A single moment in early May, east London, perfectly encapsulated Tottenham Hotspur’s entire season. Stewart Downing’s insipid free-kick from the edge of the box should have been easily blocked by Lloris’s meticulously assembled wall. Yet Paulinho and Adebayor stood aside, allowing the ball to sail into the bottom corner.
This was more than merely another of the record-breaking number of crass, unforced defensive errors that have blighted our season. They, two of our most experienced players, men we should be able to rely upon, failed to do their duty when it came to the crunch. They have not been the only ones.
This lack of responsibility has seeped into every part of the club, a gangrenous sore festering throughout the body Spurs, undermining any efforts to make concerted progress with regular stinking, slimy eruptions sadly synonymous with the way we go about our business. Risible defensive lapses, managers coming and going, fans singled out by police, comedy press conferences, over £100m on players to mount a challenge for 6th and 7th, all this and more has made Spurs a laughing stock, not least in the eyes of many of their long-suffering supporters. Some laughed, many were angry, all despaired of ever seeing the club attain the stability that is the foundation of achievement.
Amid the anger and finger-pointing that has typified Spurs’ fans on social media, nobody at the club should escape the blame. Villas-Boas’s dismissal and a change of style all created uncertainty and disruption, definitely on the field and if accounts are to be believed, in the dressing room too. Sherwood’s inexperience was laid bare so many times.
Equally, too many highly paid players did not give their best every time they pulled on the shirt. The shining exceptions of Eriksen and Lloris whose attitude and quality were impeccable in the second half of the season serve to expose those with less distinguished seasons, like Vertonghen, Rose, Naughton and Paulinho. Soldado and Lamela, £53m for the pair, not their fault that we had no idea what to do with them.
Yet this is ultimately a failure of Daniel Levy’s leadership. He takes the decisions – two managers this season, a grand total of 9 in 12 years. If I ran my organisation like this, I would be sacked. Levy continues to make the same mistakes, over and over again. In comes a Director of Football and he shuts his eyes, ears and mind to what has gone before. The first sign of pressure, Levy’s feet of clay collapse. At least Spurs’ managers have the comfort of never having to hear the dreaded vote of confidence but only because the chairman doesn’t talk in public.
Much has been said about Levy, the pivotal figure in recent Tottenham history. It’s alleged that he’s stupid, finance-driven, foolish with the backbone of a jellyfish, and far, far worse. Some, a distinct minority now, don’t see him as a failure, pointing to our sound finances, the impending new ground and the relative success of the past few years where Europe is a given. We are much better off than when he took over, so this account goes.
That’s true. The real question, however, is what we might have been. Levy is guilty of flawed leadership. Any successful leader in any organisation has a clear idea of what they want to achieve, how they do so and how they take the workforce along with them. Levy is fatally undermined because he’s torn between two competing goals, success on the field and a return on his money. Never forget the ‘I’ in ENIC stands for ‘investment’.
In an ideal world, one that Levy presumably prays for before he goes to bed, these two are perfectly compatible. We do well on the pitch with players bought at a reasonable price and not receiving inflated salaries, and the money comes rolling in. In reality, it’s much harder. Spurs strategy since Levy took over has been to buy players for whom the club is a step up and who will develop as footballers with us. Our recent history is best seen not so much in terms of the managers but in the eras of the three Directors of Football, Arnesen, Commoli and now Baldini, because they seem to be charged with finding these players. Arnesen bought a clutch of predominantly young players while as time went on we bought under the same principle but higher up the food chain. Berbatov and Modric were established but had more to give, as do Eriksen, Paulinho and Capoue. This time round, Lamela was one for the future but Soldado and Lloris were at the peak of their powers, a sign or so we thought that we were aiming for the big time.
However, Levy has never been able to implement the most significant element of any strategy, consistency. He doesn’t believe in the men he entrusts with the team. As a result, the strategy never gets beyond the drawing board, known this season as the burst of wild optimism that greeted the arrival of seven new players. This fatal weakness and vacillation dooms any plan to failure.
