Spurs Preview 2: the Team. A Whiff Of Cautious Optimism In The Air

This, Tottenham On My Mind’s fifth season, begins as did all the others, with Daniel Levy as the defining character in the drama to come. The seasons ended that way too. But this one is different, whatever the ultimate outcome. Levy has responded to his manager like never before. Over to you, Andre.

First signing – Franco Baldini. A highly respected and knowledgeable figure in European football, the significance of this move could easily be forgotten because he has opted, rightly, for a low profile. That a man of his experience should come to Spurs in the first place shows that he believes in the club’s potential. It also gives Villas-Boas his clearest indication yet that he has proved himself in the eyes of the board.

To prosper, Spurs have to buy footballers with potential, not quite at the top of their game but bursting with talent and ambition. If nothing else we can’t compete at the very highest level for salaries and transfer fees but that’s not a bad place to be. These men have something to prove, they want to succeed rather than play the odd game and be more involved with their bank manager than the first team coach. Find a way of harnessing Villas-Boas’ ambition to the national grid and Britain’s energy problems are solved. Even Soldado, our marquee signing, has had to fight his up from rejection at Real Madrid.

So we depend on knowing who’s out there. They used to be called scouts, who knows these days, but it’s no coincidence  that Baldini has been followed by a succession of classy players in the Spurs mould, all part of Villas-Boas’ vision. This may be the difficult second season but for the first time this is Andre’s team. He’s hardly starting from scratch but these are his men, the new guys because he wants them, the familiar figures secure in the knowledge that Villas-Boas wants to keep them rather than being here by default.

The vision is sound: our fortunes this season will be dictated by how well the players conform to it. It’s less about 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or some such, more about these key characteristics. Possession, so we need men comfortable on the ball and who know when to be patient and when to move it along. Movement, to support the man on the ball or to regroup when the opponents have possession. Flexibility: the front six in particular will interchange on the field, be able to both attack and defend. Emotional intelligence, which in football is an awareness of their role and duties in respect of the position of other players, a dynamic that shifts a thousand or more times a match, plus a team ethic rather than a selfish approach.

Pace: around the pitch and with the ball. Mobility: ditto. Poor Tom Hud was yesterday bemoaning the lack of opportunities for him and others but the Spurs game has passed him by, bless him. Hud, Dempsey, Caulker, Bentley, Parker perhaps, they’ve been upgraded because they don’t fulfill these last two criteria.

Athleticism: the power, stamina and strength to survive in the Premier League. Last but not least, resilience, a bloody-minded determination to give everything but never give ground, to keep the other lot out at all costs. It’s something we’ve not always had but there were positive signs last season.

In the modern game it’s that movement and flexibility that characterises the best teams. Whatever the formation, we depend on the midfield protecting the back four and getting forward, in and around their box. That said, 4-2-3-1 with Sandro and Paulinho a mouthwatering proposition as the DMs looks a good place to begin. Both can drive forward as well as being comfortable in defence. That’s important in the transition from defence to attack. I’ve not seen Capoue but that is his position by all accounts. Holtby can play there too but I don’t see that as Dembele’s best role. He’s better given freedom to get forward.

Chadli by all accounts is versatile but best out wide. Siggy is better in the middle and found form in the box but I can’t see him starting to begin with. Lennon has dramatically improved his all-round game but is best going forward and may have to begin as an impact sub. Note that I’ve left space for Bale, let’s leave it at that.

Soldado of course leading the line, determined, aggressive and sharp in the box. I would keep Defoe and Adebayor, although both might get moody if they don’t play in a side that seems heavy on midfield options, unless Baldini has some upgrades on the way.

Lloris is a fine keeper, unobtrusively active in his box and sweeping up behind the back four. The full-backs have defensive weaknesses. We don’t need a new right-back, we need Walker to respond to his coach and put that learning into place this season. Assou-Ekotto seems out of favour while Rose had a decent time at Sunderland, so I’ll wait to see if he has improved. Naughton is useful cover but not a regular starter. Whatever, there isn’t a full-back in the league who can handle a two on one and we have to protect them. Last season some teams worked hard to get a 2 v 1 on our full-backs, especially on the left.

That leaves centre-backs and once again Spurs can’t get it right. Last year it was the strikers, or lack of them, this we have three centre-backs, only one of whom, Dawson, is fully fit. Capoue can play there and there are rumours of new arrivals but it is a dangerous place to be at the start of a season where we are playing two games a week from the off, especially as we don’t know how Kaboul will be after his long lay off. He may recover strength but what about speed?

