Spurs may sit six points off the top of the Premier League and still be in European competition, but there is undeniably a very flat feeling about the place. A trite dismissal of this would reference those supposedly fickle Spurs fans who have followed the team in such number while it achieved such little success, while the more nuanced dismissal urges anyone voicing a criticism to “get some perspective”. So is everything coming up roses, or is there cause for concern?
Loose change The humiliating 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool and the subsequent sacking of Andre Villas-Boas is the place where we can sensibly start. Discontent with the team’s style of play had been rumbling for some time, but this represented a new low. There were no positives to be drawn, and it seems that in the aftermath neither AVB or the Spurs board wanted to continue. While it’s now pointless getting into the merits of AVB’s approach, what was worrying was the apparent lack of faith on both sides. AVB seems to have concluded that he would not be able to do the job in the way he wanted to do it with the players he wanted, and the board seems to have concluded that he wasn’t worth putting any faith in. When the implications of this sink in, there’s cause for concern.
When AVB was appointed it was, as appointments at Spurs tend to be under Daniel Levy, part of a grand plan, a new approach. A tactically astute manager with modern ideas, working with a director of football and a technical staff to forge a team capable of competing with the very best. Having decided on that approach, what was needed was to back it, and stick with it through adversity. Last season went well, with Spurs collecting their highest Premier League points totals ever and reaching the quarter finals of the Europa League before going out to a decent Basel side. In the domestic cups, two limp exits fell short of what was expected. But nonetheless, this season’s whacking at Man City (albeit a whacking that plenty of others have experienced) and subsequent collapse against Liverpool were the first really serious problems the new regime faced. And it buckled. Which prompts the question, how much faith was there in the first place?
What happened next? It’s at this stage that the concern really sets in. AVB certainly does not seem to have been without fault. His handling of players obviously didn’t work in some cases and he seemed unable to imbue a sense of adventure and confidence in his side. Then there were those inverted wingers. And the way he seemed to simply give up right at the end, conjuring up images of Jacques Santini walking away, did not impress. But it’s to the Spurs board that the harder questions have to be directed. If the board was so confident it had made the right choice, did it fight hard enough to back that choice? Some will point to the spending as evidence of backing, but were the players Spurs bought the ones the manager wanted?
Evidently the board had reached the conclusion that AVB wasn’t the man they thought he was. But presumably the decision wasn’t made on the basis of two bad results. All those issues of how the players were being handled and how the team was being coached must have been in evidence for some time. If they were, and the board had decided it had made a mistake appointing AVB – something that in itself raises questions about the quality of the backing he was given – then there was time to line up a replacement. Which leads us to another area of concern.
Nobody home If the Spurs board knew for a while that they would be sacking the manager, a sensible course of action would have been to line up a replacement. Not by, to take a random example, going to dinner in a public place with a high-profile candidate while the incumbent struggled on – a tactic known in the trade as ‘the Kemsley dinner date’ – but by making the kind of subtle and effective enquiries that do not seem to be beyond most other clubs when they decide the time is up for their current manager.
But the Spurs board had no replacement lined up. Instead, they flung themselves at a couple of the “names” that always get bandied about in these circumstances, and then went with the only option available and appointed Tim Sherwood. In itself, that may be no bad thing. Let’s remember, after all, what the distinguishing feature of the two most successful managers in ENIC’s tenure is – they were both decisions forced on the board after one of their enormously clever plans fell to pieces. Martin Jol took over when Santini recognised early on what has dawned on every other manager Levy has employed; and Harry Redknapp, although ostensibly Levy’s “choice” was the only realistic option after the sophisticated and groundbreaking Ramos plan had imploded.
Meet the new boss So what of Sherwood? Much of the comment that greeted the appointment, centring as it did on lack of badges and supposed tactical dunderheadedness, seemed to me to be the reverse side of the equally daft prejudices against AVB for being ‘foreign’ and ‘cerebral’ – oh, and of course, never having played the game at the top level, unlike so many of the journalists who trotted that one out. More genuine concerns, for me, were a lack of experience – although how does one gain experience unless given it? – and the strong impression that Sherwood was the source of at least some of the stories about AVB’s failings. The factionalism at Tottenham has long sapped the club’s collective strength.
But Sherwood does seem to have restored some confidence, uncomplicated the approach, and been refreshingly direct in his interviews. As he says, all that matters is points, and in the league it’s 13 out of 15. Let’s just not mention those two cup exits, eh? For many, the worry about Sherwood is the 18-month contract. I don’t think that is an indication of lack or faith, more a recognition of reality. The pattern set by the current board shows that, within 18 months, Sherwood will either have been sacked for not being successful, or sacked because – like Jol – his success wasn’t a direct result of one of Levy’s enormously clever plans. So the 18 month contract is pretty honest.