Levy understands money, one half of being a club chairman, but not the other, football. Fairly basic in the post’s person spec but there you have it. As a result he is dependent on advice and at Spurs whoever is whispering in his ear at any one time seems to hold sway. It creates this culture of uncertainly. Poyet briefed against Ramos, to the players as well as the chairman, Jol and against Santini and now Sherwood against AVB.
CEOs prosper not because they know the nuts and bolts of a business but they know how to choose someone who does. Pfizer’s chief exec can’t invent or manufacture anti-biotics but she or he knows who can, then they don’t interfere in the lab. Author, journalist and Spurs diehard Adam Powley made a simple but telling point earlier this season that I keep returning to. Never mind ENIC out or ENIC in, what will do us nicely is if they do their job as owners properly and with responsibility. Yet this is no way to run a company.
AVB’s appointment seemed to fit the bill, an ambitious, upwardly mobile manager desperate to succeed. A theorist rather than a practitioner he may be but with the right organisation on the field we could have prospered.
He over-achieved in his first season but could not cope with the demands of integrating seven new players into the team. I have never bought the accusation that our football was dull because he was defensive. I just think we weren’t very good. More specifically, he wanted us to attack and pass the ball but our possession-based game foundered in the final third because Villas-Boas’s formation was ineffective and didn’t suit the players.
We came to a grinding halt at the edge of the opponent’s box. Too many providers and no finishers. His inverted wingers crashed into defenders standing idly by around their area. All they had to do was stand there as Townsend banged shot after shot into their bodies. He and Lennon were never going to score the goals we needed with only Soldado up front. He meanwhile waited in vain for throughballs and crosses. Criminally AVB allowed a row with Adebayor over a hat and mobile phone in a team talk to interfere with the good of the club. Manu was banished when we needed a different type of centre-forward, his type.
Overflowing with midfielders, we persisted with two wingers and played others out of position. With at least three attacking mids to chose from, Paulinho found himself played there instead, watching the ball ping around dover his head for the most part.
Crashing defeats versus Manchester City and Liverpool at home showed the gulf in class, or maybe it was the crashing boredom of the odd goal wins. Whatever, less than half of the difficult second season and Levy had had enough.
Any questions about whether this was decisive or premature paled into insignificance when we saw who replaced him. Tim Sherwood’s appointment was sold to fans and media as continuity, the promotion from within of a guy who knew the club and the players, to steady the ship. However, the reality is impossible to deny. Levy had no plan B. AVB’s sacking was a panic measure and he had no one lined up.
Sherwood was given an 18 month contract but he was always a caretaker until the end of the season. The board knew it, the fans knew it, the players knew it and even Tim knew it. Levy wanted something and someone better but had to wait until the summer to sort it out. All the 18 months meant was that the end of contract compensation would be less than the usual three years. Today, the day he was sacked, it was revealed that even this short contract had an end of season break clause.
Despite his obvious shortcomings, I don’t blame Sherwood for taking the job. I blame Levy for giving it to him. Spurs wanted to challenge for honours and the top four, this season and in those to come. At the start of the season I felt Spurs were top six not top four so my dissatisfaction is not the result of over-weaning, unrealistic expectation. Levy chose to achieve his aim in an intensely competitive league by appointing a man with absolutely no managerial experience at all. It is astounding that this could happen in a club with our ambitions, a club that has spent £100m on transfers with pretentions as a global player in the game. No experience as a manager whatsoever.
He topped this staggering negligence by re-creating the caretaker experience of 2004, the darkest days in my time as a Spurs supporter. Then, Spurs entered the season confident that a 3 man injury-prone midfield with a combined age of over 90 (Anderton, Redknapp and Poyet) would last until May. Pleat took over and we scraped through, due in no small part to unsung hero Michael Brown who popped up unexpectedly in Ledley’s testimonial last night, still running and still kicking people.
