The three things Tottenham really need

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Usually my football postings try at least nominally to make the link with economics. But with the transfer deadline approaching, I feel like offering up a more qualitative analysis of where Pochettino needs to improve the squad. These are not specifics, but rather some broad principles.

So what is it that Spurs need?

1. A first XV (not a first XI)

I find it staggering the number of commentators who still get caught up on the idea that it is difficult for us to recruit because we cannot improve much on our supposed “first team”. As I have written before, whatever the level of your club and corresponding objectives, there is a basic threshold for quality. In our case, as potential title challengers, that is of the very highest level. Once that level has been determined, any squad will need at least 15 or so players who are of the required standard. They must all be “first team” players, even though only 11 play on the day. This is so basic that I just do not understand why it is still discussed.

For Tottenham in their current tactical style, this means:

  • 2 strikers
  • 3-4 attacking midfielders
  • 3 central / defensive midfielders
  • 3-4 central defenders

Only the goalkeeper can be expected to be a single regular and an understudy. Full-backs and wing-backs (the latter becoming one of the most high profile and specialized role across Europe) are perhaps also forgiven due to their relatively specialist nature, though the Kyle Walker / Kieran Trippier combination was really the very least we needed in terms of quality.

Some flexibility helps alleviate this, for instance Eric Dier’s switching between midfield and defence. But if you add it all up, we are talking about a “first team” of between 14 – 16 players, ideally a few more. I would say that we currently have about 11, excluding Davies and Trippier but including Son and Lamela. That is not enough for a title challenge.

2. Game changers

In the two recent defeats against Chelsea, much was made of the strength of the respective squads, which is true as far as it goes. But I have noticed that Poch also does not really have players who can really change things against the run of play “out of nothing”. Dele is the possible exception, Eriksen inconsistent. The point is that these players can all play well – but only if the team plays well. A game changer is a player who, like Hazard or the much-underestimated Willian at Chelsea, can pull things out when the team is playing poorly.

Our lack of this ability is why we seem to win relatively few games when we are not playing well – Crystal Palace away was one of the few occasions last season that I can remember. But the problem is: game changers are typically not great team players. The whole point is that they are egotistical prima donnas who pull something out of the bag precisely because at that moment, they are ignoring their team mates’ performances and just doing what they want. If the team is functioning, that’s wasteful selfishness; if the team is not functioning, it can be a life-saver. But game-changers are not Poch players.

3. Bastards

Lastly, we have the ongoing issue of our relative naivety at controlling matches (something which has reared its head this season against Burnley and arguably against Chelsea too). There is a valid accusation that Poch demonstrates a lack of stylistic flexibility, namely sticking at all times to the pressing style, but at this point last season he was also accused of tactical rigidity and ended up coming up with the 3-4-2-1 as a “Plan B”, so perhaps he just needs time to work on a more Mourinho-esque counter-attacking style.

But what he lacks in the squad are real bastards. People with experience and the skills to wind opponents up in big games. Chelsea is once again a great example of a squad almost any of whom would be bottled round the back of the pub just because they are annoying. Spurs, on the other hand, are not only too naïve, but too “nice”. There are glimpses of something more edgy from Rose and Dembele on occasion, and Dele is beginning to learn how to wind people up. But really, we have not had a really aggressive little bastard since Edgar Davids – it is the very definition of our historic “soft underbelly”.

Again, though, I suspect that bastards really are not considered suitable for Poch’s teams. One reason our squad is so nice is that they are so young, and have been growing up as Poch’s children effectively. How do you generate a Roy Keane or John Terry in that situation? Almost all the great “nearly” sides, from Newcastle in 1995 to Liverpool in 2013 have shown this weakness. We look set to join them.

*******

So with two days left, what are some answers? Well strengthening the wing-backs will be crucial – Aurier and possibly Sessignon would be good news (or eventually a Rose for Shaw swap). Adding more creative firepower would be great. But really we also need a gritty central man who has a bit of a temper. I have said it before and will say it again: perhaps it is time to reinvent Sissoko as that man. He showed a great elbow last year at Bournemouth!

A squad of two halves – the drag from Tottenham’s wage structure

Tottenham NY Post

Frustrations are beginning to appear around my beloved Tottenham Hotspur. Obviously, we have yet to make any new signings, even as all around us in the top six have done so – including from us with Kyle Walker’s move to Man City. It is well known that we have a shortage of money compared with our rivals – the subject of a neat video produced by Joe Devine last year. But, there has also been much commentary about how Tottenham are struggling to find the right kind of players to fit into the squad – especially as “understudies” to key players like Harry Kane and Dele.

The reality is that Tottenham faces structural problems of its own making. First, the wage cap in place is enforcing a concept of a First XI vs secondary players. Most clubs have some sort of wage structure in place, of course, but rarely at the top level is such a fuss made about it or is it so well known. A look at the figures as last season commenced (below) demonstrate this clearly: Lloris and Kane were the top earners but the whole first team plateau out before a sudden drop off as one reaches Trippier and Davies (both now ironically effectively first team players).

Tottenham wages

Source: sillyseason.com (http://sillyseason.com/salary/tottenham-hotspur-players-salaries-69471/)

Compare this with the three biggest paying clubs in the Premier League and the contrast is stark. It is not just the absolute amounts that are different; it is the distribution, and with it an entire philosophy of creating star players with a large pool of players below them. A new arrival at Spurs would question how inelastic the first team appears to be; a new arrival at Man Utd may know he won’t oust Paul Pogba, but the rest is up for grabs. Tottenham have allowed themselves to create too rigid a playing structure.

This leads onto the second structural point: no other team has quite such a disparity between the quality of our First XI and the bench. Title winning teams do not have a set first team; asking “who is willing to sit on the bench?” is to ask the wrong question altogether. The real measure is the quality of the first team squad – the 18 or so players who should be interchangeable in quality terms. This is more difficult for the striker position, since there is only one match day position available. But for the attacking midfield positions, where we play at least two (in the 3-4-2-1 formation) or three (in the 4-2-3-1), we should have at least n + 2 players of comparable quality competing.

So what is the answer? Well, one or two rumours have emerged which are of real interest: Iheanacho from Man City for instance, or Kovacic from Real Madrid (incidentally Ross Barkley is not the answer). But it seems like under the financial constraints we have, and under the wage structure we enforce, Pochettino is going to have to further rely on coaching youth players. It’s not a bad way to do it – Josh Onomah has had an excellent summer with the England U-20s, as has Kyle Walker-Peters; Harry Winks and Cameron Carter-Vickers already made their appearances last season too. I also believe that some players can be reinvented – Moussa Sissoko into a deep-lying central midfielder for instance.

Ultimately though, Spurs are going to have to rejig the way they pay their team even if they do not raise the total amounts being spent, and even to keep existing squad members happy. The current system reflects something static, sacrificing flexibility on the altar of stability. It might serve for another season, but what happens when our ambitions expand?