On a road to nowhere? Why Spurs are at a crossroads

Walker, Capoue, Holtby looking devastated
After the sacking of André Villas-Boas it is hard to deny Spurs are in a deep crisis. But haven’t we been here time and time again?

Spurs were battered twice in the space of three weeks. Getting hit for six by City at the Etihad doesn’t seem to be an anomaly in the Premier League these days, but to lose 5-0 at home to any team is simply embarrassing and completely unacceptable. Many were calling for the manager’s head after another humiliating defeat in which Spurs failed to create any significant chances. On Monday they got their wish. However, shouldn’t the question be why the current situation feels like a déjà vu?

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Tottenham have been flirting with Champions League football for the past 5 seasons. In the 2009-10 season Spurs finally cracked the top 4. Yet, the club has failed to build upon its only season in Europe’s premier cup competition. The club finished 4th again in the 2011-12 season, but the team failed to shut out the freak possibility of being eliminated because of a Chelsea win in the 2011-12 Champions League final. A certain substitution away at Aston Villa, speculation surrounding the England job and failing to add additional fire power in January, will always be the three most commonly cited reasons among the Spurs supporters for the club’s failure to pip Arsenal to third place that season.

Last season was no different. Spurs finished on a record points tally of 72 points, but were again denied Champions League football. The team finished 1 measly point below bitter rivals Arsenal. The Spurs faithful were yet again left to rue one or two disappointing draws, three points away at Everton that evaporated in the dying last two minutes of the game, a lack of quality finishing by Tottenham’s strikers, and the over-reliance on moments of individual brilliance by Gareth Bale.

For the past couple of seasons Spurs have been hovering around the top of the table but have failed to finish within the top 4 in consecutive seasons. It’s fair to say that failing to qualify for the Champions League has cost Spurs a lot. Champions League revenue, potential new signings, and most importantly of all it was the catalyst of a string of high profile departures. Surely this is not just down to the manager.

Six managers in 12 years

In the last 12 years Spurs have hired and fired six managers, had to resort to caretaker appointments four times, and have most likely wasted tens of millions of pounds on sign-on fees and severance packages. Despite reshuffling the technical staff time after time, the club hasn’t made any significant nor consistent progress on their league finish since the 2005-06 season. One might argue finishing 4th twice in the last four seasons is progress, but if you look at the stats over the past 12 years it’s evident how inconsistent and unstable the club’s performance has been.

Premier League record 2002-2013

SeasonFinishPointsPPGWin %

If anything, Spurs have consistently underperformed over the past five seasons, especially when you consider the quality of the squad. Of course Manchester City’s new found riches had a massive impact on the Premier League landscape, but in terms of top 4 chances the demise of Liverpool in recent years (Spurs have finished above the Reds since the 2009-10 season) mitigated this new competition. Yet somehow, all these managers were unable to deliver Champions League qualification in consecutive seasons.

Managerial records (in all competitions)

 Win % Draw %Loss %PPG
Glenn Hoddle39.42%17.31%43.27%1.36
Jacques Santini38.46%30.77%30.77%1.46
Martin Jol45.27%25.68%29.05%1.61
Juande Ramos38.89%29.63%31.48%1.46
Harry Redknapp49.5%25.25%25.25%1.74
André Villas-Boas55%25%20%1.9

So has any of them had a significant impact? Barely. The only manager who seems to have caused a significant jump in results was Martin Jol, who propelled Spurs from mid-table to almost cracking the top 4 if it wasn’t for a dodgy lasagne. But even Jol couldn’t reach a level of consistency that pleased the Spurs hierarchy. Juande Ramos won the club silverware but had the second worst win ratio of all the six managers in the past twelve years. Harry Redknapp stabilised results of a team that looked lost and should’ve managed to finish above Arsenal at least one season during his tenure. André Villas-Boas took over a strong squad and minimised the impact of the departure of key players such as Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart. But in the end, none of them performed to the expectations of the Spurs board and were eventually sacked.

