Each of the current bottom four of the Premier League used to go by a description of being a “well-run” club. West Brom, Stoke, Southampton and Swansea have all been previously saluted for their clarity of vision, for doing things the right way.
What changed for them? Simply, glibly put, the variables that the football industry throws up changed them for the worse. Managers can lose their way or move on while unsuitable players can be signed as good players head elsewhere. Nothing will stay the same forever and decisions eventually have to be struck. There are no guarantees that they turn out to be good decisions.
And when decisions turn bad, a previously well-run club can quickly find itself in trouble.
Which brings us to Tottenham Hotspur, a club recognised as one of the best-run in the business. The trophy cabinet may still be bare but Mauricio Pochettino’s team, on a much smaller budget than their peers, have twice challenged for the title and shone in the Champions League. Smart transfer dealing, and careful husbandry of the budget have led to chairman Daniel Levy being hailed as one of the canniest operators in the game.
Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final defeat threw up one of those variables on which clubs are so prone to tripping over. By the time Pochettino had done his post-match media, and repeated a series of variations on the theme of “with me or another coaching staff the club needs to push on”, Spurs fans were much less worried about an eighth FA Cup semi defeat in succession than the future of the manager who converted their club into contenders.
Was Pochettino preparing the ground for departure?
He would have a wealth of suitors if he did so, with Real Madrid likely to be looking for a new coach to replace Zinedine Zidane and Paris Saint-Germain, who “Poch” served as a tough-tackling defender, set for a vacancy. The speculation is already swirling, and even if the Argentinian is not angling for a departure, he appeared to be challenging Tottenham’s execs, which in practice comes down to Levy, to make decisions that might change the club’s culture.
“Daniel Levy noted the perception that Spurs needed to spend money on players,” read the minutes from a meeting with the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust in February. “This wasn’t borne out of fact. There are no guarantees. Big money signings are not always successful.”
Here was good, solid football logic, but haemorrhaging quality players will also be a significant problem. At Wembley, Tottenham fielded a defence of Kieran Trippier, Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez and Ben Davies, while on the bench sat Toby Alderweireld, recognised as one of the best defenders in the English game. Like Danny Rose, who missed Wembley through injury, Alderweireld has spent the season on the sidelines, a victim of a contractual stand-off which means he is likely to be shipped out this summer, just as Kyle Walker was last year to Manchester City.
In that trio’s place, Trippier, Sanchez and Davies are all fine players, but any club that sells off its top performers is entering a realm where decision-making is put to the test. If Pochettino wants a pertinent example of a club now paying for selling off its family silver, he need only look to former club Southampton, who banked £75m for Virgil van Dijk in January, but are set to count the £100m-plus shortfall of dropping from the Premier League.
Tottenham are in no way headed for anything like such a sorry fate, but the loss of their manager and some of the players who took them into position to challenge for silverware would place hopes of reaching the next level in serious jeopardy. Mousa Dembele, that bruising, cruising engine in midfield, is heavily linked with a lucrative move to China while Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane’s achievements for Tottenham surely have them on the “possibles” list for Spain’s giants, both entering a process of rebuilding.
Those players are, by the benchmarks of Europe’s top clubs and even the rest of the English top six, underpaid; Hugo Llloris is reported to be the best compensated on £120,000 a week, with Kane on £100,000. Though those within the club have made mention of a heavily incentivised bonus scheme, Mesut Ozil, for example, is trousering £350,000 a week.
Levy, whose own 2017 earnings of £6m were made public earlier this month, clearly has other things to direct funds towards, with the new White Hart Lane project on a race against time to be completed for the start of next season. That new stadium could cost as much as £1billion, but Levy has work to do to avoid the same decline as Arsenal suffered after moving to the Emirates in 2006, and from a position of lesser security.
Back then, Arsene Wenger pledged to stay on and see the project through, for too long as it turned out, but Pochettino’s ties to Tottenham are nowhere near as reinforced. This is where those variables might come in.