Anyway, never mind all this tactical mumbo-jumbo. If we can’t defend set pieces we stand no chance. And I mean no chance. Inexcusable if it carries on.

This is a fine squad that has the potential to realise the manager’s vision. No inflated ambitions – it will be hard work to settle these newcomers into a team and despite the imperative to do away with our usual slow start we may have to wait awhile before they hit their stride. I would use the Europa League matches to bed the team in rather than play reserves, especially as our pre-season has been so bitty.

I detect a note of optimism. Steady on, this is Spurs, so no more. One thing is for sure, I am looking forward to this season enormously, more so than for a while now. Come on you Spurs.

One more preview piece, have to be next week now, on the relationship between the club and fans.

With Or Without Him, Spurs On The Right Track

While the media fixate on Gareth Bale’s transfer like a toddler staring at a lollypop in a sweetshop, Daniel Levy is getting on with business. As Spurs approach the new season, it’s remarkable that an £85m transfer is not the most significant development at the club.

Levy’s vision for Tottenham Hotspur has provoked bile-infused debate since he became chairman in 2001. His prudent approach to housekeeping has left us financially secure but perennially short of being true contenders. This summer, things have changed. Roberto Soldado is the scorer, the pivot, the leader, the talisman that we have craved for so long. Like the Holy Grail, the quest seemed never-ending but now the myth has become flesh and blood. It’s unheard of for Spurs to spend £26m on a 28-year-old: Levy has finally got the message.

Levy’s hard to work out. Goodness knows he gives nothing away. I can’t recall more than a single big interview with him in the last ten years. Certainly he’s far more complex than the two-dimensional miser he’s made out to be by his detractors. He’s a fan and like all us becomes conflicted when it comes to major decisions about the club we love. When decisions don’t come easy, he reverts to an instinctive response, and his instinct is business.

Like any businessman he seeks to manoeuvre a situation where he maximises opportunity and minimises risk. Win-win is the ideal, albeit seldom realistically achievable. If not, protect yourself with a fall-back position that ensures a reasonably soft landing. Last summer Harry Redknapp presented a demand for a new contract. Levy saw better value elsewhere and probably felt ‘arry’s ‘art wasn’t in it, still pining for that England job. All in all, not good for Spurs, so HR was sent packing with a flea in his ear.

Andre Villas-Boas was very different. Levy has a mixed record when it comes to picking managers. The last time he took a risk with a guy for whom Spurs was a step up, Juande Ramos, it was a total disaster. Again, he had sacked a manager who had been reasonably successful, at least compared with what had gone before. So this time, he hedged his bets. Cruelly he limited Villas-Boas’ funds in the market, in particular denying him Moutinho, AVB’s man, who would be his leader and lynchpin in midfield. That Villas-Boas took that plus the absence of a proper strikeforce in his stride is a measure of his committment to the club.

This wasn’t Levy being a skinflint. Rather, he wasn’t prepared to take the double risk of a new manager and large expenditure. A poor decision in my view – he should have backed his manager – but to Levy it’s the cold hard realities of business. Now however, Our Andre has proved himself. To DL the investment is worth it. Not only Soldado – Levy has made other funds available for players who provide value. In recent years, Spurs have spent good money on men for whom the club is a step up, who will mature on the field and contribute to the team while at the same time increasing their price in the market should they be sold on. Modric and Berbatov are the two best examples, Dembele and Lloris last season. Not cheap, not youngsters but with their best years ahead of them. Value on the pitch and off it. Win win.

This approach has brought in Paulinho and Chadli plus, it seems highly likely, Caboue. I can only comment from my own observations on the Brazilian, who judging from the Confederations Cup looks a fine prospect, with skill, drive and the physique to prosper in Premier League midfields. Chadli sounds like he will fit right in, a ball-player with pace and versatility, the latter being a significant attribute in any VIllas-Boas team where movement and mobility are key and tactics change not only from match to match but during the game too.

The outgoings and salaries (I strongly suspect the top end of our self-imposed restrictive salary structure has been moved too) will to some extent be offset by the sale of those surplus to requirements, Parker, Huddlestone and Dempsey, all good men and true in their way but note the lack of pace they have in common. Despite this, Levy’s spending is running at unprecedented levels. I admire his unwillingness to get caught up in the crazy upward spiral of Premier League transfer business that threatens the long-term security of clubs who get it wrong. However, his reluctance to fully commit long ago became indefensible. It’s a decisive change that is long overdue and will be heartily welcomed by supporters.

