Tottenham prepare to tread the line

Words By Nick Miller Illustrations by Philippe Fenner
July 17, 2017
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Daniel Levy doesn’t talk in public very often, so it’s always worth paying attention when he does. While on Tottenham’s pre-season tour to the US, Levy was invited along to ring the bell at the Nasdaq stock exchange, and afterwards he spoke a little about the club’s transfer dealings this summer. Or, if you prefer, the lack thereof.

Levy, increasingly sounding like a voice of reason among the noise of telephone number transfer fees and cacophonous rumour-mongering, spoke about how current levels of spending are surely unsustainable, and that the money Spurs have spent on their academy is designed to protect them against that.

The academy is important because we can produce our own players,” Levy said. “We don’t have to go and spend £20m, £30m, £40m on a player and obviously that homegrown player has an affinity with the club that a player we buy doesn’t. That’s what the fans want to see. They want to have that passion. That’s what you get with a homegrown player and that’s why people love Harry Kane and sing that he’s one of our own.”

It does help that Kane is also the best centre-forward in the Premier League, but the point stands. It is also worth noting that if Tottenham had the riches of either Manchester club, or Chelsea, or even Arsenal, they probably wouldn’t be quite so reticent about firing up the fax machine, or getting the chequebook out, or whatever other arcane term is still used to describe transfer business. Having a relatively outdated stadium with a capacity under 40,000, and the subsequent costs involved in building a new one, have made financial reticence a necessity as much as a philosophical choice.

“We don't have to go and spend £20m, £30m, £40m on a player and obviously that homegrown player has an affinity with the club that a player we buy doesn't. That's what the fans want to see. They want to have that passion. That's what you get with a homegrown player and that's why people love Harry Kane and sing that he's one of our own." Daniel Levy

But Tottenham are making the best of a limiting situation. The apparent emphasis on the academy is as much a pragmatic choice as a romantic one, and in a sense sums up Levy quite well: he’s a firm businessman, but also a fan, his decisions informed by both.

His apparent faith in the academy is a case in point. If you invest money in developing young players, the two sensible courses of action are to sell those youngsters for profit, as Chelsea do (although obviously they buy a good few of those players in, rather than nurturing them from their youngest days), or to actually use them. Spurs sound like they’re going to do the latter.

Harry Winks, Josh Onomah, Marcus Edwards, Kyle Walker-Peters, Cameron Carter-Vickers: these are the youngsters either involved in or on the fringes of the first team, none of whom better than the established senior players but all with the potential to challenge them. These are all the players who have passed the Poch Test: which is to say that they haven’t been sent on loan, kept at the club to learn his own ways. In the Spurs universe, there can hardly be a higher compliment. “We have a coach that very much believes in the academy,” said Levy. “Unless we can find a player who would make a difference he would rather give one of our academy players a chance.”

Once upon a time there might have been some middle ground between relying on youngsters and spending monstrous amounts of money, but with the going rate for even relative mediocrity now at eye-watering levels, that might not exist any more. Spurs are in an unusual position of having a brilliant set of players who are largely all earning much less than they could elsewhere. That many of them seem happy enough with this state of affairs is a testament to Pochettino, but it also presents a problem with recruitment: how do you buy players, in this market, who will improve or challenge the ones already there, without breaking your transfer record every few months? It’s incredibly hard to do.

So the options are to a) spend a lot of money, b) spend less on a relatively unknown talent or c) give the youngsters a try. All three are risks, so at the very least you can see the logic in both trying to avoid the most expensive, and not making signings for the sake of it.

Of course this might backfire, as our own Seb Stafford-Bloor suggested recently. Relying on the fitness of the established players while also hoping promising youngsters develop into worthy challengers is like walking a tightrope with two people hammering either end with a big stick. Ideally, Tottenham could do with an established player or two to beef up the squad for the coming European and domestic campaigns. But assuming Pochettino really does believe in these players, is it really more of a risk than spending heftily on players who might not adapt to the league, to the team, to the manager?

And a corollary of this combination of romance and realism is that Tottenham might actually do what we’re told is the key to getting the best from young native talent. All of the players mentioned are English, some involved in the varied successes of the national youth teams this summer. Common wisdom states that the key thing holding these players back is a lack of opportunity at senior level, kept away from their first teams by expensive, often foreign signings.

This is often pointed to as the silver bullet, the one thing that will solve the national team’s woes, which of course is enormously reductive and often not helpful, but it’s undeniably a factor. Tottenham, who admittedly broadly leave their business until late in the window so this might change, currently look as if they will give these young English players the chance that many have been clamouring for. It might be because they essentially have to rather than desperately want to, but does that really matter?

Having a youth academy is one thing, but actually using it and placing faith in it is another. If Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino are really serious about that, as they say they are, then it puts them in a fine position to ride out this “unsustainable” period of spending, while also potentially helping the England team. It might not work, but it at least seems reasonably sensible.

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