Tottenham resume their eternal Europa League campaign tonight, travelling to Belgium to face KAA Gent. It’s a test Spurs are expected to pass, but their involvement in the competition itself is soundtracked by a different sort of debate: given Mauricio Pochettino’s reputation for self-sabotage in Europe, is this the year when he uses it as a staging post on the way to greater success?
It’s a reasonable perspective: winning supposedly breeds winning and minor trophies can create the conditions under which major silverware becomes attainable. However, perhaps this has grown a life of its own and developed a significance that it’s not entirely due.
Tottenham suffered a chastening loss at Anfield. Pochettino’s flawed gameplan conspired with his team’s personnel issues to create a perfect storm of ineptitude; Spurs were uncompetitive and ultimately rotten. Worse still, it was a situationally familiar performance: this team is developing the unwanted tag of being weak under pressure. When it matters most, their resilience evaporates and their impressive tactical mechanisms grind to a halt.
The remedy for that, by consensus, is the targeting of competitions like the Europa League. By exposing the squad to high-pressure situations, they will develop a tolerance which, over time, can be transferred into domestic football.
History would seem to support that. Modern Manchester City won the FA Cup the season before they finally managed to win the Premier League, Jose Mourinho’s successful first spell at Chelsea began with the lifting of the League Cup and, famously, Alex Ferguson would win the FA and Cup Winners’ Cups before getting his hands on the league trophy.
These building-block triumphs may only represent marginal gains, but trivialising their importance would be naive. However, in Tottenham’s case it would also be a mistake to view the Europa League – or either domestic cup – as the last waypoint on the way to a better future and allow it to mask deficiencies which can – and should – be corrected. Losing is palatable if it animates introspection, but not if it’s just dismissed as the product of some vague, absent intangible. Similarly, it cannot be assumed that lifting a trophy will cure all of the emotional weakness in a squad or correct obvious areas of structural weakness.
For example, in all of the cases listed above – Manchester United, City, and Chelsea – the emotional emboldening was accompanied by a more literal strengthening. Rather than anticipating that an existing squad would eventually flower beyond the sum of its parts, all three clubs garnished their maturation with strong recruitment. In each case, they didn’t just wait for “winning” attributes to grow, they went out and bought them: Chelsea would sign Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho, Ferguson bought Paul Ince, Peter Schmeichel and – eventually – Eric Cantona, and City imported Sergio Aguero. All of them were exceptional players, but their binding associations were a mixture of arrogance, talent, and self-belief.
Obviously, Spurs do not have the opportunity to sign a ready-made player of Aguero’s calibre and the comtemporary equivalents to Schmeichel, Ince, and Drogba would be both rare and expensive. Nevertheless, the point remains: becoming a successful club isn’t a purely organic process and that, perhaps, is where Tottenham are being inefficient.
Interestingly, this was a concept they seemed to initially grasp: Toby Alderweireld, for instance, was signed as much for his human characteristics as his centre-back play, Dele Alli was idenitified – presumably – as both an exceptional footballer and a teenager of rare conviction, and much of the squad’s initial improvement has been greased by personality. Additionally, Pochettino has placed great emphasis on purging the club of undesirable players who couldn’t be relied upon – sometimes in spite of obvious footballing virtues (Nabil Bentaleb).
At some point that approach was abandoned – or at least watered down. The Moussa Sissoko transfer was an act of hopeless desperation which has been, at the time of writing, an inevitable failure. With the notable exception of Victor Wanyama, none of the incoming transfers completed within the last year have had any impact on the first team. That comes with caveats, because Vincent Janssen and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou are still under development, but both are consequences of a strategy which has lost either its direction or its focus on the present. The teams above and immediately below Tottenham are buying match-winners of proven character, but they themselves are speculating either on players who might be at that level in four years’ time or mature talent which requires wholesale reconstruction; Pochettino may be a gifted coach, but the best possible outcome of that approach would seem to be stasis.
A two-pronged strategy is imperative. In European football, Sevilla are often cited as an example of both how a winning culture can be bred and also the value of emphasising supposedly second-tier competitions. Having won the Europa League in three consecutive seasons, they are currently third in La Liga and involved in the Champions League knockout stages. But that’s a superficial assessment which ignores much of the detail: rather than just bottling the voodoo, they’ve used that success to forcefully improve. Of the 11 players who started the 2014/15 Europa League final against Dnipro, only two (Sergio Rico and Vitolo) would still be considered first-team regulars. And, though they may have beaten Liverpool in last May’s final, their progression since is as much to do with the summer additions of Franco Vazquez and Wissam Ben Yedder (both over 25) and the loan signing of Samir Nasri, a player approaching his thirtieth birthday with two Premier League titles and a Champions League semi-final to his name.
Yes, Sevilla are a pertinent example of how to improve, but Tottenham aren’t following their lead – conversely, the expectation seems to be that the squad they have will use overachievement to somehow fuel further overachievement and that, eventually, a quantum leap will be made over a tipping-point.
Even within a strictly English context, few of the other top-six club behaves in the same way. Tottenham may be at a financial disadvantage when compared to those sides, but they’re still betrayed by their intentions: Manchester United weren’t content to wait for Anthony Martial, Andre Herrera, and Marcus Rashford to develop a winning mentality, they did their utmost to ensure that Jose Mourinho can succeed here and now. In marched Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool employed a similar approach and Chelsea, naturally, were also aggressive in the market.
Coincidentally, Arsenal are probably Tottenham’s nearest ideological match and they help to demonstrate the flaws of that partly shared outlook. Neither of Arsene Wenger’s recent FA Cup wins has translated into anything of note, largely because he believes so wholeheartedly in a laissez faire approach. Even in spite of signing Alexis Sanchez and, previously, Mesut Ozil, his prevailing belief that his squad would just grow into a big-game force has cost him the chance to properly contend. It doesn’t matter how many times Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey et al climb those Wembley steps, they seem to retain all the same psychological limitations – as evidenced by their recent showing at Stamford Bridge and, more vividly, by their humiliation in Munich on Wednesday night.
Tottenham are not Arsenal and they do not inhabit the same financial universe. Consequently, that they seem to share aspects of such an obviously imperfect ideology is all the more troubling. If it hasn’t worked for Arsenal, even with the periodic luxury of signing off-the-peg global stars, what hope for Spurs?
A winning mentality didn’t grow from winning the League Cup in 2008 and there was no obvious uplift from the qualification to and participation within the Champions League in 2010/11. Winning is good, but what happens next is always more important – that is to say, that unless those victories are parlayed into something of lasting value, they really amount to nothing more than a day out for the supporters.
Improvement has to be pursued aggressively or, generally, it will always remain elusive.