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Is Tottenham’s scouting network in trouble?

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A report in the Standard says that there are further defections in Spurs’ staff and it could impact their ability to recruit new players.

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

If the Evening Standard to believed, Tottenham Hotspur’s scouting network is a bit of a shambles right now. An article in today’s Standard identified three recent defections from Spurs’ scouting ranks and invokes the specter that, along with the recent resignations of Paul Mitchell and Rob Mackenzie, Tottenham are in danger of being left behind by their Premier League rivals in the identification and acquisition of new players.

Mitchell, Mackenzie, and head scout Ian Broomfield have all either departed the club or, in Mitchell’s case, announced their imminent departure after serving a notice period. The implication in the Standard article is that there have been other defections in the scouting department as well that has contributed to a sense of unease throughout Spurs’ scouting ranks. Murmurs from the club have suggested that there aren’t enough scouts now at the club to cover various geographic areas; the club has disputed this.

Scouting should be a high priority for a club like Tottenham. Despite the influx of cash from the recent Premier League TV deals and even with a game-changing new stadium that’s near completion, Tottenham are still well behind their top four competitors in terms of financial standing, and are still punching above their weight. A club like Spurs needs to be able to identify and sign talented footballers quickly, or rely on hidden gems that other clubs might pass over. Problems in the scouting department aren’t good, and the effects of failure now might not be felt until much later as younger players develop.

A few years ago, it was an open secret that Spurs’ scouting department wasn’t very good. In 2014 former Director of Football Damien Commolli even came out and said that Spurs’ scouting was “kind of a joke” under Harry Redknapp. So when Spurs brought on Mitchell, it was supposed to be the beginning of something new and different. Mitchell, with his “black box” of metrics-based player analysis and track record of finding diamonds in the rough, was a hire intended to streamline and modernize Tottenham’s scouting approach. Former DoF Franco Baldini and his rolodex of agents’ cellphone numbers was shown the door to make room for a cutting-edge new approach to player recruitment. Out with the old, in with the new.

For whatever reason, that hasn’t lasted long. Mitchell, who reportedly resigned after becoming frustrated when Spurs failed to complete the signing of Michy Batshuayi, announced he was leaving the club back in August, but only after completing a 16-month notice. This leaves Spurs in a strange position of having a head of recruitment in place who doesn’t really want to be there, and perhaps it’s natural that this kind of instability could trickle down to the level of the individual scouts.

The line from the club has been that Spurs are in the process of identifying and hiring a successor for Mitchell, and despite the fact that Mitchell is still at the club, Mauricio Pochettino appears to be taking a more involved role in player identification and acquisition. However, Gianluca DiMarzio has recently written that Spurs are toying with the idea of returning to a director of football model and identified Walter Sabatini, who has has a very good track record as sporting director at Roma, as a possible candidate.

Even with all this, it’s really difficult to get a feel for what it all means. In the short to medium term, the fears surrounding a disheveled scouting department feel real and tangible, though there’s an argument that this is somewhat mitigated by Spurs’ focus on developing talent from their youth academy. It could also be that Spurs are just in a period of transition, and that new members of the scouting team will be hired to fill the open positions. The optics, however, aren’t good here.

Fans (and we are all fans) don’t really get a good sense of how scouting actually works at a top football club. For reasons that are obvious, clubs like Spurs are extremely reluctant to release details on how they go about identifying and obtaining talent. Any suppositions we might make are all based on nuggets of info that are released second or third hand by people either connected to the club or through the media. (That said, we have a better than average view on the kinds of methodologies used by Mitchell while at Southampton and Spurs.)

Losing scouts to attrition sounds like a bad thing, and it probably is. But is the situation as dire as what the Standard makes it out to be? Even reverting back to a director of football model and hiring another guy from Roma could be a misstep... or it could be the right move to make at the right time. We just don’t know.

Ultimately, the answer will only come retroactively. Spurs appear to be focusing most of their efforts into identifying and purchasing young talent that can be developed into outstanding footballers. That approach has resulted in Spurs having one of the youngest starting 11s in the premier league and no outfield players over the age of 30. The impact of the scouting decisions that Spurs make today could be felt in the upcoming transfer windows via the players that Spurs do (or do not) sign, and they could also be felt years from now when the younger players signed to the development squad age up.

Let’s hope that some clarity is given to this situation in the coming weeks.