Tottenham Hotspur are, in short, a disaster. They’ve been that way for awhile, but Tuesday’s dispiriting 3-0 Champions League loss to RB Leipzig in Germany seemingly represents rock-bottom for a club that less than a year ago played in a Champions League title game.
The fall from grace has been swift, shocking nearly everyone who has even half-watched Spurs over the past 18 months. How can a club that was so recently near the top of the sport fall so quickly and catastrophically apart into one that looks so dispirited on the pitch and is sliding rapidly down the table?
More importantly for supporters, who is to blame? Things like this don’t just happen — a slide into anarchy like this has to have an architect, doesn’t it? Is it the chairman, Daniel Levy, who has historically been the bogeyman whenever things go wrong, or even seem like they might? Is it the man currently in charge of the club, Jose Mourinho, who took over with the promise of positive change but has quickly devolved into a predictable pattern of excuses and blame? Is it the former manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who started the ball rolling downhill into what now feels like an unstoppable slide of self-destruction, even after he left the club? Is it the players, who are the ones actually on the pitch trying to win points?
Is it just horrible, terrible, awful luck that saw a club lose its top two scorers and a number of key role players to injury, a situation from which it couldn’t recover?
Or does it even matter?
The answer is: yes. You’re all correct. It’s everyone. There are so many factors that have contributed to bringing Spurs to where they are now that to try to apportion the lion’s share of the blame to any one person, group, or circumstance would be unfair.
So let’s talk about all of them, how they contributed to the current malaise that is Tottenham Hotspur, and what it will take to break the vicious cycle that has led to this point.
Why Daniel Levy is to blame
Let’s start with something that is abundantly clear, but what Spurs fans probably don’t want to hear right now — Daniel Levy has been unquestionably fantastic as chairman for Tottenham Hotspur. Under his leadership, Spurs have moved from a club well below the upper echelon of the Premier League and that would finish anywhere from 10th to 5th (but never above) to a club that regularly qualified for Champions Leagues, played in a Champions League final, and had a puncher’s chance at winning the Premier League on more than one occasion. Spurs built what is currently the best stadium in Europe and have increased the club’s stature into a worldwide brand, in the process becoming one of the 10 richest football clubs in the world. That is remarkable, and Levy should be lauded for what he has done and where he has taken the club — he has proven himself to be one of the best chairmen in the Premier League.
But Levy is not and should not be immune to his complicity in where Spurs have ended up after the past two years. Most seriously, his attention to the construction of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the summer of 2018 meant his attention was divided when it came to squad development and needs. This almost certainly contributed to the lack of signings that summer and was a huge mistake in retrospect. Taking his eye off the ball with regards to player transfers meant that the existing squad was allowed to stagnate after several crucially important players left and others moved from their peaks into a period of decline. The reason given by Levy at the time — spending excessive amounts of money is not a guaranteed path to increased success on the pitch — rang hollow at the time, even as Spurs were coming off of a very good season with its existing squad.
There’s another possibility as well where Levy and Pochettino had differing views on how to manage a highly successful team full of mostly younger stars. It’s pretty clear that Mauricio Pochettino knew his team needed a periodic refresh in order to keep everything going, but it’s possible Levy considered this current crop of players his “golden generation” and wanted to get as much productivity out of them as possible. Either way, Levy badly misread the market for players that summer and the club suffered as a result.
Levy can also be roundly criticized for his handling of the managerial transition at Spurs. While you can make an argument that sacking Pochettino was the right decision at the time, the decision to replace Poch with Jose Mourinho displayed a short-sightedness that belies Levy’s previous belief that Spurs were a club on the upward trajectory. The ambition to hire a manager with a massive history of success at his previous clubs was counterbalanced by the risks that this same manager will make everything worse when confronted with inevitable adversity. If a managerial change was indeed needed, might it have been better to appoint a caretaker and make a more measured permanent hire in the summer? And now that Mourinho is here, if and when things inevitably do go south, Spurs will have to pay a huge amount of money to make him go away. It’s a decision that has by current evidence blown up in Levy’s face.
