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Skipjack | December 1, 2014

What went wrong at Tottenham Hotspur?

It all started with John Terry.

On Oct. 23, 2011, Chelsea played Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road for the first time in years. What ensued was an ugly, nasty match that still sticks in the craw of Chelsea fans years later. Thirty-nine tackles. Thirty-seven fouls. Nine yellow cards. Two red cards, both for Chelsea. QPR ground out an ugly 1-0 win and everyone went home dutifully reminded of why these two teams hated each other so much.

However, the most significant act of the game wasn’t noticed until after the final whistle. Video footage would emerge of Chelsea defender John Terry appearing to direct a racial slur toward QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.

It is almost certain that everyone at Tottenham Hotspur thought this incident was nothing more than just another piece of evidence that confirmed their suspicions about the England captain.

It was much more than that.

Since Tottenham had been purchased by ENIC in 2001, they had taken the team from England’s mid table and transformed them into a squad knocking on the door of the Champions League. This was not done through the wild spending of an oil tycoon or rich American owners. It was done with a series of carefully calculated gambles on young, promising players that had turned Tottenham into one of the most exciting attacking teams in Europe, home to world class players such as Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. It looked like this system had built a foundation for Tottenham to propel themselves into becoming a regular Champions League participant.

Instead, an accusation of racial abuse in a game that didn’t even involve Tottenham would set in motion a chain of events that would fracture the foundation that Spurs had so carefully built. Thanks to that incident, the manager who had taken Spurs farther than they had been in decades would turn his back on the team. The club would take their greatest gamble yet on a young manager who would prove incapable of capitalizing one of the finest seasons ever seen by a player in a Spurs shirt. And then, the strategy of risks and gambles that had brought Tottenham to the upper tiers of English football would finally run out of luck.

Club vs. Country

In the weeks that followed the incident at Loftus Road, Terry would be charged by the Crown Prosecution Service for use of racist language. Early in 2012 the English Football Association would strip Terry of his captaincy of the England national team. Unwilling to accept this subversion of his authority, national team manager Fabio Capello resigned shortly thereafter.

Shorn of a manager for the English National Team, the FA began not just looking for a replacement, but for an English replacement. And with the European Championships only months away, there was little time to waste. The natural candidate was Harry Redknapp, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur.

Redknapp had built his reputation as a manager through his accomplishments with lower-table clubs such as Portsmouth. Brought in to turn around a drastically underperforming Spurs team in 2008, Redknapp had taken Tottenham all the way from two points in eight games to a berth in the quarterfinals of the Champions League against Real Madrid. In the life story of Harry Redknapp, the England national team was not just the opportunity of a lifetime, it was the next logical chapter.

Or gross financial mismanagement, depending on who you ask.

Unfortunately for Spurs, the second this dream started to look like a reality, Redknapp turned his wandering eye away from the team he was actually being paid to manage. Throughout the rest of the season, Redknapp seemed more focused on figuring out whether he would wear a red or white England jacket than the fortunes of Spurs. When the England job was awarded to Roy Hodgson instead, Redknapp responded ... by giving the sense he cared even less about Spurs.

A manager whose tenure at Liverpool had been a disaster and was then managing at the much farther down the table West Bromwich Albion.

The dreadful form brought about by their coach’s apparent lack of interest saw Spurs slowly but surely throw away third place to Arsenal, which became more and more distressing as sixth placed Chelsea inched closer and closer to a Champions League final. With Chelsea all but certain to finish outside of Champions League qualification in the league, if they won the final in Munich, they would qualify for the following year’s competition at the expense of whoever finished fourth in the Premier League. Finishing third had to be Spurs’ priority and everyone knew it.

Too Little, Too Late

No game sums up Spurs’ decline under Redknapp more than the penultimate match of the season, away to Aston Villa. The Villains were having an appalling year, hovering in and around the relegation zone under Alex McLeish. Coming into the match, Spurs knew if they won their final two games, Arsenal could not overtake them for third place, and not only would Spurs be free from worrying about what happened in Munich, but it would be their rivals on the hot seat facing premature elimination from the Champions League.

Villa gained the lead early, and despite having a team with Luka Modric and Gareth Bale, Spurs couldn’t break Villa down and then left back Danny Rose managed to get sent off for a dangerous tackle. The team managed an equalizer through an Emmanuel Adebayor penalty, but things looked grim. Knowing that Spurs desperately needed a win to secure their place in the Champions League next season, Redknapp used his final substitution in the 89th minute to remove attacking midfielder Rafael van der Vaart for defensive midfielder Scott Parker. For a manager who had done so much to craft a devastating, attacking squad at Tottenham, it was a stunning display of indifference.

Players who, but a scant few years later, would be key parts of Real Madrid’s La Decima.

