This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
It was a rare apology from a man who prefers to stay in the shadows. “I feel we lost sight of some key priorities and what’s truly in our DNA,” Daniel Levy said in his programme notes for Tottenham’s final home game last season.
It was an admission that Spurs’ much-mocked European Super League involvement was a mistake. Supporters need no reminding that Wigan have won a trophy more recently, and rebelled at the attempt to cheat their way into the elite permanently.
It was also a tacit acknowledgement that hiring Jose Mourinho was a grave error, undoing much of Mauricio Pochettino’s fine work, to the point even talisman Harry Kane lost faith in Levy’s Tottenham. Kane’s 23 league goals and 14 assists could still only take them to 7th spot, earning the unwanted distinction of being England’s first representatives in the Europa Conference League. Kane's one-man protest against a contract he willingly signed in order to push through a move to Manchester City promises to be this summer's ongoing transfer saga.
Lessons would be learned. Trust would be regained. A chairman who, according to Damien Comolli, was once called one of the best executives in all sports by baseball’s iconic Moneyballer Billy Beane, would rebuild his reputation. Spurs, Levy vowed, would promote youth and play “free-flowing, entertaining football”. Spurs would again stand for something progressive. They would not be blinded by stardust.
The hunt for Mourinho’s successor took on farcical proportions. It encompassed Julian Nagelsmann, Hansi Flick, Erik ten Hag, Brendan Rodgers, Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Paulo Fonseca, Gennaro Gattuso, Julen Lopetegui and Nuno Espirito Santo, but after two months, some had found other jobs, or pledged to stay with their existing employers. Or just not join Tottenham. In the end, they went back to the latter. Forget a Levy masterplan: was there any plan? After all the talk of DNA, he had approached managers whose only common denominator is that they are managers. Try finding a shared ethos among that lot.
It also amounted to a wretched start for Fabio Paratici, Spurs’ new managing director of football. His arrival may yet prove a coup – though the same could have been said of Gareth Bale last season, and instead Mourinho proved reluctant to pick him – or it could be another piece of scattergun thinking. New arrival from Sevilla (with Erik Lamela going the other way) Bryan Gil is at least a positive start – the 20-year-old winger is one of Spain's brightest young prospects.
Levy merits sympathy in one respect – this is the worst time to have a £1 billion stadium to repay, when it had appeared his greatest achievement – but the 2019 Champions League Final feels like another era.
The five-point plan
1 Stop losing leads
Mourinho’s Chelsea were experts in protecting a lead. His Tottenham were not. Too often, they played fearful football; rather than attempting to extend their advantage, they invited pressure and conceded. Second in the first-half table and 10th after the interval, Spurs lost 23 points from winning positions last term. Add those back and they would have been a solitary point behind champions Manchester City. The club need a new mentality now.
2 Find a centre-back partnership
Jose’s subtle-as-a-brick hints that he wanted better defenders may have been a cause of cautious tactics, but his inability to forge a sturdy alliance wasn’t entirely new. Toby Alderweireld has left, Joe Rodon is promising but raw, Davinson Sanchez had spells out of favour and Eric Dier was dropped by England. Solidity should help to improve on 2020/21’s poor away record. They retain an interest in Atalanta centre-back Cristian Romero.
What a hit from Son Heung-Min 😍Kane and Son chalk up another goal combination as Spurs take the lead in the North London derby.Watch live on Sky Sports PL 📺pic.twitter.com/dQbmqVOk5DDecember 6, 2020
3 Get Dele back
Remember when Dele Alli scored 18 Premier League goals in a season? Last term he played 619 league minutes – and 385 of them were under Ryan Mason. Marginalising that talent has accomplished next to nothing and proved a counterproductive waste, so rehabilitating him is key, along with Ryan Sessegnon.
4 Pick (at least) two enigmas
Giovani Lo Celso played well during 2019/20 and Tanguy Ndombele last term, but rarely did they together. Before either were signed, Alli was a talisman. The problem – certainly for Mourinho, who struggled to accommodate more than one – is that they like to operate in similar areas. Nuno’s challenge is to find a formation that utilises more of their talents.
5 Start sharing the goals around
Kane (23), Son Heung-min (17) and on-loan Bale (11) scored 75 per cent of Spurs’ total goals last season. The drop off to Lucas Moura and Ndombele (three each) is marked and, with much uncertainty around Kane, Son can’t pick up all the slack. Time for a gifted squad to step up.
FFT verdict: 7th
Spurs’ historic reliance on Kane may catch up with them. A season’s transition awaits.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.