The news of Paul Mitchell’s resignation as head of recruitment for Tottenham Hotspur caused a good amount of consternation on blogs and social media yesterday. The sudden departure of a prominent backroom staff member is an unusual occurrence for a club that has been remarkably free from internal drama for a while now. Mitchell, who was poached from Southhampton in November of 2014 to lead and retool Tottenham’s scouting department, was considered an important figure in Spurs’ recent successes in the transfer market, and was also a key ally of Mauricio Pochettino at the club.
However, while the optics of losing your chief scout weeks before the close of the transfer window are not especially great, the rush to both leap to conclusions and assign blame upon certain members of Tottenham’s upper management does neither the club nor its fans any favors.
Before Mitchell and his so-called “black box” – the nickname for his system of video clips and computer programs that helped identify potential transfer targets – Spurs chairman Daniel Levy was the primary mover in the transfer market. And to a large extent, he still is. His shadow looms large over any potential transfer negotiation, incoming or outgoing. In years past, if someone like Harry Redknapp or Andre Villas Boas wanted a player, he talked to Daniel, who either tried to make it happen or abandoned it if the deal became too acrimonious or expensive. However, there were inherent problems with Spurs’ ability to even identify good targets.
It was generally accepted, even as late as 2014, that Tottenham’s scouting system was, in the words of former Tottenham director of football Damien Comolli, a laughing stock. “They are clearly understaffed in this aspect,” Comolli said to TalkSport. “It has become a kind of joke in the scouting community. They say, ‘have you seen a Spurs scout?’ You don’t see them. I don’t think they’ve got any.” Comolli implied that when he was at Spurs, the scouting department was thriving, but fell into disrepute after his departure.
The club seemed to recognize it, too. The appointment of Franco Baldini as technical director in 2013 was the first attempt to change the existing model of player identification. However, while Baldini’s personal connections to clubs and agents resulted in many signings, few of them ultimately worked out. Of the players in the summer Gareth bale was sold, only Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, and Erik Lamela remain, and Chadli appears likely to depart the club this summer. Baldini remained at the club long after his job appeared untenable and redundant.
Clearly a new model was needed, and in 2014 Pochettino thought he had the answer. Paul Mitchell was poached from Southampton, and he and scout Rob Mackenzie, late of Leicester, were tasked with improving the overall quality of the scouting department and with finding players that fit Pochettino’s model of player development. The focus reportedly wasn’t to find hidden “moneyball” gems (though that was part of it), but to find players that possessed both the skills and the temperament to fit Poche’s demanding system.
There’s some question as to how much credit to give Mitchell for some of Tottenham’s more recent player acquisitions. Kevin Wimmer, Son Heung-Min, Kieran Trippier, Clinton N’Jie, Vincent Janssen, and Victor Wanyama can probably all be safely called “Mitchell signings,” but NOT Eric Dier, Toby Alderweireld, Ben Davies, or notably Dele Alli, who was tipped off to the club by David Pleat but whom the club had been monitoring for some time.
I don’t bring this up to denigrate what Mitchell has done for Tottenham Hotspur in his two years at the club. It’s pretty clear that the system that Mitchell and Mackenzie, who has also reportedly tendered his resignation, have established at Spurs represents a major positive change from previous years, and one that has paid dividends. Under Mitchell, Spurs have narrowed its focus to target a much smaller subset of players specially selected for their fit at the club. It seems unlikely that Spurs would have been looking at young, perhaps undervalued players like Wimmer, N’Jie, Janssen, and even Son without Mauricio Pochettino being clear on the kinds of players he was looking for, Mitchell and his team finding a way to identify them, and Levy (or his deputy, Head of Football Operations Rebecca Caplehorn) making the deals.
It’s also too early to really give Mitchell’s signings a thorough evaluation. We’ve seen enough of Trippier to know what he can (and can’t) do, and Kevin Wimmer looks to be a solid addition to Spurs’ defensive corps, but the jury’s still out on N’Jie, Son, Janssen, and even Wanyama.
Mitchell and Mackenzie are both reportedly very good at what they do. Their loss will hurt. But if Tottenham’s scouting is indeed a system, then the people who implement that system are of secondary importance to the system itself. Or to put it another way, if Spurs’ current recruitment plan should be able to handle even the departure of its department head. If it can’t – if Tottenham’s recruitment system is dependent on Mitchell and company to make it run – then Spurs may indeed have a real problem on its hands. That possibility is worrisome.
Since the story of Mitchell’s resignation emerged, there’s been a great deal of dubious rumors and unsubstantiated talk floating around. And to be frank, it’s currently unclear what exactly has happened with Mitchell to cause him to want to leave. There are as of yet unfounded accusations that he has fallen out with Daniel Levy (or that the two never did get along), and that the increasingly unlikely transfer deal for Georges-Kevin N’Koudou deal was a possible a tipping point for his decision. Those who are already predisposed to dislike Levy are already using this to further their own agenda, which is expected, but also unfortunate.
Mitchell will be staying at Spurs at least through the close of the transfer window, and when he does go he will undoubtedly land on his feet. Reportedly highly ambitious, Mitchell has been linked to the position of Head of Recruitment at Leicester City, the job recent vacated by David Walsh (now Everton’s Director of Football). Leicester is a smaller club, but the position looks like it would have more responsibility, which may be attractive to Mitchell. Mackenzie, likewise, appears to be eventually heading for a bigger job at Derby County.
Two key backroom departures announced weeks before the close of the transfer window, and in the wake of a transfer deal collapse isn’t a good look by any means. It’s possible that more information will come out in the coming days and weeks that will add clarity to the situation. However, it’s far too soon to start panicking over the departure of Mitchell and Mackenzie, much less to start throwing blame at the likes of Daniel Levy or other club officials. It could be that this entire story is much ado about nothing.
Spurs can probably help quash the criticism by quietly going about their business. Winning football matches is a pretty good distraction and a salve for all sorts of perceived ills. When the time comes, Spurs will make new hires or promote from within. That’s the moment when we may find out whether or not Tottenham’s scouting shake-up is anything to really worry about.