Tottenham's Focus on Signing 'Winners' Might Distract Them From Actually Winning

If there's one word which is firmly lodged within the modern footballing psyche, it's the W-word. Winning.

Watching your unfancied side begin to rebuild and turn their form around? Happy memories of supporting a team playing good football? Any sense of financial or sporting context whatsoever? Nah mate, you didn't scoop a cup which mainly exists so that Manchester City can give their kids a run out, so you might as well not have bothered.

It's this exact fixation with totting up trophies and titles (which only a handful of increasingly rich clubs are now able to do) that seems to be responsible for an increasing trend in short-term thinking in the modern game, from Juventus' revolving-door of Champions League-chasing managers to Chelsea (and hey, it will probably work) abandoning their youth revolution after a single season of trying.

At no club is this more applicable than Tottenham, whose fans live in perpetual fear of the Monday morning banter in the office or the classroom. Trophyless Tottenham, serial bottlers, who last won the league when Stonehenge was being built - they've heard it all, and their frustration with Spurs' perennial status as also-rans has been well documented on social media and in the stands.

Since Mauricio Pochettino was sacked last November, it has felt as if Tottenham's hierarchy are increasingly beginning to respond to this frustration, both in signing José Mourinho, a manager so indelibly associated with finding a way to win that he might as well walk around with a big 'W' on his back, and in the transfer business that has been done since the arrival of the Portuguese gaffer.

Under Pochettino, a near non-negotiable list of criteria was adhered to for almost every signing. They had to be under the age of 25, and they had to be useful to the Argentine on some kind of long-term basis rather than as a quick fix - which in fairness to Spurs chairman Daniel Levy can't have been easy on Spurs' rather modest budget.

Under Mourinho this summer, the other hand, the emphasis has been altogether different. The emphasis has been on signing experienced, hungry professionals who are known predominantly for their leadership qualities. Other factors such as age and getting the right tactical 'fit' of player, though still important, are no longer the deal-breakers that they once were.

All three of the signings that Spurs have made so far are united in their seemingly relentless will to win, from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who was made Southampton captain last season and was frequently an outspoken figure when the Saints fell short of their standards, to Matt Doherty, who kept a strict pescatarian diet as he transformed from a £75,000 punt to one of the Premier League's most reliable wing-backs (via The Athletic), to Joe Hart, who will leave an enduring legacy as football's shoutiest ever player.

Levy is criticsed far more often than he is praised, but has done exceptionally well to recruit these players for relatively small fees, and it remains a complete mystery how he snapped up an established player like Doherty for a mere £15m. But it's worth asking whether a winning mentality (or the lack thereof) is the most urgent issue to address within Tottenham's squad, and the basis on which Spurs have justified these signings is definitely worthy of scrutiny.

Everyone's had a good laugh at Mourinho calling Spurs a little too nice (in his own unique way) in Amazon Prime's All or Nothing, and it now seems to be the received wisdom that Spurs lacked the will to win at all costs under Pochettino. But what if this assertion was just... flat out wrong?

Looking back to the end of Pochettino's reign at Spurs, there were a litany of obvious problems, but even at their worst they never knew they were beaten.

Just look at their run to the Champions League final, where Tottenham refused to accept that they were out of the group stage after picking up one point in their first three fixtures, before refusing to accept that a star-studded Manchester City side could knock them out of the quarter-finals, before refusing to believe in the concept of time itself as they rescued their semi-final in the dying seconds against Ajax.

In these circumstances, Spurs had no real need to artificially inject the squad 'winners', because they emerged almost organically as Pochettino changed the outlook of the club, and previously passive members of the squad like Jan Vertonghen became difference-makers in important fixtures.

What was rather more obvious by the time that Levy said adios to Pochettino was that an exhausted side which had sat out the 2018 summer transfer window, and which was dragged down by a number of jaded players on expiring contracts, desperately needed an injection of world-class defensive talent, as well as a replacement for Christian Eriksen and genuine competition for Harry Kane.

The man responsible for failing to plug these leaks was not Pochettino but Levy, who for three successive windows failed to add a single defender to the squad as Tottenham's back four began to atrophy, while playing hardball with Christian Eriksen in contract negotiations before failing to adequately replace him.

In this sense while the narrative of Spurs' lack of Pochettino-era 'winners' is certainly a tempting one, it arguably lets Levy off the hook for a few of his more questionable gambles in the transfer market, and the long-term structural consequences of those gambles.

For Mourinho's purposes, it means that his own choice to focus on shorter-term, continuity-oriented signings can in fact be dressed up as vital to the long-term health of the squad.

Doherty's habit of being exposed outside of a five-man defence means that he may not be a significant upgrade on Serge Aurier in the four-man defence which makes most sense for Spurs going forward. Højbjerg, a talented ball-winner who balances a three-man midfield nicely, will not provide the ball-progressing attributes which are so badly needed there, and a 33-year-old Joe Hart who has had a few difficult seasons is, well, exactly that.

Perhaps the cruellest aspect is that, for a settled squad who just need rotation options for a strong first-team and a little bit of balance, like Spurs were in 2018, it wouldn't have been the most objectionable window. Now, however, they need at least one world-class centre-back, and a full-back who can match the production of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.

But having finished 30 points behind the eventual champions last season, and competing with clubs who can boast a fairly even spread of world-class players across multiple positions, your new arrivals had better be pretty damn good at winning.

Source : 90min