when the team’s performance feel away. We all make choices. Emotional commitment is the essence of being a fan, and emotion trumps logic, if the bank balance allows it. But everyone begins to question themselves when you think you’re not getting enough back. Over a hundred quid for tickets, food, travel, trip to the shop for the kids maybe, then that, then trains through the main station are cancelled, of course they are, it’s football. And these are covid times when we are all forced to re-evaluate our expenditure and indeed our life choices. Football tourists visiting football’s new destination venue won’t fill the gaps forever.
People are angry. Levy has publicly rejected meetings with the supporters trust, although I believe he has now relented it’s impossible to imagine that he might give any weight to supporter’s constructive criticisms, words from people who care. I hear of arguments and fighting in the bars yesterday between Spurs fans.
The very best thing about writing this blog over the past twelve years is meeting so many fans, in person or via social media. Now, I hear the grumblings from the lifers like me, loyal, core fans who speak only of disaffection and disillusionment. Giving the odd game a miss, take it or leave it. People who will support the Spurs to their dying day but who come May will think twice about expressing that support in terms of investing a grand or more in buying a season ticket. Levy would do well to take notice. Past form suggests he won’t. The few people he listens to won’t tell him the very thing he needs to hear.
We remember with pride and joy the incomparable Jimmy Greaves, the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve written an obituary in this month’s When Saturday Comes, on sale now and several years ago I was privileged to meet him for a short while, here’s the interview