Needless to say, every Spurs fan knew exactly how the season would finish the second Parker trotted onto the pitch at Villa Park. Spurs went home with a draw and would eventually end up in fourth place, knowing that if Chelsea won the Champions League final in Munich that the team would not qualify for the Champions League the following year. This is exactly what happened.

Despite spending half the season ignoring Spurs and passing notes to the FA, Redknapp decided he didn’t just want to stick around, he deserved a raise. Shortly after the season was over, the manager hired Paul Stretford to negotiate a new contract, fresh off contentious negotiations with Manchester United on behalf of Wayne Rooney. It was a sure sign that he wanted a big money new deal. After four months of showing the entire footballing world he would rather be anywhere but North London and doing more than his fair share to cost Spurs another shot at the Champions League, this act of hubris proved too much. A little more than a week after hiring Stretford, Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy fired Harry Redknapp.

Redknapp left the team in fourth place, but looking in from the outside at the next year’s Champions League. Thanks to having his head turned at precisely the wrong moment, Redknapp squandered years of carefully calculated gambles and risks that had assembled the finest Tottenham team of the modern era.

And now for something completely different

Despite this wasted opportunity, Tottenham were in a strong position entering the 2012/13 season. Not only had they been finishing in and around the Champions League places, but Gareth Bale had developed into one of the best attacking players in the world. Choosing the right manager could take Spurs to the next level and make Redknapp’s lost season only a blip in Spurs’ progress.

Faced with this important choice, Levy did what he had done throughout his tenure at Spurs: he took a calculated risk designed to help Spurs overachieve. Instead of an old hand from England or an experienced manager from the continent, Daniel Levy managed to snag one of the most exciting up and coming managers in Europe: Andre Villas-Boas.

Villas Boas had spent the previous year at Chelsea and it was a disaster. Not only had he managed them out of the top four, but once he left, their form picked up enough to win two trophies. And yet, his hiring was still seen as a bit of a coup for Spurs. Only 34, the manager was just two years removed from winning every trophy available to him at Porto, including the Europa League. While his time at Chelsea was a failure in every possible way, many, including Spurs, were willing to write off the difficulties he had the previous year as some sort of combination of growing pains in English football and the general insanity that seemed to permeate Chelsea.

He was young, attractive, continental, respectful of the club, and a meticulous planner. Basically everything Redknapp was not.

Tottenham were making ambitious choices and the future was looking bright.

Getting in on the ground floor

There are many factors that go into creating a successful football club: quality players, good management, sound fiscal strategy, strong support, and youth development are just a few. However, nothing is more important than cold, hard cash.

Generally speaking, league position correlates to a team’s spending on salary. Obviously, this can be affected both positively and negatively by the quality of a team’s management, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. Over the last four years, Tottenham have had the sixth highest wage bill in the league. Over the same period of time, Tottenham have finished in fifth, fourth, fifth, and sixth places in the league.

For Spurs fans despondent over our club’s current place in the table I would point you in the direction of Aston Villa.

Tottenham are not able to financially compete with the clubs that currently sit above them in the table. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea are all teams that have more money, bigger stadiums, or regular Champions League football, if not all of them. The challenge that Spurs face is that they are not just competing with those teams for the same goal, namely Champions League qualification, but they are competing for the same players as well. When Spurs are interested in a player that means other teams are probably interested as well, teams with a lot more money. And often they can promise salaries or European competition that Spurs cannot.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Willian, then with Anzhi Makhachkala. In the summer of 2013, the Brazilian had just completed a medical with Spurs before Chelsea swooped in and outbid Spurs at the last minute.

So Spurs have to overtake them another way: by taking calculated risks. This means gambling on players that other teams won’t take risks on, such as a 22 year old Croatian midfielder from Dinamo Zagreb who Arsene Wenger, of all people, thought was too small for the Premier League. Or purchasing promising players barely out of the Southampton or Sheffield United academies before anyone else can get their hands on them. Or signing a 21 year old defensive midfielder from Brazil with less than 70 appearances. Or convincing the most talented cigarette smoker in world football to leave the Bundesliga and play up front for Spurs.

Mistakes were made and not every bet paid off, but largely, gambling on players and managers is how Levy and Tottenham’s ownership lifted the club from a team that finished 14th in 2004 to one that was playing Real Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2011. And it has enabled them to do it largely without overextending the club’s resources to slug it out on the transfer market for players that the club cannot afford. At the same time, subsequent gambles failing to succeed are a big reason that Spurs are in the position they are in now. And they started with taking a chance on an up and coming coach who proved able to transform Gareth Bale into one of the best attacking players in the world, but unable to take advantage of it.

See Bentley, David.