I’d like to think it’s the fan in him that has made him change tack. The passion, the romance, the danger that makes any fulfilling relationship so scary and exciting at the same time, but I doubt Levy has abandoned his principles. To him, there are real returns to be had. At other clubs it’s spending off the scale like a drunken lottery winner. Levy however maintains his dead-eyed stare on the prize. Maximise opportunity – trophies, the Champions League, TV cash – and minimise risk – there’s plenty of value and profit in the squad, plus judging by last season a fair to middling chance of being genuine contenders, if not for the league itself then the top four and silverware. Same equation. It may not be win-win but it’s close enough for Daniel to take the risk. He believes this team can really do something and so do I.

There remains the question of where the money’s coming from. Not bad, a Spurs blog 800 words in and only one mention of the B word so far. Now if you are looking for a prime example of win-win, let’s pop inside Levy’s head for a second. Record transfer fee or one of the best players in Europe stays with us for at least one more season and retains a high transfer value. He’s in clover and from such a position of security will screw Real Madrid for every last euro.

Levy’s handled this very well. As I said on the When Saturday Comes site the other day, amid the media frenzy (have you ever read so much about so little, bearing in mind Levy has said absolutely nothing and there have been no statements from the club?) he has been icy inscrutability, taking his time and resisting the pressure of jumping at riches beyond our wildest dreams. This is how he always is. 85k or 85m, all the same to him. He’s so bloody minded, he could just turn down flat that £85m and allow Gareth to play on.

I wonder if he’s actually decided. Time is key to any negotiation and he must think that’s on his side too. Maybe if they respond with something nearer £100m, he would be foolish to ignore it, especially as it’s unlikely that fee would still be on the table this time next year. Bale may play supremely well for the rest of his career but it’s unlikely that he will ever again match the impact he’s had on the world of football this past season. The shock of the new.

Given Spurs’ sound financial position and the money from the TV deal, I suspect this spending is budgeted separately from any Bale deal. Then again, it is substantial and anyway Real’s euros may be earmarked already, either for the new stadium or to prepare the club for a sale. The I in ENIC stands for investment and they have to get a return at some point.

Call me crazy, call me mad as long as you don’t call me Shirley but I would keep him, although I reckon he will be sold. But then again, for me it’s all about the passion, the romance, the pain and the pleasure that cannot be separated if the heart is to beat that little bit faster. With or without him, Levy and Spurs are headed in the right direction.

Part two of the season’s preview on Friday. Maybe Saturday. Friday probably. The Manager, The Players, the Fans.

In The End, Levy.

In recent years there has been something about Spurs that causes opinions to become polarised. Harry Redknapp is the prime example of this phenomenon. It seems you can be either a Harry lover or an ‘arry ‘ater, there’s no middle ground. It’s the same for Daniel Levy. No sooner than someone dares to stammer out the merest possibility that there’s both good and bad in his reign at Tottenham, they will be shouted down and cast into one or other of the camps, Levy Luvvers or Levy Loathers. Martin Jol’s time at Spurs provoked a similar split between those who rated his achievements and wanted to give him more time and others who believed he did not have the ability to work at the highest level, although he was never surrounded by the degree of vitriol and bile attached to the Redknapp and Levy debates.

It wasn’t always this way. It makes you long for the good old days when everyone agreed that Graham, Gross and Francis were rubbish. We could all moan together, as one. There was limited acrimony around Hoddle because the realisation that he couldn’t take Spurs to the top was, and still is, mitigated by the fact that he is one of us, the finest Spurs midfielder of modern times. This affection was coupled with the almost desperate hope that he would succeed.

It’s summer and flaming June is named not after the weather but the flaming transfer window with its infernal mix of hope and frustration. We all know that even just a couple of players could enable us to become genuine contenders. The stakes are high but it’s a combustible cocktail, with emotions running high and focussed around Levy’s performance in the market.

This summer has created a new set of divisions, this time between those who frequent social media and those who manage to resist. The mere fact you are reading this blog online and have probably reached it via Newsnow or twitter means that you are in the former group. I think we can all agree it has been a ghastly nightmare, except that at the moment there’s no prospect of waking up and finding it was all a dream. On top of the Bale saga, we also have the bid for Soldado, the mythical striker to lead the chosen people into the promised land, come down to earth in human form. Or was that Benteke? I forget…

If you receive an unsolicited e-mail from a kindly African gentleman congratulating you on your lottery win or cutting you and you alone in on a cast-iron business deal, it’s safe to say that you don’t immediately forward your bank details as requested. So why then believe anything that an ITK says on twitter or on a messageboard. It’s just as unverifiable, yet by rapid repetition it becomes ‘fact’. Lies, misdirection, absurd over-interpretation, there’s no escape. I yearn for predictable tabloid sensationalism in the red tops and on Talksport. You know where you are with that muck. Those of you without a twitter account have missed the endless lengthy debates on the significance of Bale’s picture on the cover of FIFA 14, Soldado’s picture on the club website or the arrival of a Spurs player (Bale) at the training ground of the club he plays for.

