Lost in the petty dispute between THST and the Tottenham Hotspur board is a bigger issue that both the Supporter’s Trust and the Club are missing: an overarching vision for the club.
To be fair to the Supporters’ Trust, they did ask the Club for “its medium and long-term strategy for success, both on and off the pitch”, which, as Tottenham still sit mired in an ongoing saga relating to Antonio Conte’s future, is highly relevant. However, the Trust’s emphasis on spending suggested their intention was directed in another way. The Club’s response too was correct, they outlined the myriad ways in which under Levy’s stewardship the club has sustained European football, increased revenues via large infrastructure investments to the Training Ground, Lodge and new stadium.
But interestingly, in a question about the club’s future, the club spent the first ten paragraphs focused on the past (and almost exclusively on matters pertaining to revenue), with only the last paragraph with any commentary on their long-term strategy, specifically “consistently qualifying for the Champions League and challenging for and winning major honours,” “to build a strong, deep squad with a winning mentality,” and “remain competitive, attract and retain the best players and continue to progress. Improved recruitment and a world class academy are vital to our future success.”
The Three C’s
Years ago, before Ralf Rangnick become unintentionally intertwined with Tottenham’s history as the eventual beneficiary for United after the infamous El Sackico victory, he was the manager of RB Leipzig and sporting director of Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg. He turned both clubs into powerhouses in their own respective leagues, and both clubs became famous for buying, developing and selling players for massive profits. This list included stars like Dayot Upemecano, Erling Haaland, Ibrahim Konate, Timo Werner, Marcel Sabitzer, Nordi Mukiele, Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, just to name a few.
I keep returning to a really interesting interview he gave where Rangnick speaks about how he turned not one but two, clubs into such massive successes. In the interview, he talked about the “three C’s”: Concept, Competence and Cash. He says, “The three Cs go together, hand in hand – and the chances of real success increase if all three Cs come together.” I always appreciated the simplicity of the explanation. It’s not rocket science, nor an overly rigid management style, but rather three factors that breed success, and it’s an interesting lesson for Tottenham.
Let’s start with the last C: “cash”. This is something Tottenham have in spades. While we don’t have Chelsea’s infinite resources, Tottenham are the ninth wealthiest club in the world. While I have been belaboring the point about the club spending more money on wages for many years now, I will still insist on this: Tottenham still spend significantly less percentage of their revenue on wages than any of the other 20 wealthiest clubs and almost certainly the least in Europe. Recently, they are finally beginning to spend money on transfers like a club of their stature. The club made this point very well in their response to THST: “Since opening the stadium in April 2019 we have spent more than £500m putting us in the top quartile of spending in the Premier League.”
As Rangnick put it:
“There is no doubt that financial backing enabled us to implement the philosophy we wanted to start with, but at the same time it is by no means a replacement for concept and competence – it has to work together with these other fundamental pillars.” Tottenham have more cash than nearly all clubs in the world, and they’ve more recently shown a willingness to spend it like their peers.
The second C is “competence”. Here’s how Rangnick describes it:
“We try to find the best possible people for each job, guaranteeing competence across the club. It is key to have a competent and excellently trained staff in every position, and to challenge them every day to make themselves and the club better.”
For the most part, Tottenham do have some of the most competent people in every position. The manager, Antonio Conte, is arguably the best manager in the world. The players, despite their flaws and lack of depth in certain areas, are some of the best in the world. The fact that Spurs players played the second most minutes in the World Cup among all Premier League sides is further evidence of this. It’s the backroom staff, however, where Tottenham have not always had the best possible people for each job. Perhaps most emblematic of this was our former Head of Recruitment, Steve Hitchen, whose most notable job before joining Tottenham was a year as Director of Recruitment at Derby County. In the not too distant past, our scouting network was described as a “joke”, and key positions at the academy remained vacant for long periods of time.
However, with the hire of Fabio Paratici in 2021 to take over footballing responsibilities and revamp these much overlooked aspects, the club has relatively quickly modernized and built up their backroom capacities. Admittedly there is still considerably more progress to be made here, but for the most part, Tottenham remain staffed with many of the best people possible.
The first C, and arguably the most important, is “concept”. Rangnick describes this thusly:
“Implementing a specific DNA into the club – particularly the style of football we want the team to play. Consistent orientation towards that style in all areas of the club was where we put our emphasis from day one. The playing style should be highly recognizable – so much so that, even on a bad day, you can still recognize the kind of football that the team wants to play. By doing that, you create an identity across the whole club. Not only with the players, but also the coaching staff and even the fans.”
