Many people are looking at Tottenham’s results this season and saying something has to change if they are to return to the level that took them to second place in the Premier League in 2017 and the Champions League final just a few months ago. I think those people are several months too late: the results that should have prompted the soul-searching and the desire for renewal happened a while ago. The writing was on the wall after their defeat by Liverpool in Madrid, and what we are seeing is confirmation that the warning signs were missed – or deliberately ignored.
Mauricio Pochettino now finds his position as manager under threat but he is not the one who should be questioned. This run of results has made people realise, once again, that Spurs would have been better off making significant changes in the summer, and it seems bizarre to blame the one person who was publicly demanding precisely that for much of last season.
They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results, and there is some truth in that, but in football it is also true that you cannot keep doing the same thing while expecting the same results.
Every member of Tottenham’s starting XI for the Champions League final was in the squad who came so close to a league title two years earlier and although Tanguy Ndombélé, Giovani Lo Celso and Ryan Sessegnon have arrived the team are largely unchanged. Going into this season the same people were expecting the same players under the same manager to reach the same levels or even improve on them. It was never likely to happen.
As I look towards my future I am thinking increasingly about the sporting director role and how you introduce a winning culture and continue to drive that culture to win until you achieve it. What is vitally important is how the players feel each day coming to training. Do they think the goals they are expected to achieve are reasonable? Do they feel confident that the group of players are good enough to turn their personal ambitions into reality? At this stage most members of the Spurs squad have got to be saying no to both questions – and as soon as that happens they are sunk.
As a group they are capable of competing for the most important trophies – they have proved that – but all the evidence tells us they are not able to actually win them. Ultimately they just cannot get over the line and in their hearts they must know it. In the past five years there have been three semi-finals, two finals and significant tilts at the league title but not a single trophy. At some point the club’s senior management should have reacted to this and realised they need something extra. Instead they have tinkered around the edges.
Maybe Daniel Levy does not feel Tottenham need to win anything to be successful. Perhaps for him the evidence of success is on the balance sheet rather than in the trophy cabinet. But there is nothing better for business than winning and top players do not want to dedicate their peak years to boosting their club’s profit margins.
Players plan their careers and have long-term strategies and the best ones at Spurs will be restless. Some have made no attempt to hide it. In any squad once a few want to leave, you are in trouble. The only focus a player should have is winning for the team and it looks to me that too many have their minds elsewhere. Sure, it may be that when Harry Kane visualises the remainder of his career he sees himself staying at Spurs and being a one-club man but there will not be many with that ambition and most who dream of being a club legend in the style of John Terry or Steven Gerrard will expect to collect a few trophies along the way.
Pochettino’s loyalty to his players worked for a while but he could have taken a different approach. I was at Chelsea for six years under Emma Hayes, who is still there in her eighth season. Her managerial ethos was that if you find a method that brings success, you’ve got to find a totally different one next year. It was the opposite of the old saying, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. She was always looking for new tactics and bringing in players. Sometimes you would be certain we had enough strength in a particular position but she would still bring someone else in and it always pushed people on. There have clearly been times when Pochettino has chosen not to do that and other times when he would have liked to but was not given the chance.
What is the lifespan of a largely unchanged squad? I think it depends on what they have achieved as a unit and what remains undone. Liverpool have not significantly changed since last year but in winning 97 points and the Champions League they had enough success to feel confident they could achieve more and they are massively motivated by the chance to win the club’s first league title since 1990. Bringing in players this summer may have disrupted that balance but if they do not win the title this season it may then be the right time to freshen up things. Without new players or a recent history of winning trophies it is difficult to see what would be motivating Tottenham’s players.
There may be other factors at play. There have been rumours of personal problems between some of the players, and the 7-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich and emphatic defeat at Brighton were embarrassing enough to have added more tension. With the transfer window closed a change of manager may be the most obvious way of changing the direction of the season but it seems to me that would not deal with the cause of the problems. The right answer is not to change the manager but for those in charge to learn there is a moment to settle for what you have got and a time to rebuild, rejuvenate and push the limits.
Someone at Tottenham seriously missed their moment last summer and I don’t think it was Pochettino.
The Guardian Sport