With almost every major Premier League issue settled before the final matchday, transfer stories have arrived early into the newscycle. Most of that conversation seems focussed on the futures of Tottenham players. They’ve performed above expectation again this season and nearly every starting member of Mauricio Pochettino’s side has now been linked with a move away. So it’s a time to tread carefully: rumours are rumours and deserve to be treated as such. There are a small group of journalists reporting reliable, well-sourced information, but – as ever – the internet’s more unofficial communities are adding their own imagined layers of speculation as time passes.
With Spurs, though, it all seems highly plausible. The Premier League’s wealth means that there are now some extremely ordinary players earning more than six figures a week and, forgetting the real-world annoyance, it’s natural that some of Pochettino’s players should feel relatively underpaid. Supporters are sometimes guilty of being unrealistic in this kind of situation, the logic being that high-performing teams should want to stay together for the sake of their professional ambition. A nice sentiment, but unrealistic in a world in which rival teams are able to double a basic wage without flinching.
But there’s another aspect to this: though many sporting directors are looking at Tottenham’s squad enviously, they’re coveting players who won’t necessarily retain their worth away from White Hart Lane (or Wembley).
Kyle Walker is a pertinent example. He’s often praised for his evolution as a full-back and rightly recognised for improving without the ball. However, it’s worth remembering that from the point at which he arrived at Tottenham to the moment Pochettino walked through the door, he was essentially the same player. He didn’t change, he didn’t get any better. Quick, dynamic and dangerous when he crossed the halfway line, but flawed in his own defensive third. As per quotes attributes to Danny Rose six months ago, Pochettino – unlike his predecessors – has applied much of his coaching focus to his full-backs. They’ve benefitted as a result; no longer back-and-forward providers of simple attacking and defensive width, they’re the tent pegs around the entire Tottenham structure. Crucial in influence, but also beneficiaries of stabilising protections which have been built into the formation.
That’s very apparent tactically. The value of Tottenham’s back-three lies, among other benefits, in lessening the defensive responsibility placed on Rose and Walker. As a group, Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are able to extend their collective and individual attributes across a wider area of the pitch. Similarly though, the role of Victor Wanyama – and to a lesser extent Moussa Dembele – has been in part designed to facilitate that aggressive full-back tandem. The way Spurs attack is eye-catching, yes, but much of their success in that area relies on other players shouldering certain responsibilities. Wanyama is, for instance, particularly adept at identifying the vulnerabilities which occurs during those raids. Dembele, too, has a nose for impending trouble, frequently dropping into one of the channels to plug a gap or dispossess a breaking opponent. It’s part-instinct, part-coaching instruction and, though encompassing a tiny area of Spurs’s gameplan, it’s illustrative of what they are a side: a group of players who are as reliant upon their encasing structure as they are on their own strengths.
That isn’t to conclude that Pochettino’s players have no value at other clubs, just that they would most likely translate in an imperfect way. Most transfers admittedly carry that caveat, but it’s one which is particularly pronounced here. Tottenham’s players orbit around each other, with Pochettino as their sun, and the consequence is a shared form of footballing gravity. Capturing and removing part of that system and expecting it to perform in the same way under different conditions is naive.
Walker is the most obvious example, but that theory applies across the entire squad. This team has been constructed in a way which differs from the big-club norm. They are not a side who seek improvement by sanctioning £150m of annual spending, depending instead on coaching betterment and putting players in positions which have been created with their specific profile in mind. That’s not the case at Manchester United or Manchester City, where the emphasis is on recruiting players to solve problems, rather than on curing weaknesses from within. When Pep Guardiola determined that he needed a possession goalkeeper, he didn’t try to adjust the way Joe Hart played. Instead, he sold him and signed a £20m replacement. Similarly, Jose Mourinho’s approach to his full-back problem has not been to allow Luke Shaw a long leash, let him make mistakes and grow into a player who tactically suits Manchester United. Instead, he has publicly criticised him at almost every opportunity, left him out to his side’s detriment, and used him as part of a campaign to maximise his transfer budget. Compare that with the approach at Tottenham: the careful use of deep-lying midfielders and the adaption of the core defensive shape. Would those privileges be on offer to someone who isn’t a brand figurehead or a future Ballon d’Or winner?
Probably not. When resources are limitless, timescales shrink dramatically. Either a player is immediately capable of winning points or he’s quickly deemed a failure and discarded. That element of trail and error – or long-term adaption – just doesn’t exist in the same way.
Within that context, shopping in Tottenham is fraught with risk. Daniel Levy has been extremely efficient in recent years, ensuring that all of his assets are tied to lengthy contracts, and he is – famously – an intolerable ball-breaker at the negotiating table. The combination of the two, in conjunction with English football’s improving financial situation, means that mighty fees will have to be paid to take anything from Spurs that they don’t wish to part with. Achieving value may never have been top of the super clubs’ agenda but, unless their motivation is purely to sabotage, there are surely more efficient ways of strengthening – and ways which, crucially, don’t equate to taking a piece from a completed jigsaw and trying to jam into another in which it doesn’t belong. It never looks good, it never works.
Still, the flurry of rumours have upset Spurs fans. But beyond that reflexive anger should lie enthusiasm for the opportunity ahead: the figures being quoted in connection with these players are astronomical and, actually, it’s plausible that the revenue generated by one or two sales could equip Levy and Pochettino for unprecedented success. Most of the current numbers are hollow, of course, but the prospect of selling Kyle Walker for upwards of £30m should, in nobody’s estimation, be thought of as a terrible thing. He is a good player and has provided an increasingly valuable contribution, but he is also (apparently) unhappy and backed-up by a serviceable replacement who has already been bedded into the side. It doesn’t quite amount to free money, but being on the selling side of that deal certainly has its perks. He will soon turn 27 and has played nearly 300 club games in his career; just how sharp is that acceleration going to be in two years’ time? This is the top of the market and, respectfully, he is not Gareth Bale, Michael Carrick, Luka Modric or Dimitar Berbatov.
It’s nothing more than guesswork – football never really respects theory – but one of the great ironies of this summer might well prove to be that, in their haste to snatch Pochettino’s shiny toys, these rival clubs may actually hasten Tottenham’s progress. For once, they are actually holding all the cards: the Champions League place, the talent, and the bankable assets with the slightly illusory value.