His definition of “concept” might sound familiar, because it echoes almost word-for-word a statement Daniel Levy made not even two years ago at the end of the tumultuous 2020/21 season, when Jose Mourinho was sacked and Levy was embroiled in the backlash from the failed Super League bid. In his statement, Levy admitted “As a Club we have been so focused on delivering the stadium and dealing with the impact of the pandemic, that I feel we lost sight of some key priorities and what’s truly in our DNA.” On the search for a new manager, he gave a pretty concise vision for Tottenham’s “concept”, saying “We shall focus on the recruitment of a new Head Coach. We are acutely aware of the need to select someone whose values reflect those of our great Club and return to playing football with the style for which we are known – free-flowing, attacking and entertaining – whilst continuing to embrace our desire to see young players flourish from our Academy alongside experienced talent.” With the lettering part on the Academy echoing the club’s response to the Supporters’ Trust quoted above.
While this vision sounds wonderful in theory, it almost immediately fell apart in reality. Not even three weeks later, the club made a preposterous attempt to hire Gennaro Gattuso. Personal problematic beliefs aside, Gattuso was the antithesis of a manager aspiring to play “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football. No lessons were internalized and the club eventually bumbled its way into hiring another completely antithetical manager in Nuno Espirito Santo.
After that decision working out as well as could possibly be expected — that is, horribly — Tottenham somehow were able to hire Antonio Conte. While Conte no doubt has a much more successful pedigree and can play (though is not defined by) exciting, beautiful football, he too does not square with Levy’s stated vision. Conte is famous, perhaps infamous, for short-term, win-now solutions, rather than long-term, development of young players. And his repeated refusals to commit to the club more than a year in advance has created some unnecessary divisions within the club and its fanbase, in part leading to where we are now and the whole Supporters’ Trust gambit.
There is clearly an issue with the club’s “concept”.
I have no doubt that Levy clearly understands the club’s DNA. He’s said it himself, but he seems too easily distracted from implementing and enforcing this vision within the club, as short-term crises take precedence over long-term objectives. But the harm caused by a rather directionless long-term strategy over the post-Pochettino era is becoming ever increasingly evident. Just look at our transfer business from two seasons ago under Jose Mourinho: Reguilon (£27m), Doherty (£13m), Hojbjerg (£15m), Rodon (£11m), Hart (free), and loans of Carlos Vinicius and Gareth Bale. Hojbjerg is the only player remaining on the club just over two years later, largely because the players were bought at the behest of Mourinho, who’s no longer around, leaving players with different skill sets being forced into new roles that do not suit them. It’s how we’ve also arrived at Emerson as a RWB and Bryan Gil never getting playing time, as they themselves were bought to implement a vision for Nuno and not Conte.
Refer back to Rangnick’s RB Salzburg for a counterexample. Salzburg had six different managers in the eight years Rangnick was Sporting Director, a huge amount of turnover. But this wasn’t due to failure, but rather success. Only one was sacked. The others left to join bigger clubs. What was most impressive is that this turnover did not impact the football of Salzburg — they won the Austrian league in 7 of those 8 seasons. The managers were recruited for their style of play and that ability to fit within Salzburg’s style of frenetic, high pressing football, a style Rangnick made so popular in world football. While each manager had their own take, the Red Bull machine kept churning out wildly successful players and success on the pitch.
In addition, the Red Bull Group’s early adoption of affiliated clubs (Leipzig, Salzburg and Liefering in the Austrian second division) was a prescient approach to develop a more effective development player scheme, and avoid the time-tested-and-failed loan approach, which actively disincentivizes player development for short-term success. By controlling clubs at three different levels, it allows players to get experience against better competition, more advanced than U23 teams, while playing a very specifically designed playing style.
Benjamin Sesko, who will no doubt be signed by Chelsea in a year or two for £100m, is a perfect example of this approach. He played two successful loan seasons at FC Liefering, moved to RB Salzburg for two more successful seasons, and will join RB Leipzig in the summer. It’s yet another way “concept” translates “across the whole club” and even beyond and creates a more coherent and effective club.
Whatever happens with regards to Conte’s future, and therefore potentially Kane’s, this summer, I hope Levy revisits his comments about the club’s DNA and thinks about how the decisions that will need to be made will help him achieve this vision he’s set out. As much as I would hate to see it, perhaps a re-VISION is necessary, and he needs to create a new “concept” for the club, which is not predicated on free-flowing, attacking and entertaining football and developing academy products. Maybe a “concept” based on attracting older, experienced and successful, but under-valued players that have already and can win is Spurs’ new “concept” and path to success. It would certainly fit extremely well with Antonio Conte as manager, and Fabio Paratici’s success while at Juventus.
But for this club to be successful, it needs to be working towards the same purpose in all aspects. And so the next time Levy is asked about the club’s long-term strategy for future success, hopefully he won’t end up only talking about the past.