What lies ahead for Tottenham Hotspur?
When Tottenham Hotspur sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, even football fans who had no vested interest in the North London club must have been dejected. Here was this club, built around the talent of a singular player, punching above its weight only to succumb to the business that is football.
Five years forward and they seem to have done fine, if not better. After giving up Bale to Real for £91 million, unlike PSG, they have spread out their wealth and bought players like Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Heung-Min Son, Victor Wanyama and Davidson Sanchez over the years.
With smart transfer businesses and the development of players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, they have been able to keep up (and often surpass) the big boys of the Premier League.
This team finished 3rd in 2015-16, 2nd in 2016-17 and currently sit in the 3rd position in the league. Even the advanced stats back them up, as they ended up 3rd in 2015-16 and 2016-17, and are currently in the 2nd position behind the unrelenting Manchester City based on xPTS.
For the uninitiated, xPTS is the points a team should have finished with, had they scored the same number of goals as xG and conceded the same number of goals as xGA. That is a huge achievement for any club that is not Manchester United or owned by a billionaire or funded by the state of Qatar.
But there are no moral victories in football. Despite having had this 'golden' generation of players for over the last two seasons, their greatest achievement yet has been preventing Arsenal from celebrating St Totteringham's Day last season and smacking Real Madrid 3-1 at home.
Football is a business, and it is starting to feel like some their stars are too good to be on the team now. A look through all the transfers that have taken place over the last decade and the truth is evident – it’s very hard to find the best players not plying their trade at Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern, the Manchester clubs, Chelsea or PSG.
Even Atletico, who have had more success than this Spurs team were on the verge of losing Griezmann this past summer but were only saved by a transfer ban. It’s a food chain where clubs like Spurs act as suppliers to the perennial top dogs.
Things are not made easy by the people behind the scenes at Spurs either. With Daniel Levy’s self-imposed salary cap in place, it’s becoming difficult for the players to stay put. They realize that they could earn more at other clubs, even at the likes of Crystal Palace or West Ham.
So if the lack of trophies is not reflective of the growth the squad has made, at the very least, one would expect them to be compensated for it financialy.
Harry Kane is an absolute superstar and probably among the top-5 strikers in the world. He’s already up to 24 goals in the league and seven away from Ronaldo’s 31 goals that he scored in the historic 2007-08 season.
Last year he took only 3.87 shots per 90 minutes, a low number for such a high profile forward (for comparison, Messi took 5.69 and Ronaldo took 5.73 shots per 90 last season), and overperformed his xG over the season by nine goals.
This year he has almost doubled his shot attempts to 6.03 and xG puts him at 23.99 for the season, in line with his current tally of 24 goals.Though used as a primary target man, he’s more than capable of playing a bit deeper, linking up with other players and creating chances for his teammates.
Rumor has it that he’ll stay for at least another year. It is the right thing to do; it gives him another shot with the Spurs as he waits to see what happens with Ronaldo at Real. Kane isn’t the workhorse that Benzema is and won’t be comfortable enough to defer to Ronaldo.
But, one more season of disappointment at Spurs and things could accelerate. The deal would probably cost Real in the neighborhood of £200 million, but Perez’s hand must probably be itching after a dry spell of Galactico signings.
Dele Alli’s case is a bit more complex. He probably over-achieved last season when he finished with 18 league goals and 22 in all competitions. People thought he was something that he’s not, at least not yet.
His goal tally is naturally down, partly because of a poor form to begin the season with and partly because, and this is ironic, he was pushed higher up the field by his manager. He’s just 21 and has all the talent to be one of the finest midfielders of his generation.
Young footballers often plateau and go through growing pains. The British have a habit of hyping up their next savior and then criticizing him at every misstep. Even Steven Gerrard, during the early 2000s, was known as “Stevie Me” for often caring about his performance more than the team's.
While Alli’s case is a bit complex, Son’s is mind-boggling. When Spurs paid £22 million to Bayer Leverkusen, he became the costliest Asian player ever. Poch usually deploys him on the left side, where he uses his speed to zoom past defenders and create chances for the team.