Falls from Grace

 PeriodPlayedWonDraw LostPPG
Glenn Hoddle16.08.2003 - 20.09.200361 (16.67%)1 (16.67%)4 (66.67%)0.67
Jacques Santini14.08.2004 - 30.10.2004113 (27.27%)4 (36.36%)4 (36.36%)1.18
Martin Jol26.08.2007 - 25.10.2007112 (18.18%)5 (45.45%)4 (36.36%)1
Juande Ramos16.08.2008 - 23.10.2008111 (9.09%)3 (27.27%)7 (63.64%)0.27
Harry Redknapp26.02.2012 - 13.05.2012166 (37.5%)4 (25.0%)6 (37.5%)1.38
André Villas-Boas10.11.2013 - 15.12.201384 (50.0%)1 (12.5%)3 (37.5%)1.63

Looking at the run-ins that eventually lead to the demise of these six Spurs managers, there are a couple of similarities. All the previous five managerial sackings followed after Tottenham’s performance dipped below 1.5 points per game and more than a third of the games in the run-in were lost. Yet, the run-in that eventually ended with Villas-Boas’ departure doesn’t come close to the woeful depths some other former Spurs managers plunged to.

Andre Villas-Boas

AVB: Young, ambitious, intelligent. But also stubborn and possibly too lightweight to deal with the pressure.

During his time at Tottenham, Villas-Boas had the highest win ratio of any Spurs manager over the past 100 years, the highest points per game return, and managed to get Tottenham’s loss ratio down to 20%. It’s hard to deny we didn’t play well for large spells during his reign though. Free-flowing football was scarce, creation of clear-cut chances was a chronic problem and his tactical stubbornness caused sometimes awkward team selections and poor displays. Should he have been given more time? It’s hard to say as it’s still unknown if he had lost the dressing room. The average points per game gained in the run-in that lead to his dismissal seems to tell a different story than in the case of his predecessors.

Villas-Boas’ inability to establish effective attacking patterns and failure to establish an acceptable baseline performance – a performance the team never stoops below regardless of injuries, suspensions, form and opposition – seems to have undone the young and ambitious manager. He was a daring appointment, one who could have set us up for many years to come. He set out to change the mentality at the club and to get Tottenham back to winning silverware. It’s a shame he didn’t manage to achieve these objectives.

The Expendables or The Expandables?

Spurs have a habit of selling key players. Whether it’s Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart or most recently Gareth Bale. When push comes to shove, every player is for sale at Spurs. Obviously it’s nigh impossible to keep a player against his will in this era of player power. However, had the club launched a more ambitious challenge for Champions League football or even the Premier League title, surely some of those players might have reconsidered their desire to leave.

What’s even more damaging is the club’s inability to address the void left by marquee departures. For years the club had been bereft of a striker who was considered to be of exceptional quality after Dimitar Berbatov’s departure. Soldado fits this description, but he is yet to set White Hart Lane alight. Luka Modric was invaluable as Spurs’ creative midfield playmaker; he has yet to be replaced by a worthy candidate. Rafael van der Vaart was a guaranteed source of 10+ goals a season and an excellent technical player in the hole behind the striker. None of the attacking midfielders on Spurs’ books comes close to his quality and goalscoring output. Gareth Bale yielded the club a record transfer fee, but will we ever see a home-grown talent of his quality at Spurs again?

Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart

Modric, Bale and Van der Vaart. Have they really been replaced?

It takes the club way too long to replace these kind of players. This summer’s lavish transfer spending gave all of us hope, but so far none of the new signings has made a true impact. It is true that players need time to adapt to new surroundings, new team-mates and a different playing style and tactics, but we are almost half way through the season. The time for ‘gelling’ and ‘clicking’ is quickly running out. The influx of new players has caused too many changes to the starting XI and has decreased the fluidity and patterns of our play.

