Tottenham Hotspur have had their eyes locked on making history all season, first with the stadium move and then with the Champions League campaign. Only now, after that 2-0 defeat in Madrid last night, can they face those pressing questions that have surrounded the club all year. Questions about their direction and ambition, and what comes next now that this this magical European tour is over.
Mauricio Pochettino has fed that sense too, saying for months that the club would have to start a “new project” in the summer, suggesting that after five years of hard work and over-achievement that it would be time for a re-think or a re-launch. But of course when you have a final this big to prepare for, all of those questions can wait.
But now all of those parked questions need answers. What are Tottenham going to do this summer? Who are they going to sell and who are they going to buy? Are they going to build on this run? And the question that has lingered over them all year: is Pochettino going to stay to keep re-building?
That is the biggest question of all and when Pochettino was asked in his post-match press conference if he could clarify his future, he did not want to answer it. “It is not the moment now to talk too much, as it can be interpreted in different ways,” he said. But he repeated his reminder that there would have to be serious discussions ahead about the future of the club. “It was amazing to reach the club’s first Champions League final. Now it is about staying calm, change the mood, and for sure we will have time to talk.”
There is no reason to believe that Pochettino will not be manager when Spurs start their Premier League season in two months’ time. He still has four years left on the contract he signed one year ago. Even last week he said that people who assumed that he would leave Spurs just because a richer club came along were fundamentally misreading his “romantic” character. “In the last five years, the people say ‘if Mauricio receives an offer from a different club…ah yes…’, and the people believe that I am going to act like another person. But it’s true, I am a little bit romantic. And I have this spirit, like Che Guevara. I am a fighter.”
For Pochettino to walk out on five years of work at Spurs would be to go back on all of that. And yet the question will still remain ajar until there is a definitive closing of the door. And in a political sense that ambiguity might even suit Pochettino, and function as leverage, while he is still pushing for backing behind the scenes.
Because that is the big issue facing Daniel Levy in the next few weeks, and what Pochettino’s talk of projects ultimately comes down to. How much will he be backed in the transfer market this summer? How much money will Tottenham commit on signings and salaries? Will the squad be better next year, or worse?
It is easy enough to compare Spurs this summer with Liverpool last year. They lost the Champions League final but responded by spending £67m on Allison, having spent £75m on Virgil van Dijk six months before. 12 months later they are unquestionably better, they have won the Champions League, and they nearly won the Premier League too. If Tottenham could just add two world-class players in key positions, the theory goes, then they might be able to do a Liverpool next season too.
But are Spurs really operating from a position of that much strength? To hold onto their best players and buy the most expensive centre-back and the most expensive goalkeeper of all time? Not quite.
For a start they do not have as much money. They have spent nearly £1billion building their new stadium and the club’s debt is now approaching £600m. They simply do not have the option of an extravagant summer spending spree. If they want to spend money, they will have to generate it first.
But there is another difference between Liverpool last summer and Spurs this year: Liverpool kept hold of all of their best players. Philippe Coutinho had been sold to Barcelona six months before, but there have been no regrettable departures after that.
Spurs may not be able to keep this team together in the same way. The crown jewels - Harry Kane and Dele Alli - are secured, but there are big questions over other key players.
Toby Alderweireld has been a rock this season but he has a £25million release clause this summer. Jose Mourinho wanted Manchester United to pay much more than that for him last year, but Ed Woodward did not, and it would still be a surprise if no-one meets it. Christian Eriksen has one year left on his Spurs contract and unless they can agree a new deal he will have to be sold too. The club are open to offers for Kieran Trippier - Napoli are keen - and they will need to make a decision on Danny Rose’s future too. He has two years left but would like to stay if Spurs offer him an extended deal.
But those are four first team players, and there is no question that Eriksen, Alderweireld and Rose have been three of the best players of the Pochettino era. If they were to go, then Spurs would be getting worse before they could even start to try getting better. They would certainly not replace those three with players of the same level and experience. They would have to buy younger and hungrier, and hope to be stronger two or three years down the line.
There is a strong argument that for Spurs to build on the progress of this unique season, or even just to stay still, they will have to push beyond their comfort zone. To try to find the money for a new deal for Eriksen or even for Alderweireld. To make sure that they do not regress into a less savvy team again next season.
But do that, and then how do they afford the refresh that this squad so obviously needs? Everyone knows that the last player they signed was Lucas Moura, fully 16 months ago. They have looked tired and stale this season, and the fact that they were even playing in Madrid last night despite that is a huge achievement. But through the efforts of Pochettino and the players they have effectively gotten away with that year of transfer inactivity. Another barren year like that, and they will surely not be so lucky again.
So what is it going to be: stability or transition? Consolidation or renewal? Money for established players or for new hungry youngsters? What, ultimately, is the “new project” at Tottenham going to look like? And how are they going to pay for it? At this point, none of the answers are obvious. As Pochettino says, they have some talking to do.
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