The football was dire but the atmosphere desperate. The hopelessness and lack of purpose. Everything was about muddling through until the end of the season. At least in the Second Division we were working towards something.
Then and now we were just marking time until the summer. It takes away the extra incentive, the edge that turns a decent team into a competitive one, also-rans into contenders. It’s an awful feeling that transmitted itself to the fans. Loud and raucous away, the Lane was often hushed in contemplation, or, and let’s be frank, boredom. I can’t recall a time when so many said they had had enough. Sherwood is sacked 3 days before the season ticket renewal deadline. Coincidence? I doubt it.
Tim the Temp was determined to seize his chance, the reason why he took the job in the first place. He used his time to learn about being a manager and write his CV. He started well, keeping it admirably simple. He asked players to play familiar roles and brought Adebayor back into the team, where he excelled. Even in his fine play there was the lingering stench of what might have been had AVB not been so foolish as to ostracise him.
His inexperience was revealed when he tinkered with the tactics. Over a period of time we played several different formations, including, absurdly, the same 4-3-3 with inverted wingers, players out of position and a high line that got AVB the sack. At times we were a rabble, well-beaten by the good teams, shell-shocked after Liverpool and Chelsea where the motivation was as poor as the tactics. Some of the football stank the place out.
His desire to get the ball forward and reluctance to play with a defensive midfielder left us wide open in midfield. I get the theory. I saw the evidence: us being over-run, even by some limited sides. The PL is not the place to test that theory out.
Most aggravating was his search for a role and identity. Touchline arm-waving became an undignified, comical gilet-chucking spat with the Benfica manager, who chuckled at his playground psychology that had successfully wound his victim up. He then retreated to the director’s box, playing the role of all-seeing analyst. Happily waving to the elite, his peers as he no doubt hoped, as Spurs lost the return leg went down extremely poorly. As Spurs were being taken apart by Liverpool, he remained aloof and distant. I suppose he believed he looked hard and stern, I thought he looked a prat. This plus his readiness to blame players in defeat but take credit for a win gave the impression that this was more about him and less about the club, the thing I find hardest to forgive in anyone associated with Spurs.
However, Tim was better as an attacking coach. Eriksen came into his own and we scored regularly. This got us out of trouble on several occasions. West Brom away was Sherwood’s Spurs in a nutshell. First half, the most abysmal defending I ever seen, plus a missed penalty. Lucky to concede only three. But WBA sat back and we notched three of our own, Eriksen equalising in injury time.
I think also that Tim had a bit of luck – we were awful for periods against Everton, Palace, Southampton and others, Sunderland even, but they did not press home their advantage. The fixture list was kind to him at the end of the season too.
Sherwood’s 59% win record has become the equivalent of Harry’s ‘2 points from 8 games’, a mantra of self-justification but there’s truth in both statements and I’m grateful. Try telling a non-Spurs fan what he’s like – they don’t believe us. He’s learned a lot quickly and will be successful in the job that surely will be his before the season begins, provided he gets over to the players a proper defensive formation. He seems more natural now, involved and animated on the touchline without going over the top and more considered in his post-match comments.
It’s just that I did not want him to practice football management on my team. Levy should never have allowed Spurs to be in this position in the first place. Sherwood had no incentive to plan ahead. He’s blooded a few young men but there was no sense of settling the team down to pick up in August where we left off, no continuity. Good teams benefit from their experiences together in one season to emerge stronger for the next. We start afresh. We have no settled pattern or combinations. The new guy could change everything. Not rate any or all of the £100m club. Off we go again. What a waste of a season.
It’s only football so I use the following quote with a sense of perspective. It has been said that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The author was thinking about something more profound than the travails of a small club in north London but Daniel Levy would do well to reflect upon it. Once again we approach a new season without a plan let alone a manager. Players will leave, more will come in. More integration, more valuable time lost, more frustration in the club and certainly in the stands. The biggest problem of all is that this sentence could have been written at the end of almost any season since Levy took over.