As in previous seasons I have sworn not to get into this debate, a sort of evil footballing Seinfeld, famously the sitcom about nothing. However, bloggers write and my pages are empty. Check out Spooky’s excellent series of articles on Dear Mr Levy, a perfect take-down of the whole sorry mess in all its gory detail. The level of expressed anger does worry me. I see perfectly well the reasons for discussion and disagreement, especially in the light of Levy’s record in the market. I am not in favour of him being a spendthrift but he’s failed to bring in those couple of players that could have made (and could still make) a huge difference.

However, the way this debate has been carried on it’s set Spur against Spur. My fear is that this is a consequence of success in the modern era. Demands are stratospheric, competition has never been fiercer and it is instant gratification or nothing. I don’t want us to be like that. We’re different, better.

I don’t want us to spout the vainglorious entitlement that characterises the world-view of any Ch**sea fan who began to support the club since Roman took over, people saying they have washed their hands of the club because we’ve finished fifth and something might, repeat might, happen in the market.

The reality is more basic and familiar, which I suspect readers not hotwired to twitter might better grasp. Step away from the 140 characters, deep breath and this is what I see.

Much of what is going on in this window is normal and unavoidable. We may not like it but that’s the way it is. The most significant change is a positive one: Daniel Levy is backing his manager. Over the last year I’ve criticised Levy for not spending big to buy top quality players at market prices. I admire his prudence but felt he missed a golden opportunity last summer to invest in the team. If it’s money he’s after, the CL could have brought it. Also, with all the top earners like King and Keane having left, he had the freedom to raise the self-imposed salary cap without upsetting the good atmosphere in the squad or destroying the club’s hard-won financial stability. Yet at that crucial moment, he took the risk on Villas-Boas then adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach, in particular cruelly denying him Moutinho, AVB’s man. Our Andre has far exceeded expectations so now at last Levy is getting to work. It remains to be seen if it is too late but the support is there.

The other point I always trot out during windows is that we have competitors. Good players, especially strikers, are popular. Supply is short, demand high. I would have liked to have got the squad sorted for pre-season but these days that is impossible unless you are Manchester City who can pay what they like and chuck their bank statement in the bin without opening it. Arsenal, United, not even Chelsea have got anywhere near concluding their business.

We are no different. Shame but that’s the way it is. This isn’t Football Manager. You don’t put in a bid, have it accepted and fly home with the player. It’s a tortuous and lengthy negotiation, further complicated these days by third-party agreements, medicals and agents’ fees. If we come in with a bid, any self-respecting agent is going to tell his guy to hang on a bit and see who else might be interested. Look at Huigain: Arsenal were ready to spend over £20m, it all looked done and dusted then Napoli trumped the offer by ten or twelve million. The agent takes his cut but the Argentinian and Madrid are delighted they waited. It takes time. At least Levy has put good money on the table.

Bale has only ever been about one thing – Daniel Levy. Doesn’t matter what agents, Real Madrid, Marca say. £60m, £70m, £80m, £85m: hot air. Bid or no bid: irrelevant, we know Real want him. Doesn’t matter if Bale makes a statement or stays silent: agents, managers, chairmen and players misdirect and mislead. Statements can be retracted. We know he’s tempted and frankly who wouldn’t be, but in the end, Levy.

If by this time you are remotely interested, I would keep Bale, at least for another season. Don’t sell your best players. Always been that way, always will, this is no different whatever cash is on the table. If we had the money, we would still have to spend it. We need to avoid the slow starts of recent seasons and get going from the kick-off at Palace and this would delay team-building for another year.

Finally, Bale is no different from any world-class footballer. Transfer gossip will dog his entire career from now on. I intensely dislike the income-generating fabrication and sensationalism that surrounds all this but even without that it would still be in the papers because it’s a real story. One of the world’s best clubs is interested in one of the world’s best players. Unavoidable, especially as he plays for a team outside the Champions League. Even that would make little difference, given his age and that talent. There was talk of PSG putting in a bid for Messi, for goodness sake. Don’t like but that’s the way of the world. It’s in the papers because it is a real story.