He’s direct, confident and unafraid of the “big” moments. He attacks the goal with unrelenting energy - give him a chance to shoot and he’ll oblige, with either foot and distance ranging from inside the six-yard box to 35 yards out.
He’s 25 years and that’s where the problems start. In South Korea, it’s mandatory for all male citizens to serve 21 months of compulsory military service before they turn 28. Only Olympic, Asian Games, and World Cup medal winners are exempted from the service.
South Korea doesn’t even have the longest of long shots of reaching the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup. So that leaves him with this year’s Asian Games in Jakarta, and 2020 Tokyo Games -which is cutting it way too close.
The management at Spurs is aware of this. If he fails to win a medal at the Asian Games this year, things will get dicey. They’ll probably look to cash in, and opposing clubs will be aware of this conundrum too. His market value will drop unless he decides to postpone his military commitment, which will turn him from a national hero to being despised.
Christian Eriksen, part of the first batch of players brought in after Bale’s transfer, is having yet another fantastic season. The game has slowed down for him and he’s able to thread the needle on some of the passes that he would miss out on in previous seasons.
He’s a midfielder entering his prime, someone who would’ve been in contention for the best midfielder in the Premier League had it not been for De Bruyne or David Silva or Eden Hazard. He has even chopped down on some of his audacious outside-of-the-box shot attempts.
Complementing him well in midfield is a rotating cast of Wanayama, Dier, Dembele and in some cases Lamela or Sissoko (who has fallen off the highest cliff possible).
While Spurs’ investment in the attack and midfield for the most part has paid off, the results in the defensive line have been mixed. Their center back purchases starting from Vertonghen to the most recent addition of Davinson Sanchez have been good, if not great. Their full back signings, on the other hand, not so much.
Ben Davies and Trippier were exposed by Juventus in the second leg, just like many other teams in the Premier League. Spending £22.5 million on Aurier showed signs of looking like a failed experiment, and the doubts are being confirmed.
When Pochettino arrived in 2014, he did what had to be done. He integrated young players at the expense of more experienced and expensive players, established a distinctive attacking identity while keeping them solid at the back. It worked then, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be around to see through another reshuffling.
If Real Madrid goes trophy-less this season, and that depends solely on their Champions League success, Perez will crack down on Zidane (whether that’s fair or not is a completely different topic). Mauricio is his first choice to replace the Frenchman on the sidelines.
Turns out that when you are Tottenham, your sole purpose is to develop talent and serve it to Real Madrid on a golden platter.
To add to all this, there’s the new lustrous stadium popping up, which hopefully will be ready by the 2018-19 season. It’s an opulent and grand project, with a capacity of almost 62,000 and a huge upgrade over the 36,000 seater - White Hart Lane.
Arsenal made £100 million in gate receipts in 2016-17, which is more than double the £45.5 million made by Spurs during the same season. It will be part of the package that they’ll sell to their young stars and to incoming transfer targets.
But the new stadium comes with its own pitfalls. Tottenham will have £400 million in bank debts, which they’ll have to repay over five years; Daniel Levy, the chairman, has pledged that the team will generate the rest of the required money by themselves.
If this sounds frightening and familiar, it is. Their arch-rivals, Arsenal went through the same phase when they shifted from their beloved Highbury to their current Emirates stadium. Yes, money rolled in through the gates but through the same gates, players like Thierry Henry, Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas left to pay off the debt.
Wednesday’s loss against Juventus brought with it criticism, and accusations of bottling up yet again. Some of it fair, most of it not. They just came across a more experienced side, which made crucial adjustments when pushed into a corner. Tottenham did not.
But that’s the life of a contender, a potential champion - always under the magnifying glass, every move being dissected and every failure being criticized. When Tottenham heads into next season, they’ll have answers to find out – some big and some small, both on the field and off it.
The only problem is that they are running out of time.