Philosophy football Sherwood’s comments, though, raise a more serious question. He was the club’s technical director. But, clearly, he had an entirely different idea from the head coach about how the game should be played – and so we must assume the type of player who could play that game. Now, I don’t think you need to have played football at the top level to see what the problem might be there. A technical director and a head coach whose approaches are at odds makes no sense. It does go a long way towards explaining why AVB apparently didn’t rate the youngsters, if they were being taught to play in a way that didn’t fit his system. Football is, famously, all about opinions – but it would seem sensible to ensure that everyone at the club responsible for playing style has the same ones.
When considering the approaches of AVB and Sherwood, it’s also wise to factor in Baldini. He occupies the director of football role so loved by Levy because it ensures continuity. One of the answers many Spurs fans want is exactly what Baldini’s idea of a good player and a good footballing approach is. Another would be whether any of the people he works with agree with it. And that continuity argument only works if there is a philosophy of how to play embedded at the club. At Spurs, it seems to be all change every 18 months or so. It’s hard to identify any continuity of approach from manager to manager under Levy’s tenure – Hoddle to Santini, to Jol, to Ramos, to Redknapp, to AVB, to Sherwood. Where’s the continuity there? And, if rumour is to be believed, the continuity gap is about to get bigger.
Transferred assets It is not possible to get every transfer right, to make every judgement correctly. Apparently good players can be affected by all sorts of peripheral issues, or simply not fit with a particular style of play or set of players. But what you expect from a club with an enormously clever chairman, a director of football, a head coach, a technical director and a host of associated coaching staff, is that when players are signed someone knows how they tick, and is prepared to give them a chance to do so. All too often, we sign players whose eventual lack of ability to work they way we want to seems to come as a surprise to us. And lately, we seem to be giving them very little chance to deliver.
It should be stressed the rumours about Capoue and Holtby going during this window are, for the moment, just rumours. But experience suggests there is no smoke without fire, however popular it may be to denounce the media and all its works. When Holtby arrived he was supposedly a key player, so key that we brought forward the agreed transfer date. Yet, just one year later, he’s made just 23 appearances and we’re apparently ready to let him go. Even more extraordinary is the case of Capoue. Signed in August, he’s made just 7 appearances – with injury restricting his chances – and Sherwood has dropped hints that his attitude is not right. How could that attitude not have been picked up by the scouts or the director of football? To any sensible observer, Tottenham’s transfer strategy seems to be non-existent.
Burkinshaw Over the years, the quote “there used to be a football club over there” has been used liberally during the many – and mostly self-inflicted – crises at the club. Keith Burkinshaw never said it – the ‘quote’ was a device used by a journalist to pithily sum up Burkinshaw’s disquiet at what was being done to the club as Irving Scholar embarked upon the journey that led to where we are today. But its power endures as a summation of the disquiet we feel. Disquiet fuelled by the many, many questions. Are we a club or merely a player trading exchange? Is there any plan at all, or are we just waiting until ENIC can finally sell? Is it really enough to have balanced books, is that what we pay to see, or would it be nice to win something once in a while, like we used to, when we built the reputation upon which the current owners trade? And, for supporters of my generation, the question is ‘are we supporting something that ceased to exist some time ago?’ And so on.
Watching Spurs lately, it’s hard to identify any more than a collection of players. The evidence of a team seems hard to come by. We are not, of course, rubbish, doomed, in crisis or any of the other hyperbole that’s been tossed around. Our moaning must come across to fans of clubs in real trouble as the whining of the rich kid who only got three foreign holidays this year. But there’s a flatness, a loss of passion, a realisation that maybe this is all there is. Look at any of the truly successful teams, Bayern, Barcelona, Dortmund, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal god help us, and what do you see? A philosophy of how to conduct yourself as a football club, a pride in that idea and a fierce desire to implement it – and the courage and confidence to stick with convictions. And don’t tell me it’s just the money that makes them so successful. At Spurs, who can expect the players to show any passion when they are shuffled in and out with such regularity, when the transfer policy seems designed to do little else than turn a profit, when business comes second to instead of alongside football, when – as ABC, and perhaps AVB too, memorably observed – everything is temporary, written on that sand.
AVB’s departure was a blow not because of the specifics, but because of what it represented. It signalled to all but the most blinkered that there is no plan, no philosophy, no solid idea running through a club that is shell of what it once was and could be. Until ownership able to combine vision with ability and hard cash can step in, the direction of travel will continue to be circular.