Transfer dealings 2002-2013

 Transfer expenditureTransfer revenueNet spendMarquee signingMarquee sale
2002-03£9.5m£0.9m£8.6mRobbie Keane (£7m)None
2003-04£17.75m£1.4m£16.35mJermain Defoe (£7m)None
2004-05£20.3m£7m£13.3mMichael Dawson (£4m)Helder Postiga (£5m)
2005-06£15.1m£12.575m£2.525mJermaine Jenas (£7m)Frédéric Kanouté (£5.075m)
2006-07£38.6m£25.85£12.75mDimitar Berbatov (£10.9m)Michael Carrick (£18.6m)
2007-08£57.5m£14.5m£43mDarren Bent (£16.5m)Jermain Defoe (£7m)
2008-09£105m£79m£26mLuka Modric (£16m)Dimitar Berbatov (£30.75m)
2009-10£33.5m£32m£1.5mPeter Crouch (£10m)Darren Bent (£10m)
2010-11£18.5m£1m£17.5mRafael van der Vaart (£8m)Adel Taarabt (£1m)
2011-12£8m£37.5m- £29.5mScott Parker (£5.5m)Peter Crouch (£12m)
2012-13£60m£63.5m- £3.5mMousa Dembélé (£15m)Luka Modric (£33m)
2013-14£105m£109.2m- £4.2mErik Lamela (£26m)Gareth Bale (£85.3m)

To think Spurs have spent close to half a billion on new players over the past 12 seasons is mind boggling. When looking more closely to the fees paid for certain players it’s hard to not feel some of the spending has been ill-advised and in vain. The gems are far and few between. Of course transfers are no exact science and players can excel or flop for many different reasons, but to think we once spent £7m on Jermaine Jenas, £9m on Alan Hutton and £15m on David Bentley. It seems quite unreal. It makes the idea of missing out on some genuine world class players because the club’s offer was a couple of million shy even more painful.

What’s telling is which players have been at the club the longest. Quality players are always in demand, mediocre to average ones not. It’s all nice and dandy to have a low net spend, but if this is the result of constantly selling your best players it’s more damaging than opportunely moving on flops or squad players who simply are not good enough. It’s hard to argue this is not the case at Spurs. It seems everyone is considered to be expendable, even if they significantly contribute to the team’s overall performance. Instead of expanding the quality of the squad, Spurs are constantly selling quality and replacing it with a hatful of new expendables, hoping one or two might turn good. This leads to constant setbacks in team continuity.

Destroying progress

Tottenham Hotspur has elevated the ability to destroy its own progress to an art form in recent years . When we finished fourth, the club decided that it wasn’t going to splash the cash on a ‘Champions League’ kind of level. Rafael van der Vaart was a classy signing, William Gallas added experience, but Sandro was a largely untested player at that time, whilst Steven Pienaar seemed an unnecessary signing and subsequently turned out to be a complete flop. The club put all its chips on three strikers who didn’t exactly strike the fear of God in the top defenders in the Premier League, let alone Europe. It was also no surprise that Rafael van der Vaart was the club’s top goalscorer that season, with a rapidly evolving Gareth Bale outscoring two of the three strikers as well. Eventually the club finished fifth, had a nice run in the Champions League, and had to fight tooth and nail to keep Luka Modric at the club for one more season.

The club seems unable, or some might even suggest unwilling, to take that next step to solidify itself at the big table of European football. Our team always looks one or two quality players short of mounting a serious title challenge. Spurs always seem to come up a couple of million short to seal the deal for the player they need and the supporters are so desperate to see put on the Lilywhite shirt. Add to that the fact that everyone at the club has a price tag. Both the legendary and affluent of the football world know any Tottenham player is available at the right price. The players, the manager and his technical staff. They all seem to be regarded as expendable assets who have little significance in the grand scheme of things.

It comes as no surprise that the club’s performance has barely progressed since the 2005-06 season. We have always hovered around the top 4, but fifth place seems to be the norm. We buy some players, we sell a key player. Results take a turn for the worse, we sack the manager. We appoint a new manager, we sell another key player. We give the new manager some new players, we expect instant results. Results are not matching the lofty expectations, we sack the new manager. Repeat till infinity.