Immense Expectations

Daniel Levy has probably never taken as big a risk as he took on Andre Villas-Boas. The manager was not only young and incredibly inexperienced, but had been a disaster in his only season in English football. And not just a disaster, but a disaster at a club with more money than God.

Levy was counting on this failure being due to the fact that Chelsea was an insane asylum that chewed up managers and spit them out with alarming regularity. But he was also counting on the idea that this young manager would mature - a bet the team had made on some of its most promising player acquisitions. Villas-Boas came to Spurs promising to build a dynamic attack based on pressing the opposition and denying them the ball. This vertical football, meant to recover the ball high up the pitch and quickly transition it to attack, was going to maintain Tottenham’s tradition of attacking football while giving the team a more coherent approach than Harry Redknapp’s less sophisticated game plans.

Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned.

In the entirety of Villas-Boas’ tenure exactly two things went well: the organization of the defense and the development of Gareth Bale, the latter of which masked the coach’s inability to create any sort of attacking strategy. If Bale wonder-goals were the most memorable moments of Villas-Boas’ time at the club, a much more recognizable sight was Tottenham player’s looking like clueless statues in the opposition's third of the pitch.

Many fans pointed to the team’s lack of ability to secure the players Villas-Boas wanted as a reason for his failure at Spurs but during his entire time at Spurs, Villas-Boas was unable to create any sort of attack without Gareth Bale. Villas-Boas could not use Bale to enhance the other players on the team in the way that Brendan Rodgers was able to use Luis Suarez to create space and opportunities for Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling a year later. Despite Bale’s remarkable season, Spurs missed out on the Champions League. Again. Tottenham had one of the best players in the world having one of the best season in the club’s history and the risk the club had taken on our manager meant that it was unable to capitalize on it.

Spurs inability to buy Joao Moutinho remains one of the great what-ifs for Spurs. He was a player many saw as key to Villas-Boas’ plans, but third-party ownership kept him out of Spurs’ reach.

In the following season, after five months without the Welshman, Tottenham fans saw just how painfully devoid of attacking ideas Villas-Boas seemed to be. In his second year, drab wins and painful losses mounted until late December, when either the bad results, bad blood behind the scenes, or likely some combination of the two, cost Villas-Boas his job.

The manager's exit left a confused club and an angry fanbase behind, which was only made worse when academy coach Tim Sherwood took over Spurs, a Premier League club with Champions League ambitions, for his first coaching job.

With Harry Redknapp, Levy took a chance on a bottom of the table manager to turn around a floundering Spurs team and it worked better than anyone could have hoped. When Redknapp’s lack of professionalism reared its ugly head, Levy took a chance on one of the most promising young managers in Europe. This proved disastrous, as he was utterly unequipped for the task in front of him and even a year with one of the best three attacking players on the planet wearing a Spurs shirt proved to not be enough to lift Tottenham into the Champions League. This would have been damaging enough, but as luck ran out in the dugout, it ran out in the transfer market as well.

Things fall apart

While Tottenham had their fair share of mistakes and misfires in the transfer market, their business in the 2000s had been remarkably astute, especially considering how much they spent and where they sat in the table. These signings helped Spurs progress and provided valuable funds that could be used to reinvest it into the club.

Heurelho Gomes and David Bentley are still rumored to haunt the halls of Spurs Lodge in Enfield.

Players like Bale, Modric, and Dimitar Berbatov had all been purchased before they had a chance to attract serious interest from bigger teams. Spurs continued this policy in recent seasons. Gylfi Sigurdsson was bought after a successful year at Swansea, with Spurs outbidding then struggling Liverpool to get a player meant to replace the aging and often injured Rafael van der Vaart. Mousa Dembélé was purchased from Fulham almost immediately after he played a key role in dismantling Manchester United. Schalke had somehow allowed Lewis Holtby to run down his contract and Spurs swooped in to close a £1.5 million move that many considered the deal of the century. All of these players had their moments in the 2012/13 season, but none of them had progressed in the way that their predecessors had.

When it was still Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, lest you scoff at this accomplishment.

Then the club sold Gareth Bale for a world record fee to Real Madrid. With a windfall of cash in hand, Spurs continued to apply the transfer strategy that had brought them to the upper end of the English table. With the exception of Roberto Soldado, Spurs bought young and promising players. Paulinho, Christian Eriksen, Etienne Capoue, Vlad Chiriches, Nacer Chadli, and Erik Lamela all joined Spurs, a huge influx of talent meant to soften the blow of Bale’s exit.

Soldado was nearly 30 when Spurs bought him and had spent several seasons as one of Spain’s top strikers. Spurs were clearly tired of taking a risks on a position where their strategy’s success had totally eluded them. It hasn’t exactly worked out.

