This summer’s transfer window has seen spending on a legitimately outrageous scale by clubs across Europe, though particularly in England. Manchester City has notably spent about £140 million in transfer on fullbacks alone. Most clubs have joined in the spending spree, though there is one notable exception. Tottenham, runners-up for the title last season, haven’t made one transfer and no players have come through the doors at Hotspur Way. In 2017’s soccer, that is practically unheard of.
Spurs are navigating unchartered waters in a time where clubs are spending money like kids on a sugar-high running through the Nickelodeon Super Toy Run. But is this strategy of waiting out the market, patience and relying on youth and academy products a winning one? Or will the power of the almighty pound/euro/dollar break Spurs’ nerve?
At of all places, the NASDAQ stock exchange, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy gave a spirited defense of his clubs’ quiet summer.
“My view is that [the current transfer spending] is totally unsustainable. I’m not sure if that’s the view of the other Premier League clubs, but certainly the prices that are being paid for other Premier League players, I can’t see it being sustainable in the long term. We’ve managed the club, we think, in a very appropriate way.
I think I am a custodian of this football club. This club has been around since 1882 and when I leave it will be somebody else. I think we have a duty to manage the club appropriately. I don’t think that long term for any club it’s sustainable to spend more than you earn. You can have periods where you do but over the long term you can’t.
I think that some of the activity that’s going on at the moment is just impossible to be sustainable. If somebody is spending £200m more than they’re earning then eventually it catches up with you. You can’t keep doing it. We’ve invested a lot of money in physical facilities for long-term growth. So we’ve got one of the world’s best training facilities. We’ve invested over £100m in that facility.”
It’s as if he’s laughing at how Manchester City spent £50 million for a fullback his manager didn’t want anymore, saying that he’d much rather see his club produce players thanks to the investment in the academy. He also says that the funding for Spurs’ new stadium is completely independent of their transfer budget, which he has said in multiple transfer windows past as well. But the complete lack of activity, even rumors in unreliable tabloids, have caused some to question that view.
Spurs have always been outliers in the transfer market because of their prudent dealings and hesitance to make big money moves, not just because of the risk involved, but because many of those moves have blown up in their face (see Sissoko, Moussa). And if the club makes a move like that and it backfires, they don’t have an infinite pile of sponsorship money or oil bucks to fall back on to cover up the mistake. Retaining their stars in the past was near impossible, though those fortunes have changed. Opposing managers, such as Jose Mourinho, have noticed, and have a unique view on Spurs’ transfer dealings as a whole:
“I don’t think we are big candidates for the title but we are [candidates]. Everybody speaks about the dimension of the investment at Man City but there is another team that I feel the dimension of their investment is also phenomenal – Tottenham. Until now they spent zero pounds, right? They keep everybody they want to keep. They keep Dele Alli, [Harry] Kane and [Toby] Alderweireld, they keep Eric Dier, they keep everyone they want to keep.
They sold Kyle Walker I think because they wanted to sell. And probably because they think Trippier is as good as Walker. And he’s younger than Walker. Chelsea are champions and they buy now. We are halfway through the market and they buy [Antonio] Rüdiger, [Tiemoué] Bakayoko and [Álvaro] Morata. So every club makes different kinds of investments but all of them are investing a lot to win the title.”
Mourinho is famous for his mind games and unnerving opponents through back-handed comments like this. But he does have a point, largely because he was pretty sternly rebuffed for a player he wanted to sign: Eric Dier. And Spurs’ resolve to keep players like Dier, tie them down to new contracts and keep them in the fold until the club wants to move off from them is what is preventing the choruses of “Levy Out” from echoing around English soccer again. That is certainly part of the equation for Tottenham.
But Levy’s belief in the academy system producing players that would fill roles that major summer signings would otherwise occupy, while not entirely unfounded, is certainly bold. All clubs want their academies to produce players of quality, but even one as renowned as Tottenham’s can’t fill all of the gaps. Is Kyle Walker-Peters as good a squad player for a team competing for trophies as rumored target Ricardo Pereira is? Probably not, despite his potential. The same holds for Josh Onomah, Marcus Edwards or even the now hyped Tashan Oakley-Boothe; all are good players, and maybe one will reach big heights. But not every youth prospect is Danny Rose or Harry Kane, whose roads to the top of the pile were winding, circuitous and by no means direct. While many of them are promising prospects, are they going to take Spurs from getting close to trophies to winning them instead?
Mauricio Pochettino certainly is a proponent of the strategy, though he’s not as full-throated in his support as his chairman is.
“Different players that are with us and have the possibility to play, to learn and show their quality, but it’s important that we are talking about players that are so young and need time to settle in the first team and squad.”
And when pressed about Levy’s comments, he wasn’t exactly endorsing them,
“I didn’t hear that. It’s better if you ask him if you have the possibility or I will ask him tomorrow if I have the possibility if it’s true or not. It think it’s important to speak about context. I don’t know how was the interview from him, whether it’s true or not. I did not hear that from him in private.”
There is no doubt that Tottenham will make a signing or two before the transfer window slams shut. Ross Barkley will more than likely come to Spurs from Everton as the summer wears on, and there will probably be one or two more added on as the club probably wants to shift players out too and need bodies to fill the spots. Whether that will be enough to propel Spurs to meet their soaring expectations remains to be seen.
Spurs do not have the financial capabilities as of this moment to compete with the biggest clubs in England in spending power. And even when their stadium is finished, they won’t have the endless dollars that some of their rivals have. Putting investment into the academy and developing players of their own is one way to “game the system” and grab an advantage where other clubs have to spend the GDP of small nations to improve. All clubs, even those with ridiculously successful academies will have to make signings in order to succeed, and Spurs are one of them. But they have less margin for error than their rivals, and getting their hands burned in the past has made them understandably nervous about dipping back in.
Spurs have grown remarkably in the past few seasons, thanks to some of their buys coming good and young players becoming some of the best in their positions in England. They were also beneficiaries of the usual suspects failing to meet their own expectations, and they took advantage. At some point, there will be mean reversion that sees Spurs slide down the table no matter what transfer moves they make, but the club seems determined to prove the doubters of their comparatively bold strategy wrong come their season at Wembley.
While other clubs splurge in ways not seen before, Tottenham seems relatively content with who they have and what they want to do going forward. After years of underachieving by their standards, Mauricio Pochettino has transformed them into a club with grander goals and expectations that proves people wrong at every turn up until winning silverware. If this strategy of patience and prudence in the transfer market pays off, while the TV/oil/China money bubble pops, they will have proven doubters wrong again, but this time in the biggest of ways.
Time will tell whether they are right or not, but so often recently, the club and its players have proven plenty of commonly held assumptions wrong. Proving transfer market assumptions wrong will be another challenge entirely.