That’s why the board must take responsibility for the club’s inability to make significant progress. They are responsible for the hiring and firing of the manager, and the amount of activity in the transfer market. Clearly they have failed to come up with a winning formula. Managers have failed to solidify the club among Europe’s elite with the squads that were put at their disposal. The spending in the transfer market has proved largely ineffective compared to the spending of other top clubs during the Premier League era.

Trouble in paradise

The atmosphere at White Hart Lane has been criticised a lot in recent months and to an extent this is the club’s own fault. They have expressed these lofty ambitions of regular Champions League football and silverware, they have set the ticket prices at a level which simply breeds expectation and even (albeit false) entitlement.

The relationship between the club and its supporters has deteriorated to new lows in recent years. Threatening to move to the Olympic stadium in Stratford, slashing loyalty points of long-standing supporters, taking allocation away to offer Thomas Cook match breaks, facilitating ticket touts through the StubHub partnership, an explosion of complaints about stewarding at White Hart Lane. The list seems to go on and on. The bottom line is that Spurs have a lot to do to restore the supporters’ faith in the club. They might have been baying for blood after the Liverpool game, but sacking the head coach is not going to help brush all the other problems under the carpet. Finally delivering on the promise of a new football stadium might go some way to restore that faith.

Sack everyone

Don’t expect change any time soon though, since chairman Daniel Levy’s reign is one with an iron fist. There seems to be only one person bigger than the club, and that is Daniel Levy. Just ask the supporters. He doesn’t care about the opinion of the supporters, who are the lifeblood of  any football club, so why would he listen to anyone within the Spurs hierarchy? Twelve years of hiring and firing and spending close to half a billion pounds and still he divides opinion. Why? Because this is a results business and quite frankly many supporters feel the club’s results are inconsistent, under par and not matching the spending nor the public ambitions of the club. Don’t even get them started about the (season) ticket prices they have to cough up to watch their team play.

It seems common knowledge that the Tottenham boardroom likes to interfere with footballing matters. There’s long been talk of ‘the committee’, a powerful group which consists of chairman Daniel Levy and a couple of his trusted advisers. They allegedly set out the club’s transfer strategy and even hand pick targets. Many had hoped ‘the committee’ would have been a thing of the past with the appointment of technical director Franco Baldini. From the outside it looked like Spurs were going to have a trilateral discussion between chairman, technical director and head coach regarding football matters. The influence of the advisers, who will never publicly be held accountable or responsible for the club’s performance in the transfer window or on the pitch, seemed to be marginalised. However, judging by Villas-Boas’ comments after the Liverpool game it seems this summer’s transfer business was largely not by his choosing. When asked if this was his team, he replied with an elusive answer fit for a politician: “I’m not sure if I can make it public. We have worked hard to build a strong team and we have a strong team and we are happy with the signings.”

Tim Sherwood

One man’s loss…
Tim Sherwood has been appointed caretaker manager alongside Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey.

All is not well at Tottenham. Some seem to interfere with the tasks of others, whilst others seek to undermine the authority of the manager. Sacking the manager is always the easy way out. To think the buck stops at the manager is simply naive and short-sighted. After six sackings in 12 years surely there must be a greater, more deeply rooted problem. Maybe it’s time to let other capable people try to crack the code that Levy & Co have failed to for the past decade . If only that thought might arise on a yacht somewhere near The Bahamas.

Current philosophy does not work

Buying promising young talent for moderate prices might seem the only way for Spurs to compete with Russian Oligarchs and Middle Eastern Sheikhs, but if you can’t keep them at the club when they reach their prime it’s little use. Right now, Spurs are a satellite club in disguise. We give young players a chance in the Premier League, aid them in their development, but eventually end up having to let them go because we can’t provide them the chances of silverware or Champions League football they crave. I don’t like to say it either, but it’s the harsh truth. As long as the club doesn’t find a way to keep a nucleus of players together, players who are in their prime or thereabout, then it will be very difficult to really trouble the teams with bigger trophy cabinets or, moreover, bigger coffers.

