Tottenham: Quiet Times in the Transfer Market
A measure of how far Tottenham have progressed off the pitch can be gathered from the gentle closing of the January transfer window down at White Hart Lane. Back in the days of Harry Redknapp and before, the transfer window was a time to do business as a queue of unwanted stars were shipped out on loan or dug their heels in and stayed while talk of Daniel Levy’s wheelbarrow of cash being shoved around Europe deep into the night kept fans on tenterhooks, hoping that a huge bid for a striker would land and February would be a new dawn for the club.
The signing of Ryan Nelson and Louis Saha on the last day of January 2012 put paid to the latter dreams and alongside Redknapp’s flagrant coveting of the England job, contributed to killing off a promising bid at the top of the table. Since then expectations have tempered to the extent that not only were Tottenham fans expecting no new recruits this January, there was no possibility of a string of departing loans for high earning ne’er-do-wells. If we were to forgive last summer’s transfers, this type of player barely exists within Tottenham’s squad largely thanks to Mauricio Pochettino’s zero tolerance policy and his focus on “the group”. Only Tom Carroll departed, with another decent fee pocketed for an academy graduate and deadline day looks to be a non-event with Pochettino estimating the chances of business at "0.1%"
This stability is the bedrock of why Tottenham are in a position to challenge for the top four slots while retaining half an eye on the long term. The prior expectation of losing star men to sunnier climes and rejigging their team every summer--as became common before Pochettino--is largely consigned to history. A slew of long term deals for star men at the very least means that Tottenham remain in control of the destiny of their players, at least while the collective achievement of the team maintains its current level. The new stadium is well in progress and players haven’t been shy about expressing a desire to play there. Delivery of that project is a minimum of 18 months away.
The plan for all this could possibly be traced all the way back to Juande Ramos. His tenure quickly turned sour, but the recruitment of a successful and feted continental coach with a view to building long term prosperity has echoed ever since. Redknapp arrived as a rescuer, then lucked into the rise of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and a talismanic run from Rafael van der Vaart to hold his position across three and a half seasons. His departure did not come as a result of failure--for all that he should have made more of his last season, he still managed a fourth place finish--but Daniel Levy’s retained desire to hire a coach capable of building a long term legacy. Andre Villas Boas started brightly and was initially powered by Gareth Bale going supernova, but the backdrop was never solid, with Emmanuel Adebayor the emblem of squad disharmony, Tim Sherwood lurking in the background and a tiered squad that only sporadically bought into his methods. His first season was also undermined by the loss of Modric and the second the loss of Bale.
Tim Sherwood was a mess and never looked capable of doing anything but holding the fort until the strategy could be rebooted, which it was with Pochettino’s arrival. And this is where it changed for the club finally pulled together with the purseholders supporting Pochettino’s black and white vision towards player retention. Players were either part of the system or discarded, with reputation or earning power irrelevant and status earned on merit.
Across this peak of Tottenham’s Premier League life--a run that now consists of seven seasons of top six finishes including three top four slots--the club has finished with a ten point spread of points, with Villas Boas’ agonising 2012-13 fifth place the highest (72 points) and Redknapp’s 2010-11 fifth place (62 points) the least. Pochettino has landed fairly squarely in between these with 64 and 70 point finishes and a quick analysis of the quality of the teams across this period is broadly reflective of the outcomes. Tottenham have regularly been a dominant shooting team but the 12 month cartharsis of restabilising post Sherwood and then allowing Pochettino to rebalance the whole squad saw a slump in underlying metrics. The subsequent 18 months, started at the beginning of 2015-16 and of which we are now at the tail end, have seen remarkable consistency from Pochettino’s men. They are a relentless pressing unit, super fit, stacked full of strong players and well able to squeeze and dominate two thirds of the league at will.
Metrics support the view that this team is sufficiently strong to break past 72 points, something they should have managed last season but for the obvious emotional toll that hit as soon as their title challenge mathematically ended. The current status of the team also bodes well. Somehow the dying embers of Villas Boas and Sherwood put the team on 43 points at this stage in 2013-14 but Redknapp’s final voyage in 2011-12 leads the way at the 22 game mark, with 46 points from a 14-4-4 record, the same as Tottenham have accrued this season. That Redknapp then oversaw a 6-5-5 finish was enough to mean his departure lacked mourners, and it is hard to see this team capitulating in such a manner. Twenty seven points from sixteen games would take the team past the 72 point mark and if we look at blocks of sixteen games, the lowest Tottenham have picked up since the start of 2015-16 has been 25 points with an average of 31.5. If Pochettino can just keep the ship on course, a finish in the high seventies is well within the team’s capabilities and would finally allow the obvious off pitch progress to be tangibly felt in terms of league performance.
That’s not to presume Tottenham are immune to a slump as key injuries can always hit, but the reliability in which they have been able to dispatch the lesser teams in the league has improved and they have negotiated this far with players such as Harry Kane, Erik Lamela, Toby Alderweireld and now Jan Vertonghen missing chunks of time. An autumn three game run of draws against West Brom, Bournemouth and Leicester are the only league results that can be regarded as genuinely disappointing this season and while results against rivals have been typically mixed, that’s something that can be said of all the contending sides.
So we reach the end of the transfer window with a vastly different outlook to years gone by. There is no great urgency to retool and the squad looks deep enough to be able to work solidly towards its ambitions, for all that the Europa League and FA Cup will probably be used as little more than outlets for squad men. Even the long term lack of back up at striker was addressed in the summer with the signing of Vincent Janssen, and despite his troubles, few fans are actively looking to replace him at such an early juncture and his mere existence is a step a head of "just Harry Kane" as a strike force.
If there are concerns about the direction the club is moving in, the structure of any transfer committee appears uneasy. Paul Mitchell continues to work his leave and the late summer transfers of Georges-Kevin N’Koudou and Moussa Sissoko looked like headscratchers at the time (with little or no statistical basis to either of them), and the lack of impact made by both players implies that Tottenham may need to apply greater care to their recruitment in future. Talk of Wilfried Zaha is hopefully wide of the mark as his apparently improved contributions for a struggling Crystal Palace carry a huge red flag based on little change in his shooting or creative numbers year on year, implying he’s running on little more than a warm streak of form. Also, if we are to be critical of the team's style this year given Janssen’s difficulties in acquiring chances this season and a reduction in Kane’s shooting numbers at least in the opening months of the season, to note that Zaha has only created three chances for his centre forward, Christian Benteke all season is a stern warning not to blow another £30m on a visually impressive but functionally ordinary player in the summer. The squad is well equipped with blunt tools and a shade more nous and deviousness would not go amiss. One summer of duff signings can be survived, another one could be costly and it is to be hoped that Daniel Levy has a strategy to succeed once more in the market. Recruitment of a director of football may well be necessary with Levy likely to be occupied by the stadium project in the near future.
Arguably the best signing Tottenham made in recent years was a January transfer. The purchase of Dele Alli received nearly no fanfare and he stayed at Milton Keynes Dons for the rest of the 2014-15 season before linking up that summer. A high profile player or a large fee may excite the fan base and Sky Sports News and plenty of good fortune is needed to find, recruit and nurture top talent ahead of rivals. With further Champions League qualification distinctly possible, it is to be hoped that a silent January is followed by a smart and decisive summer, with underwhelming 27 year old midfielders fresh from relegation firmly off the list.