Have Tottenham dallied in the transfer market, or just smartly avoided common mistakes?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 1, 2019
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Once the rage subsides, Tottenham supporters might concede that their club have done well to avoid the potholes of the winter transfer window. History shows that being led by desperation in January can leave a troubling legacy and it’s no coincidence that so many of the sport’s worst deals have been concluded at this time of year. Sometimes, especially when the metaphor depicts hungry shoppers rushing through the supermarket aisles, grabbing whatever they see and tossing it price-unseen into their baskets, it really is better to stay out of the store altogether.

For Spurs specifically, this situation needs context. Mauricio Pochettino is certainly working with a limited squad, but the complication lies in how temporary those inconviences are. Within four to six weeks, Dele Alli and Harry Kane are likely to have recovered and, with that, Pochettino’s most pressing needs will have largely disappeared. Which made the task of adding depth exponentially more difficult. With added numbers may have come reassurance, but even temporary loan deals now come at prohibitive cost, meaning that Tottenham ran the risk of spending money they can ill afford for the sake of perhaps even as little as a month’s worth of cover.

For what it implies in the abstract, their inertia is antagonistic. The irritation is partly their fault, too, because the ambiguities of their financial situation have been allowed to foster suspicion. While the delays to the new stadium may have been unavoidable and the fault for them obviously doesn’t lie with Daniel Levy, the communication surrounding the situation has been almost non-existent. It’s now February and the empty updates continue; there is no opening date, no rough timeline, and – actually – not much respect. The myriad public relations failures which have characterised this episode have achieved nothing beyond the creation of a widening distance between the club and its public.

There is also no clarity about the funds which are available to back the native ambition. It seems a long time ago that Tottenham were insisting that their transfer budget would be ring-fenced and in the many months since fans have been left to draw their own conclusions from the lack of activity, the restrictions created by the increased loan facility (due to be repaid by 2022) and Pochettino’s press-conference innuendo. Whatever the truth, it’s not a rosy picture and it likely won’t be for many more months.

It’s a shame that Tottenham haven’t been clearer, because had they been so it would be far easier to rationalise their approach in the market. If Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United suffered the same volume of injuries, they would have reacted. As Chelsea have proven with their loan of Gonzalo Higuain, those clubs needn’t worry about the irretrievable costs of short-term deals. For Spurs, it’s not the same: while that kind of quick fix would have provided the illusion of depth and security, its financial implications would have been passed on to the summer, when perhaps a longer-term, more suitable player might become available.

Unfortunately, the transfer-window distorts such clarity. As it approaches its end, it breeds a curious type of self-deception, perpetuated by the belief that any activity is beneficial. In those final hours, it becomes easy to apply a confected rationalisation to whatever takes place – to become envious of Michy Batshuayi’s move to Crystal Palace or to pretend that Youri Tielemans is everything his YouTube highlights claim him to be. In the cold light of day, though, perhaps it’s easier to see the imperfections and to understand why, with resources scarce, Pochettino has chosen to stick with what he knows.

The club are not forthcoming about their internal processes and Pochettino himself is also vague about transfer direction. It’s safe to assume, however, that the mentality is to focus energy on deals which can benefit the club over many seasons. If the right player isn’t available, they don’t seek a lesser alternative and that’s clearly different to the past, and the mindset which brought players like Vlad Chiriches and Federico Fazio to White Hart Lane.

It makes perfect sense, too, because Pochettino doesn’t tolerate imperfect parts. As evidenced by his treatment of Vincent Janssen, Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and Clinton N’Jie, if he can’t foresee a player’s progression he will just exclude them, allow their value to rapidly depreciate, and expose his employer to a heavy loss. Similarly, while the loan market offers the theory of temporary cover, the principle of borrowing players runs contrary to his operating procedure. He doesn’t even trust permanent players to start games from the minute they arrive at the club, so what real production was he ever likely to get from borrowed talent? Pochettino’s style of management is based on permanence, long-term growth and almost cultish indoctrination, and the loan market is anathema to all three. To him, it presumably represents nothing more than the opportunity to haemorrhage money, with the added cost of limiting future and potentially more productive business.

The pertinent question, therefore, is whether there was a player available to Spurs this past month who would have had a use beyond the return of Alli and Kane. There was no outstanding full-back and no obvious replacement for Moussa Dembele; those are the squad’s needs and there appeared no realistic way of meeting them. If there were developing players who the club carries an interest in – Hull’s Jarrod Bowen or Norwich’s Max Aarons – perhaps their respective team’s reluctance to sell in the middle of a season made the cost prohibitive. Maybe, as he has said in the past, his preference is to begin working with pliable talent during pre-season.

It’s natural to speculate on the causes of the inactivity, because conducting no business for a full calendar year is certainly unusual. But Tottenham are wedded to a strategy and it’s that direction which has allowed them to achieve well beyond their means for some time. It’s essential, also, not to be seduced by the false promise of the transfer market and to recognise that while it can provide a useful jolt and safety in numbers, the most common by-product in January is actually wastage. Over-spends, bad contracts, and desperate signing-on fees.

Ultimately, inefficiencies which Tottenham cannot afford and which, actually, they’ve done well to avoid. They’re seven points clear of fourth place in the Premier League and still competing in Europe, so while the grumbles will continue for a few weeks yet, the virtue in their caution should reveal itself in time.

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