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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur playing catch-up in transfer business again

Premier League rivals such as reigning champions Manchester City sign new players while Spurs struggle to attract recruits for second season in a row

Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, right, is in the United States with the team, but without new players yet. AFP
Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, right, is in the United States with the team, but without new players yet. AFP

Speaking at last season’s end, with another top-three finish secure but his future uncertain, Mauricio Pochettino declared the need for change.

Some suggested he felt he had taken Tottenham Hotspur as far as he could, that a club that exceeded expectations for three consecutive campaigns could not continue along the same path. Unless they altered their approach.

Interpreted as a direct plea to chairman Daniel Levy, Pochettino appealed for Spurs to “be brave", to "take risks", to "work in a new way”. Soon after, with Real Madrid reportedly circling, the Argentine committed to a new, five-year contract. It was viewed as some sort of vindication, that Pochettino had gotten his way.

However, more than two months later, less than three weeks out from the beginning of a fresh Premier League season, little seems to have changed. Spurs have yet to show courage in the transfer market, no calculated gamble taken, no novel approach implemented.

For the second successive year, they set off for their pre-season tour of the United States without any new signings. Just like last summer, they begin preparations without having invested in the squad. Early on Thursday UAE time, they take on Roma in San Diego, then complete their International Champions Cup programme against Barcelona and AC Milan.

Undeniably, they will hope to have some business concluded by then.

At the time of writing, Tottenham are one of only three top-flights clubs yet to recruit this summer. Burnley and Everton represent the other two, although the latter are set to secure Richarlison from Watford, for £50 million (Dh240.2m).

While their domestic rivals have strengthened, Spurs appear to have stalled. Liverpool’s lavishness has only exacerbated Pochettino’s plight. Having finished fourth last season, two points behind the Londoners, the Anfield club have strengthened, improving impressively their weakest areas.

Thus far this window, Liverpool have spent approximately £120m on three players, including a world-record fee for a goalkeeper. And it sustains a trend: since Jurgen Klopp arrived on Merseyside, Tottenham have spent considerably less than the other members of England’s “Big Six”.

According to figures released by Sky Sports, Liverpool have committed £410.5m in refining Klopp’s squad. Only Chelsea (£439.9m) and Manchester City (£516.6m) have invested more. Meanwhile, Manchester United have parted with £400.7m; Arsenal, supposedly hamstrung by Arsene Wenger’s frugality, £284.5m. Tottenham rank bottom, comfortably, at £169m.

Their net spend since Pochettino’s appointment in 2014 is around £50m. It places the club 11th in the Premier League for that period, more than half the outlay at Crystal Palace and Leicester City. It rates behind West Ham United, West Bromich Albion and Stoke City. The latter two were relegated last season.

It speaks to the progress Pochettino has made.

There has been considerable improvement, despite the relatively minimal outlay. Without doubt, this is the finest Spurs squad of the Premier League era. Their development, and the continuity and the subsequent harmony that engenders, is a major reason for that thrive.

But they are in danger of stagnating, if only because their rivals are becoming stronger.

Typically, Tottenham start the season slowly. Players are signed late, in turn not provided adequate time to bed in, to get to grips with Pochettino’s philosophy and his heavy emphasis on fitness. Spurs begin the campaign undercooked. Ultimately, it proves costly.

Back in December, Pochettino outlined the problem.

“The most important thing is to identify our targets and, on July 3 when we start pre-season, they are here,” he said. “If we don’t, it’s so difficult for them to help the team.”

His work has not been helped by what appears to be Levy’s usual brinkmanship.

A man takes a selfie in front of construction work at White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur are expected to return to the stadium in time for the 2018/19 season. Reuters
A man takes a selfie in front of construction work at White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur are expected to return to the stadium in time for the 2018/19 season. Reuters

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Granted, the Spurs chairman should be applauded for convincing Pochettino to continue with “the project”. Since the season ended, the club have announced new deals for Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Erik Lamela. More are expected to follow. A new 62,000-seater stadium is slated to host its first league match on September 15, against Liverpool.

But, again, Spurs look to be slipping behind their competitors. Chelsea and Arsenal, fifth and sixth last season, should be galvanised by the appointments of Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery, and have bought well. Champions City, United and Liverpool have augmented already talented squads.

The argument is that Spurs’ current first XI is capable of a title tilt, that it is difficult to find players to truly enhance the team. City, though, brought in Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez despite last season boasting the most prolific attack in Premier League history. Others are stockpiling potential starters, buying able back-ups.

Tottenham’s first XI may be adept enough, but to sustain a Premier League challenge and balance three other competitions, too, their squad clearly lacks depth. Arguably, there is no adequate cover for Kane, or creative fulcrum Christian Eriksen.

The move to the stadium presents an obvious obstacle, and it is said Spurs must sell before they can buy. But the lack of incomings is significant.

Change has not materialised. It might yet come - in fact it most certainly will before the August 9 deadline - yet time has already gotten away.

Like seasons past, Spurs are playing catch-up.