Ken Early: Spurs left floundering by Daniel Levy’s managerial appointments

Chairman’s managerial selections since Pochettino sacking have left team in a mess

Tottenham Hotspur manager Nuno Espírito Santo reacts during their Premier League defeat by Manchester United. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur manager Nuno Espírito Santo reacts during their Premier League defeat by Manchester United. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

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There were 54 minutes on the clock at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium when the board went up to signal that Lucas Moura was coming off to be replaced by Steven Bergwijn. On one level this was a standard like-for-like swap, the kind a coach often makes in the second half to add energy to the attack.

That’s not how the Spurs fans saw it. The reaction was immediate and explosive. The furious boos segued into a chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing”, as they vented their rage at the unpopular new coach, Nuno Espírito Santo.

Spurs were only 1-0 down at the time and there was still plenty of time to get back in the game, so what was driving this extraordinary mutinous outburst? It’s not as though Moura had been dominating the game. He had been lively, as you might expect: with four successful dribbles he had come as close as any Spurs player to taking the game to Manchester United. But there had been little sign that he was about to add to his total of zero goals and zero assists in the league this season.

The problem was the like-for-like element. Lucas might not have achieved much in the 54 minutes he’d played, but to Spurs fans he represents at least the memory of something good. Lucas was the author of the miracle of Amsterdam, the scorer of the second half hat-trick against Ajax that propelled Spurs to the Champions League final.

Bergwijn scored three goals in his first six Premier League games, and proceeded to add one more in 28 games since. Nobody was expecting him to make it two in 29, and so bringing him on for Lucas seemed a pointless holding manoeuvre, the only effect of which was to make Spurs a little bit worse. Was this really the best idea Nuno could come up with? Why not change the shape, why not try something to break out of a losing pattern?

Reset a relationship

Ten minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo set Edinson Cavani through for 2-0, the game was over as a contest, and “you don’t know what you’re doing” had given way to “we want Levy out” as the Spurs fans refocused their anger towards the man at the top.

Back in May, Daniel Levy wrote an annual address to supporters that read like an attempt to reset a relationship that had soured since the sacking, a little over two years ago, of Mauricio Pochettino. “As a Club we have been so focused on delivering the stadium and dealing with the impact of the pandemic, that I feel we lost sight of some key priorities and what’s truly in our DNA,” he wrote.

Although the tone at times verged on the apologetic, Levy made sure to point out that the team had not failed for want of financial backing. “Since we lost the Champions League Final in June, 2019, we have invested in excess of £250m in new players.” The figure may sound surprisingly high to people outside Spurs who can’t remember the club making many waves in the transfer market. The most headline-grabbing Spurs market move of recent years was when they signed absolutely nobody in the summer of 2018.

Tanguy Ndombele remains Tottenham’s only signing in the £50m-plus range. Manchester City started the season with 11 such players, Manchester United nine, Chelsea five and Liverpool three. But they have nevertheless spent heavily over the last three seasons - on a stream of mid-price flops. Fees of between £15m and £30m have been paid for Bryan Gil, Emerson Royal, Giovani Lo Celso, Sergio Reguilon, Matt Doherty, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Steven Bergwijn and Ryan Sessegnon. Of these only Højbjerg and arguably Reguilon have succeeded.

In the defeat to United, the players on Spurs’ bench cost more than the ones on the field. It’s no use adding players if you cannot also integrate them. The question is: integrate into what? Spurs are a club without a football structure or plan. They sign coaches and players apparently at random, and then seem surprised when everyone looks lost. Years of comparative stability and success under Pochettino obscure the reality that this has been the pattern for most of Levy’s two decades in charge.

Levy is the same guy who thought the defensive French coach Jacques Santini might work well with the Dutch-school Frank Arnesen and Martin Jol. At one point he valued European experience so highly that he hired Juande Ramos on the strength of his two Uefa Cup wins with Sevilla even though he spoke hardly any English, then replaced him with Harry Redknapp, who had at that point managed more than 1,000 matches, only 13 of which were in European competition.

Dismantle

With Pochettino, Levy had a coach who believed in an aggressive high-tempo style of play. No team tackled more in the opponent’s third of the pitch than Pochettino’s Spurs, while their pressing in the final third was as aggressive as Liverpool’s or City’s. Whether or not you agreed with the decision to sack Pochettino after a long period of declining results, it made no sense to replace him with José Mourinho, a park-the-bus-and-counter coach. Rather than build on Pochettino’s legacy, Mourinho was always going to dismantle it.

Now try to make sense of the list of managers Spurs were linked with after sacking Mourinho. Antonio Conte but also Erik ten Hag? Gennaro Gattuso but also Hansi Flick? It’s not that any of these coaches would necessarily have been a bad choice. The issue is that they have such different approaches to the game it’s impossible to understand what sort of team Spurs are hoping to become. It looks as though they are just trying to attract a name. Some of the names they contacted seemed to sense this too.

Back in May, Levy promised the fans: “we are acutely aware of the need to select someone whose values reflect those of our great Club and return to playing football with the style for which we are known - free-flowing, attacking and entertaining...” He ended up hiring the most defensive coach in the Premier League over the previous three seasons. Spurs needed someone who would bring fresh ideas to rejuvenate the team post-Mourinho. But Nuno was essentially Mourinho minus the drama and the trophies. That’s why the Spurs fans were in no mood to be patient. There’s only so much nonsense people can take.

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