Bale’s Trademark Isn’t All Gold

Plenty of words on the net bemoaning the close season and anticipating the start of the next. Not round these parts. I enjoy it, look forward to it in a perverse fashion. It’s part of the natural order of things, a time for regeneration before the hopes and dreams of a new season come into bloom. Summer is a time for cricket not just because the sport is so quietly and unobtrusively compelling but also because it’s not football.

Not so much like the close season as need it. Take a break from the pressure. I can’t hack it for 12 months straight. Even this week’s announcement of the fixture list caused unwelcome flickers of anxiety rather than anticipation. Palace first game, newly promoted teams always up for it in August, play them in the darker days of December or January when it’s beginning to fall apart for them.

Tottenham On My Mind in the summer is resolutely a no ITK zone. Which is why the page views are so low. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about ITK – summary: it’s all lies. It had the phrase ‘no ITK’ in the title, yet scored more hits than almost any of my articles over the last four years, I can only assume because ITK was mentioned and the moths were drawn to the flame.

Anyway, this is modern football. If you want to really know what’s going on, head for the financial pages. You have probably seen the news this week that Gareth Bale has applied to register his heart-shaped hands goal celebration as a trademark. These days I get all my ITK from the Patents Office.

It won’t be a surprise to regular readers that I’m not a fan of choreographed goal celebrations. The defining moments of the game are somehow devalued if the only thing in the goalscorer’s mind is to gather with his team-mates by the corner flag and do the St Vitus dance. Rushing to the crowd is fine, although of course badge-kissing is strictly prohibited. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Gilzean’s single raised arm or Greaves’ shrug – yes, I am that good, shouting about it won’t make it better. Or as Bale himself demonstrated to touching effect with the winner at West Ham, a heartfelt dash to the bench and his manager’s welcoming arms, because that was so obviously genuine.

If Bale’s application is successful, I’m not sure what it means. If he runs to the Shelf after a goal, can I wave? Or publish a photo here? Yesterday one of Brazil’s goalscorers did the heart thing – Bale was rubbing his hands in anticipation of the royalties.

So I’m looking forward to my Christmas present of a necklace with ‘Alan’ in gold inside the heart-shaped pendant. What bothers me is what it means for Spurs and for our finest player. What was a childishly irrelevant gesture has been transformed into an absurdly pretentious, manufactured act, and if there is one thing that football fans do not like, it’s pretension. If it is in pursuit of more cash for highly paid sportsmen, so much the worse. In short, he will get massive stick from opposition fans as soon as he touches the ball. Top professional players have to learn to take the abuse that comes their way but I can’t see how this will help his performance or that of the team. It’s avoidable, something we don’t need.

Bale already gets the bird because of his so-called diving. He does go down easily sometimes and I don’t appreciate that. In reality, he is discriminated against, having been booked for simulation at least four times last season when he was clearly fouled and was denied two penalties. In other words, the public’s perception of Bale has been irrevocably harmed by poor refereeing.

That annoys me because it’s unjust. I’m not naive but I may be hoping for too much. I remember times when we used to look forward to seeing the great players of our opponents, unless they needed taking down a peg or two or we had a genuine grievance. These days it seems to be the way of things that at every ground they get pelters just by being good. But the ones who get the worst are those with airs and graces, and they deserve it.

Part of Bale’s charm is that he seems so grounded. With his rustic cheeks and sticky-out ears, despite being built like a welterweight there’s more of the schoolboy and less of the superstar about him. His huge transfer valuation has never gone to his head. He’s a footballer not a celebrity, and because of his refreshing humility there’s a fair degree of goodwill in the game as he progresses.

It’s a shame to throw that away, partly because it will provoke unwanted attention, partly because there’s a danger that his attitudes are turning him into the same as every other modern player, chasing the cash. Bale, he is different.

Ironically, this deal could keep him at Spurs. In my end of season piece, I suggested that his sudden rush of appearances in adverts for home consumption could supplement his income to the point where it was worth his while to stay at home.

Whatever, I guess this is what happens when a player has the eyes of the world upon him and I will have to get used to it. We didn’t find him but we’ve watched him grow and he’s part of the family. It’s natural that I should try to protect him.

More pieces over the summer. I should be taking a rest but it’s in the name of the blog… In May I was about to write my usual detailed post-season summary but when it came to it, that last piece said what I wanted to say about the club, more so than tactics, formations and strikers.