Luck certainly played a role as well. Tottenham’s summer in 2019 was fantastic — whatever you think of Tanguy Ndombele currently, his purchase was widely considered excellent business at the time, and Giovani Lo Celso has proven to be every bit as good as advertised. Had both of those players arrived at Tottenham this fall healthy, there’s a decent chance that Levy and Pochettino/Mourinho might have been able to paper over the cracks enough to finish top four, effectively kicking the can down the road long enough to continue a bigger overhaul. Mourinho even seemed to hit the ground running and Spurs had an early bump in results after his appointment. Champions League qualification was, after all, the expectation for this season.
That all ended with the injuries to Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. The chances of Spurs kicking the can forward to the summer shattered along with Sonny’s arm. Even the January acquisition of Steven Bergwijn (also now injured) hasn’t been enough to ameliorate the damage that was inflicted by an entire year with no signings. Tottenham are now in the position where they have little attacking threat, a wobbly defense, and rapidly diminishing chances of finishing top five. There remain significant holes in the squad, and with the prospects of Champions League next season all but dead, there are questions as to whether Tottenham now have the liquidity in transfer funds to address them all when the window re-opens in June.
The end result is that Spurs are a club that are now in need of a huge rebuild that will take time to complete. They are also now led by a manager who has no compunction to throw his players under the bus when it suits him and who is known for a type of football that is antithetical to the way Tottenham has historically played. That’s a terrible situation, and Levy is partly — you could even say mostly — its architect.
Why Jose Mourinho is to blame
Jose Mourinho’s appointment was a high-risk high-reward proposition at its best. The biggest thing in his favor at the time of his Tottenham appointment — he wins things — is, as previously stated, counterbalanced by the way things ended at his past two appointments, in a morass of angry players, disillusioned fans, and burned bridges.
Mourinho isn’t a manager that you bring in to build a squad, he’s a manager that you use to take an already good squad and turn them into winners. If you believe that Spurs are that kind of club, the upside of hiring Mourinho to lead a team full of talented players who lost confidence in their previous manager is clear. Things started out brightly, too — Mourinho said all the right things early on, and Spurs were even playing better football at the beginning of his tenure.
The Mourinho experiment might have worked this season, until Spurs’ catastrophic injury luck turned everything sideways. Now that Spurs are hurt beyond all reason, Mourinho has already transitioned into the predictable Mourinho that we saw at Chelsea and United, where talented players such as Tanguy Ndombele are thrown under the bus, overly defensive tactics are utilized out of apparent necessity, and excuses are thrown around by a grumpy manager. Instead of holding serve with a squad that already had problems, Mourinho seems to be actively creating new ones.
To be fair to Mourinho, the injury situation is actually catastrophic. What has happened to Spurs would test even the best managers in the world, and there remains a chance that Mourinho can pull Spurs out of this morass with time. However, it’s contingent on players like Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Steven Bergwijn, and Moussa Sissoko returning and immediately playing close to their peak again, plus significant squad investment to address gaping holes in the squad. It will require a series of home-run moves and we almost certainly won’t see any change until the new season begins in 2020-21. If you’re already a Mourinho skeptic, it isn’t hard to be pessimistic about his future transfer decisions and their long-term effect on the squad.
Mourinho may indeed have turned a page on his previous grouchy attitude and is trying something new at Spurs, but under the current circumstances it’s hard to be at all optimistic that he’s the right manager to return Spurs to its previous heights.
Why Mauricio Pochettino is to blame
Mauricio Pochettino lifted Spurs from a club that was fading under Andre Villas-Boas and floundering under Tim Sherwood, and led them to their best period of results since Bill Nicholson. He did it by recruiting a core of electrifying young talent, instilling a system of extreme fitness, high-pressing attacking tactics, developing legitimate stars from the academy, and creating a positive atmosphere that fed on itself and compounded with each win. At its peak, it was hugely entertaining football, and while Tottenham didn’t end up with any silverware in the cabinet during Pochettino’s tenure, is there any doubt that Poch’s peak teams — especially the 2015-16 squad — were some of the best in Tottenham’s history?
But nothing lasts forever, and the cracks started to show as early as the 2017-18 season. Without going into too much detail, there are disadvantages to creating an atmosphere at a club that we have described in the past as “cult-like” — Pochettino’s methodology needed (actually required) complete buy-in from all his players in order to work, and he demanded that everyone do so. It was leadership by personality. At the beginning he cultivated that system by shipping out any players that didn’t buy what he was selling — Emmanuel Adebayor, Younes Kaboul, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli, Aaron Lennon, and Nabil Bentaleb to name a few — and replacing them with players that were young, hungry, and ready to run through a brick wall for him.
