Ken Early: Spurs fail to frank ambition with marquee signings
Players being offered the opportunity to work twice as hard to stay in the same place
After the Champions League final defeat to Liverpool, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino supposedly spent the first half of June moping in his apartment in Barcelona, scarcely able to muster the energy to go outside. Photograph: Getty
The belief that what happens in your life is determined by the workings of a mysterious universal energy that you can shape according to your will makes an easy kind of sense when things are going your way. Positivity breeds positivity, confidence fuels confidence. Of course the universe smiles upon you, its favourite child - nothing could be more natural.
But when everything starts to go wrong, what do you think then? Does the fault lie within? Are you transmitting the wrong kind of energy to the universe? Or is some malignant agency working against you? In these circumstances, universal energy is a recipe for defeatism and paranoia.
As defeats go, the Champions League final was a particularly soul-destroying one for Mauricio Pochettino. The miracles of Manchester and Amsterdam could have convinced the most stone-hearted of sceptics that the vibrations of the universe were rattling the cup Spurs’ way. Pochettino spent two weeks hyping his players up for the match of their lives. They walked across hot coals, they broke arrows with their throats, they were ready for their date with destiny as no team has ever been ready.
And then the final was such a bitter anticlimax. A penalty conceded after 20 seconds, a tentative and error-strewn performance, the inner fire that Pochettino had tried so hard to stoke steadfastly refusing to blaze forth. The late sucker punch to confirm the defeat. No wonder that Pochettino supposedly spent the first half of June moping in his apartment in Barcelona, scarcely able to muster the energy to go outside.
Had Spurs won in Madrid it would have been one of the greatest ever Champions League campaigns. Now, reminiscing about their escape from a group containing Barcelona and Inter and their stunning wins over Manchester City and Ajax only reminds you how lucky they were to get that far, and how hard it will be to repeat the achievement.
Spurs have played 22 league matches in 2019. They have taken 31 points - the same as Newcastle United. They have scored 31 goals - the same as Burnley. The sense that the best days are in the past is lethal to any team and that is what has haunted Tottenham’s difficult start to the season, culminating in rumours last week that Pochettino himself was fed up and considering leaving the club.
He insisted on Friday that he would be staying for a sixth year having spent the summer with his staff designing the MP 6.0 update of the Tottenham operating system. But so far MP 6.0 seems not to have ironed out the bugs that plagued MP 5.0, and on early reviews it is way off the standards set by 2016-17’s MP 3.0, generally considered the Championship Manager 2001-02 of Poch software.
Pochettino blamed the rumours on the madness of social media but rumours like that don’t just come out of nowhere. He’s made it pretty obvious that he is not happy with how Spurs approached the summer’s transfer business. After the anticlimax and regret of Madrid, they needed some fresh impetus, something to get the team excited about the future. Signing Paulo Dybala might have done that but Spurs could not get the deal done.
In the end, all they did was patch some holes that had opened up in the team, with Tanguy Ndombele replacing Mousa Dembele six months after he left for China, and Giovani Lo Celso looking suspiciously like the long-term replacement for Christian Eriksen. The Dane had announced he wanted to leave in June but he stayed on the shelf all summer, priced out of the market by Daniel Levy, while the Spanish clubs he wanted to join pretended they were trying to sign Neymar.
The strangest deal was the one involving Jack Clarke, the young winger signed by Daniel Levy from Leeds because he seemed likely to increase in value and therefore a good investment, except it turned out that Pochettino didn’t think he was ready for the Premier League, so he ended up being loaned back to Leeds. The problem is that Leeds are not allowed to name more than five loan players in their squad for Championship matches so Clarke has not played a minute of league football yet this season, stalling the rate of increase in his value somewhat.
Spurs also sold Kieran Trippier without signing a replacement, which is why Davinson Sanchez ended up having to play right-back against Arsenal yesterday. Sanchez had a miserable afternoon, suffering repeated embarrassments. His team-mates know he should never have been put in that position. But they also know that this is just what happens at Spurs. The team is always expected to do more with less.
Last season Pochettino managed to make a virtue out of this; as injuries and international tournaments deprived him of key players, he kept coming up with new ways to use square pegs in round holes. Back then, inspired by the dream of winning the Champions League, his players responded with enthusiasm. But that kind of desperate, obstinate commitment is hard to sustain in the long run - you have to believe that help is on the way, that the struggle will turn out to have been worth something. Right now it feels like all Spurs are offering their players is the opportunity to work twice as hard to stay in the same place. Eriksen will not be the only one thinking: is this really the best I can do?