Selling players on at a profit makes perfect business sense and has kept the club in sound financial health. However, a healthy balance sheet does not win trophies nor does it grant access to the holy grail that is the Champions League. As commendable as the current philosophy and transfer strategy is, it simply isn’t working. This might be a sign of the times. In previous blogs on this site, the similarities of Tottenham’s transfer strategy with that of Olympique Lyon have been pointed out. However, Lyon achieved great success with the “buy young, sell on at a profit” in a different time. Lyon’s dominance was at its peak between 2001 and 2008. They regularly reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and absolutely dominated Ligue 1. Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco weren’t the latest play thing of wealthy owners in those days. Nowadays Lyon is struggling to make the Champions League and are currently mid-table in Ligue 1. How the mighty have fallen.

Building your team around a core of academy trained players will be a challenge, but a rewarding one. It will free up funds to spend on that one world class player, it will safeguard the style of football the club wants to play and maybe most importantly of all it strengthens the bond between players and supporters. To see players who they can call “one of our own” excel and help their beloved team thrive is an immeasurable asset for any football club. The Tottenham academy hasn’t exactly been a conveyor belt of top class talent over the years, but things are definitely moving in the right direction. The Spurs youngsters have done well in the NextGen Series and the U21 Premier League in recent seasons. Players like Steven Caulker, Andros Townsend, Tom Carroll, Harry Kane and Jake Livermore have all had a taste of first team football but none of them has established himself as a regular fixture in the starting XI. This is mainly down to the fierce competition for places, but also because Tottenham’s current philosophy puts signing young players from abroad over promoting its own academy players.

Entrance Hotspur Way training centre

The future starts here.
The entrance at Hotspur Way, Tottenham’s training ground and home of the Spurs academy.

Obviously quality must be the leading argument for any team selection, but giving these youth players a real crack at the first team is a must. There’s only one way to find out if they are good enough, which is to throw them in the deep end and see how they cope. It might lead to some disappointing results initially, but in the long run moulding your own players through your academy breeds a true identity and a style that’s ingrained throughout the academy ranks of the club.

Spurs are at a crossroads. A choice has to be made. Continuing on the same path with the same philosophy only offers very slim chances of success. The club will either have to go the ‘money route’ and increase its spending to consistently attract quality players and subsequently retain those players for an extended period of time, or move to a more organic approach in which developing its own players through the academy is the primary focus of the club. To put it in layman’s terms, it’s a choice between either Los Galacticos or La Masia.


Dutch Spurs fan, football connoisseur and ambassador of free-flowing attacking football.

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4 comments on “On a road to nowhere? Why Spurs are at a crossroads
  1. Well written and interesting.

  2. Johnny Canuck says:

    Excellent stuff.

  3. Steve M says:

    Excellent article really well written although “a healthy balance sheet does not win trophies” is true, it’s important to have one. Taking one glance down the leagues at Leeds and Portsmouth shows its better to have a financially sound club in the PL than a busy one in L1/2.

  4. Simon says:

    ‘Selling players at a profit makes perfect business sense’. That’s the problem in a nut shell, we are a business run for profit like any other. Only fans don’t always see this, why would the board spend big to push us up a place or two in the table when the current strategy is yealding the right results on the balance sheet anyway. We’ve always been a selling club (our net spend in the history of the prem is around 4.5m), it’s nothing new. The teams that finish above us, with the exception of the Woolwich Wanderers are all either owned by people with enough cash not to care or in massive debt, we are being run as a business and are proving to be a very successful one so don’t expect any changes any time soon.

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  1. […] written plenty about what the club’s done over the last 12 years on this blog, and the Total Tottenham blog has done a very good analysis. The common theme that emerges is of a club forever embarking on new projects, and then losing […]