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Football’s not dead: Understanding Spurs’ Champions League run

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The team’s Champions League success and league tenacity shows that heart, hard work, and a little bit of luck can still compete with big budgets

Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In recent decades, elite football has been a fascinating study of more or less unbridled free-market capitalism. Clubs buy and sell with little regulation, particularly until the recent financial fair play interventions, and the result has been the emergence of a few super clubs that are becoming increasingly out of reach of all but other uber-rich teams. Manchester City is one of these, and although Spurs are among the top twenty teams in Europe, they are in a tier of wealth below the Cities, the Uniteds, the Barcelonas, and the Real Madrids of the world. With help from some well-read commenters (thank you, @Willl and others), I explained in February that until the last couple of years, Spurs have been financially nearer to good mid-table sides than to the top four. This means that the Pochettino era has not only been one of relative prosperity for the club, but also a period of massive over-performance relative to their financial status, a fact which is obscured by the consistent ability of the present Tottenham team to hold their own against richer, better teams.

Because Spurs have been so good, their matchup against Manchester City in the Champions League this month was framed as a battle of giants, rather David against Goliath. As the first leg approached, City were given the edge by most analysts, who viewed Spurs as an underdog, despite going into the first leg with their star attackers in shape and good form and a close-to-full-strength defense and midfield. This was correct: the best imaginable Tottenham eleven can hold its own with the best Manchester City eleven, but with every injury and rotation, Spurs’ lineup gets worse (see youngster Oliver Skipp nearly replacing the veteran Moussa Sissoko in the second leg), while City just shuffles one star in for another.

This meant that the margins for Tottenham against City in the Champions League were always going to be tight, even if everything went right. At first, things seemed promising: The Spurs team that took the field at White Hart Lane in the first leg of the fixture might have been the best possible, with the dreaded Dele-Eriksen-Son-Kane (DESK) attacking corps supported by the first-choice pivot of Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks, with Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, and Lloris completing the first XI. Then Harry Kane got hurt in the 58th minute and was replaced by Lucas Moura, at which point things could have very quickly begun to fall apart.

Miraculously, however, Spurs’ perpetual man-of-the-moment, Heung-min Son, earned a goal in the late stages of that first leg which set up one of the most dramatic second legs in Champions League history. Spurs went to the Etihad with a goal in hand and a fifty percent chance of advancing, but a squad that was weakened by injuries (and became more so during the game). The wealth disparity between the two clubs was clear: Manchester City’s starting XI in that second match cost them an estimated €509 million in transfer fees.

Man City 4-3 Tottenham, lineups with transfer fees

City: Transfer fee (€m) Spurs: Transfer fee (€m)
City: Transfer fee (€m) Spurs: Transfer fee (€m)
Ederson 40 Lloris 12.6
Walker 52.7 Trippier 4.9
Kompany 8.5 Rose 0
Sterling 63.7 Alderweireld 16
Gundogan 27 Vertonghen 12.5
Aguero 40 Son 30
Laporte 65 Wanyama 14.4
De Bruyne 76 Sissoko 35
Bernardo Silva 50 Alli 6.63
David Silva 28.75 Eriksen 13.5
B. Mendy 57.5 Moura 28.4
TOTAL 509.15 173.93
Reserves
Muric 0 Gazzaniga 1
Stones 55.6 Sanchez 40
Sane 50.5 Walker-Peters 0
Fernandinho 40 Llorente 15.1
Mahrez 67.8 Foyth 13
Otamendi 44.6 Davies 12.65
Jesus 32 Skipp 0
TOTAL 290.5 81.75
Data according to Transfermarkt

If money buys on-field talent, City had a massive advantage compared to Spurs, who paid a third of that (€174 million) for their first eleven in that match. However, as the game unfolded, the Tottenham side played with heart and courage, responding twice to a goal-hungry Manchester City side that began the match voraciously and probed the Spurs defense without pause. A goal off of Fernando Llorente’s hand and a VAR intervention to discard Raheem Sterling’s last-minute heroics were enough to put Spurs through to the semis.

Now the club have become a part of something very special. The Champions League semi-final against Ajax pits two outsiders against each other. Neither club has appeared in the semi-finals in the last decade, and both are relatively poor when compared to the clubs on the other side of the bracket. In order to get to this match, both teams have seen off teams with more resources, deeper benches, and more marquee signings, and now they face off to determine who will get a crack at a powerful superclub.

Part of the magic of the Champions League is that this situation arises somewhat often, but infrequently enough to make it special when it does. Below are the semifinalists from the last decade’s Champions League competitions with their rank in the Deloitte Football Money league from the previous season. For example, Schalke 04 competed in the 2010/11 Champions League semifinal, and the (16) next to their name indicates that in the 2009/10 season, they had the 16th highest revenues of all teams.

Champions League Semifinalists, DFML revenue rank in parentheses

Season Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 4
Season Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 4
2010/11 Schalke 04 (16) Manchester United (3) Real Madrid (1) Barcelona (2)
2011/12 Bayern Munich (4) Real Madrid (1) Chelsea (6) Barcelona (2)
2012/13 Bayern Munich (4) Barcelona (2) Borussia Dortmund (11) Real Madrid (1)
2013/14 Real Madrid (1) Bayern Munich (3) Atletico Madrid (20) Chelsea (7)
2014/15 Barcelona (4) Bayern Munich (3) Juventus (10) Real Madrid (1)
2015/16 Manchester City (6) Real Madrid (1) Atletico Madrid (15) Bayern Munich (5)
2016/17 Real Madrid (3) Atletico Madrid (13) Monaco (not in top 20) Juventus (10)
2017/18 Bayern Munich (4) Real Madrid (2) Liverpool (9) Roma (not in top 20)
2018/19 Tottenham (10) Ajax (not in top 20) Barcelona (2) Liverpool (7)
The number in parentheses indicates the team’s position in the previous season’s Deloitte Football Money League

The Champions League semi finals are dominated by the highest-earning teams, with more than half of all semi final places over this decade occupied by the top 5 clubs, a fact that makes the Tottenham-Ajax fixture even more special. Only in Juventus-Monaco in 2016-17 and Liverpool-Roma in 2017-18 was there a matchup between two semifinalists who were both as far behind the wealthiest teams as Spurs and Ajax are.

Tottenham 0-1 Ajax, lineups with transfer fees

Spurs: Transfer fee Ajax: Transfer fee
Spurs: Transfer fee Ajax: Transfer fee
Lloris 12.6 Onana 0.135
Trippier 4.9 Tagliafico 3.6
Sanchez 40 Blind 14.4
Alderweireld 16 de Ligt 0
Vertonghen 12.5 Veltman 0
Rose 0 de Jong 9.11
Wanyama 14.4 Schoene 0
Alli 6.63 Neres 10.8
Eriksen 13.5 van de Beek 0
Moura 28.4 Ziyech 9.9
Llorente 15.1 Tadic 10.26
164.03 58.205

Tottenham and Ajax’s shared qualities—the long odds they faced to get to this match, the optimism and tenacity with which they played when it seemed that they would be eliminated, and the attractive, positive strategy that they embrace—all make this matchup feel like proof that money has not taken the heart and possibility out of contemporary football. With a little bit of luck and a lot of quality, a club like Tottenham can still see off the bigger, richer ones.

What we have gotten to see in recent years is, in effect, a competition over the future of football, in which teams that work on player-development models are trying to remain competitive with ones that buy readymade elite talent. That Spurs and Ajax are facing each other, and that one of those teams is going to play in the Champions League final, is proof that a model like Tottenham’s can still work at the highest level. One can only hope it will Spurs who make it to the final.