The downside to this approach is that it requires a specific type of player to fit into that system, and those players can be hard to find. Pochettino was apparently extremely picky about the players that he brought in, which contributed to the year of austerity in the summer of 2018. The idea that it would be better to not bring in any players than a player that wasn’t perfectly suited to his tactics and style is extremely short-sighted, and while Poch wasn’t the person who facilitated the transfers, it’s clear he had an outsized effect on who the club was looking at. The combination of Levy’s distraction and Pochettino’s reluctance resulted in literally no incoming players, as well as some important experienced players leaving with no replacements.
The other problem with leadership by personality is what happens when members stop believing in the project — everything falls apart. Harry Kane’s injury in the spring of 2019 started a cascading failure at the end of that season that was effectively masked by Spurs’ miracle run to the Champions League final. But there were already signs of frustration coming from all sides — the players were clearly becoming disaffected by Pochettino’s methods and messaging, and it was being realized in their diminishing league results.
By the end of 2018-19, Poch was sending his own signals, few of them good. Ahead of the final in Madrid, he hinted that if Spurs won he might just walk away from Tottenham altogether, and was dropping not-so-subtle hints that Spurs needed a “painful rebuild” in order to continue competing at the top level of the sport. This was paired with a sulky sullenness in his interactions with the media that was unlike anything seen previously in his tenure. In short, he looked exhausted, distracted, and checked out. He looked like a manager who was ready to walk away.
In the aftermath of his firing, there was reporting that suggested that Pochettino nearly did just that after the Champions League final, but ultimately decided to come back for one more chance to rebuild the side and create a “new five-year project.” However, the sullenness seemed to persist even into the beginning months of this season. As the poor results piled up, Pochettino looked more and more like a manager who was out of ideas and couldn’t be bothered to come up with new ones.
Pochettino was obviously right about the squad needing a refresh in retrospect, but that shouldn’t minimize his role in the failure to bring in players the previous summer and allowing things to spiral out of control as quickly as it did. Meanwhile, things continued to go south. By the time he was fired in November of 2019, it almost felt like ripping off a band-aid — painful, but necessary for wounds to start healing.
Managers do have a shelf-life. While it’s tempting for fans to look back at the Pochettino era and say it was a mistake to fire him, doing so would minimize just how awful things were at the time of his sacking and his role in how everything came about.
Why the players are to blame
There’s an oft-used saying in football — you can sack the manager, but you can’t sack the players. The players have an extraordinary amount of power at a football club, even if that power is more indirect. But the perception of the club, and the future of a club’s manager, is tied directly to on-pitch performance, and the games are played by footballers.
When it is said that a manager has “lost the dressing room” what it means is that the players have decided, collectively, that this particular manager is no longer worth playing for, or that they no longer want to put forth the effort to get results under the current circumstances. Sometimes it’s not a conscious thing — maybe they’re trying, but what they’re doing is no longer working, or they’re feeling burned out by a particular manager’s tactics or methodology. The things that used to work just aren’t working anymore, and it’s time for a change. It’s why managers get sacked all the time, and sometimes just that change is enough to kick-start a team back into prominence.
It seems pretty clear that a wedge developed between the players and Mauricio Pochettino somewhere in the latter part of 2018 that was allowed to fester and grow throughout 2019 until Pochettino’s firing. With every dropped point, the players looked, and sounded, less and less like the exciting, happy squad that came close to a Premier League title in 2016, but like war-weary veterans who were tired of their current campaign and just wanted to go home.
It was best epitomized by player contracts. Over the past several years, Tottenham had been able to convince its young stars to stay at Spurs instead of bolting for clubs that could pay them significantly higher wages by offering them a two pronged approach — the opportunity to work with a talented, young manager who develops young players, and a system of gradual wage hikes tied to performance. It was like dangling a carrot in front of players, where they could be rewarded with steady increases in pay, so long as they recommitted to the program.
That system works great... until it doesn’t. Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen, and to a lesser extent Jan Vertonghen decided to take advantage of the player power granted to them by refusing to sign new deals and winding down their contracts, ostensibly in order to facilitate moves to other clubs. In Toby’s case it was likely dissatisfaction with Pochettino, as he fairly quickly re-signed with Spurs after Mourinho’s appointment, while with Eriksen it was his “secret plan” to move to one of Europe’s superclubs, a plan that backfired when the only club interested in his services was Inter Milan. Vertonghen, meanwhile had less to do with his desire to stay and more that the club became reluctant to offer him a new deal.