On paper, all of these were purchases that made sense. Even if they were not world class players, they were young, they had succeeded at their previous clubs, and they looked like they could continue to progress at Spurs. They added depth to the squad, they filled holes in the team. Many of them, Lamela and Eriksen in particular, were coveted by some of the best clubs in Europe. Others were considered the kind of canny risks Spurs were known for taking chances on. If someone had assembled this Spurs team on Football Manager in the summer of 2013, you would have thought they hacked the game.

In reality, it was another setback the team could ill-afford when their coaching situation was already in such disarray. Most of the players purchased the year before, in the summer of 2012, failed to make their mark on the team. As for the players bought following Bale’s exit, while it is obviously too early to write off many of these purchases, Christian Eriksen was the only one who made a positive impact on Tottenham last season.

This wasn’t the first time players acquired by Spurs had flopped, but it had never happened all at once, nor at such a critical time. Scouting or recruitment may or may not have played a role in that outcome, but these signings were widely hailed throughout the football world. The problem with the strategy of gambling on young players, players you’re counting on to progress and develop, is what happens when it doesn’t pan out, for whatever reason. It becomes even more difficult when you’re gambling on players you expect to play at a Champions League level and the coach you gambled on to take them there turned out to be a bust as well.

Taking Stock

The firing of Andre Villas-Boas seemed to be a breaking point between many fans and ownership. After spending so many seasons on the fringes of Europe’s elite club competition, Spurs fans’ expectations had been raised. After watching one of their own transform into one of the finest players in the world, those expectations had been raised even more. Spurs fans cast about for reasons for the failure, grasping at any plausible explanation, ranging from greed to incompetence to maliciousness.

The truth of the matter is that Tottenham had done nothing different between 2012 and 2014 than they had done between 2005 and 2012: they took risks on managers and players that they hoped would continue to develop and propel the club beyond their financial means. It was a viable strategy and at the time, almost every one of these decisions made total sense. However, when you take these risks while trying to break into the highest level of club football in the world, when things don’t work out you are going to pay for it. A run in between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand set a chain of events into motion that would directly lead to one manager giving up on the club and the team taking a risk on another who proved incapable of utilizing the squad at his disposal, which was followed by the team’s risk-taking strategy creating a squad of players not good enough to achieve the club’s goals.

Despite the frustration of these setbacks, the risks taken by the club remain responsible ones. For all their troubles, Spurs have not overcommitted to any players. Unlike Aston Villa, who used their funds to buy a roster of mediocre talent and have spent the last few seasons dropping ballast just to stay afloat, Tottenham is not going to be facing relegation anytime soon. In 2013/14 nearly everything that could have possibly gone wrong for Tottenham did, and they still finished sixth. It may be cold comfort to Spurs fans, but this kind of damage limitation could be the greatest strength of Tottenham’s approach.

Quite frankly, as long as Daniel Levy is the chairman of Spurs, this is a strategy that the club will continue to use. Until or unless there is ownership with more money, this is probably the only sustainable strategy for a team with the ambitions and resources of Tottenham Hotspur.

The team will hope that Mauricio Pochettino is a better coach than Andre Villas-Boas and can fix a broken squad while implementing a coherent and effective style of play. Tottenham will hope that our academy prospects like Harry Kane and Ryan Mason have only shown a sliver of what they’re capable of. And Spurs will hope that they were buying potential with players like Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen and not finished products. And honestly, these are not baseless hopes.

While it may yet be back to the drawing board, only time will tell if any of Spurs’ struggling players can realise their potential. For a while, Bale was best known for being unable to win a game and Modric looked exceedingly ordinary. Players like Jordan Henderson and Aaron Ramsey looked like flops ... until they weren’t. It is entirely possible that Tottenham’s current crop of players will turn into another core of a highly successful team, but there are no sure things in North London, just like in 2008.

The fact of the matter is Spurs’ recent success was built on risk. Spurs took a chance on players that other teams ignored, or were unwilling to pay as much as Spurs. This created one of the most exciting periods in the club’s recent history. Then John Terry set into motion a chain of events that would would upend Spurs' carefully constructed foundation and lead to several high risk choices, nearly all of which have blown up in the team’s face. However, it is important to remember that all of those choices have been a product of the same strategy that brought Spurs so much success. A club of Tottenham’s stature and financial standing is never going to regularly play in the Champions League without taking risks. Going forward, that's what Spurs fans can expect to see: a series of calculated risks that the club hopes will lead Spurs to success beyond its means.

It might take Tottenham to the heights of European soccer. But it could also take them back to England’s mid table. That’s the problem with risks. They're risky. Every gamble carries with it the seeds of potential failure.

But without risk, there's no reward.

Words: Skipjack | Design: Graham MacAree

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