Both players’ failure to adhere to Spurs’ system of gradual contract offers was emblematic of the divide between the players’ current situation and their perceived worth. A few of them have now figured out that they can weaponize their contracts to force concessions or even a move away if they’re not satisfied with life in North London.
The deteriorating relationship with Pochettino was also a huge factor, and there were numerous anonymous murmurs from inside the changing room that all was not well. But you can’t sack an entire squad of players in the middle of the season, and that’s why Pochettino was the one who eventually made way.
I am not here to throw the current Tottenham squad under the bus, but it would be crazy not to suggest that part of the reason that Spurs are in the situation they are in at the moment is because the players themselves played their way into this mess. Naturally, there are all of the contributing factors discussed prior — severe injuries, failure to refresh the squad, dissatisfaction with the manager(s), just plain bad luck — but the players play the games and win or lose them. Their dissatisfaction with Pochettino’s methods led, directly, to his sacking. Their poor performances led to Tottenham going nearly a year without an away win in 2019. Maybe they were set up to fail — there’s a pretty good argument for that! But you can’t write an article about who’s to blame and not point a finger, at least half-heartedly, at the professional footballers kicking a ball around the pitch.
Conclusion: everyone sucks here
Venture into the online morass known as Reddit and you’ll find the community titled “Am I the A—hole” where people post their social dilemmas and ask whether they were in the wrong. It’s popular for a reason — is there anything the internet likes more than the public judgement of others? The community discusses, and weighs in, collectively deciding if, yes, the original poster is indeed the a—hole, or if they did the right thing and are in the clear. The final possibility is “ESH” — Everyone Sucks Here, used for situations where everyone has been a jerk and nobody comes out smelling like a rose.
ESH — that’s pretty much where Tottenham are at present. Following the result in Leipzig, things are an unqualified mess — an injury-decimated squad, exhausted players who aren’t getting results, an unhappy fanbase — and things are heading towards what feels like an uninterrupted death spiral. The worst of it is that there isn’t one place where supporters can direct their anger. So many things have factored into what has been an absolute disaster of a season for Tottenham Hotspur that fans are yelling at each other trying to apportion the proper amount of blame.
The truth is that everyone’s right, and everyone sucks. Tottenham’s brass failed by taking risks with squad management and leadership that were either unnecessary or backfired catastrophically, and they failed by trying to paper over the cracks in ways that didn’t work. Tottenham’s managers have not instilled confidence in their ability to pull the club out of this mess through results and have reverted to sulking and disinterest when things haven’t gone according to plan. And Tottenham’s players have themselves contributed by first becoming disillusioned by the project, and not coming through with performances that are worthy of the club they play for.
None of this was inevitable. All of it was avoidable.
The end result is that there doesn’t appear to be an easy way out. There is no short fix here. Tottenham have an enormous challenge ahead of them to rebuild the club into one that regularly competes for top honors. It starts with limping, however, heavily, to the end of the season. Perhaps this season will come to a merciful shortened end with coronavirus spreading across the globe, but if not Spurs will need to endure to the end of the season, take a breather, and reassess under Mourinho.
That rebuild will likely need to be done without the added finances of Champions League — or even Europa League! — football and under a manager who has never really gone through a comprehensive club rebuild in his career. That’s pretty scary! The good news is that Tottenham’s injured players will come back to the squad eventually, and even if nothing else were to changes, Spurs would be an improved side just by virtue of their return.
However, this should also be viewed as an opportunity to blow things up and start over. Spurs have a core of excellent players to build around — Kane, Dele, Lo Celso, Ndombele, Bergwijn — that could form the nucleus for highly successful future Tottenham teams. But it will take time, and it will likely be painful. Spurs could bounce back immediately next season, or it could take a path of more gradual resurgence.
Either way, change is coming. You are free to believe that Jose Mourinho is not the man to lead that resurgence, and that would be a perfectly fair assessment based on the available evidence. The opportunity is there, however, and it begins with a careful look at all the factors that led to where Spurs are right now. Hopefully Tottenham Hotspur can take a long hard look at how they got here and use that retrospection to make sure something like this never happens again.