Spurs have one of the great stadiums and all it cost them was the team | Jonathan Wilson
There were always going to be boos from one end of the ground or the other and, as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side pulled off another of those increasingly familiar job-saving victories, they came from Spurs fans. At half-time, at full time and, probably most significantly, when Lucas Moura was taken off for Steven Bergwijn. By the end there were chants against the chairman, Daniel Levy. It seems absurd to say it 11 games into the manager’s reign but already for Nuno Espírito Santo the situation is critical.
Manchester United were more solid than they have been. There may be problems ahead if Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Paul Pogba have to go without regular football for a protracted spell, but for now the 3-4-1-2 has brought short-term relief. Solskjær at least has the fallback of good players who can do brilliant things.
With the exception of Son Heung-min – and, being generous, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg – nobody at Spurs is playing well at the moment. There is nobody in this side who one can really imagine being part of a successful Tottenham team in two or three years’ time. Everybody, from Harry Kane to Eric Dier, from Dele Alli to Cristian Romero, seems not quite what he used to be. This is what happens when a squad goes stale en masse.
Even Nuno seems diminished, the sage of Molineux turned into something altogether damper. The reserve that seems like intelligent restraint when things are going well can quickly come to seem ineffectual when results and performances go awry. And as everything declines, the poverty of the team and its football is only highlighted by the magnificence of the surroundings. Spurs have one of the greatest stadiums in the world; all it cost them was the team.
In that sense the fury at Levy is understandable. Future generations of Tottenham fans may have cause to be extremely grateful to him – without excess spending, he has provided the infrastructure for Tottenham to be a great club. But they may equally come to regard him as an eccentric who built a magnificent garage with every conceivable amenity and then chose to house within it only a rusted old jalopy.
This generation, certainly, is entitled to feel frustrated. It is not even a case of wondering whether the cost was too great: could they maybe have scaled back on the luxury and bought a midfielder? There is also now the sense that, on top of the economic gamble the club took, as well as having to suffer some shortfall of investment on the playing side to achieve the new stadium, a series of bad decisions have been made.
It was not just in those final couple of years under Mauricio Pochettino that there was a lack of expenditure on players: it was that too few players were sold. Entropy is the curse against which all managers must constantly fight: if the manager is to establish a dynasty, if he is to defy Bela Guttmann’s Three-Year Rule, there has to be constant rejuvenation.
That is perhaps particularly true of managers who demand the intensity that Pochettino does (which is why he is such a curious fit for Paris Saint-Germain). The model there, perhaps, different as their football may be, is his fellow Argentinian Diego Simeone, now in his 11th season at Atlético Madrid, thanks at least in part to a capacity for offloading players at the right time (often bringing them back once they’ve been refreshed and come to appreciate the value of his demanding style).
That process was never enacted. Perhaps the club was wary of offloading players who had made them seem worthy of the new stadium. Perhaps there were few buyers. Perhaps the focus on the stadium was a distraction. Perhaps Levy’s notoriously tough bargaining was to blame. But whatever the reason, the result was stagnation.
Even then the situation was soluble. Even with the financial hit of the pandemic, and the gleaming new arena sitting empty, Pochettino had credit in the bank. He could have been given time to reconstruct his squad. But instead Levy made his gravest error: he not merely dismissed Pochettino, he also appointed José Mourinho, a decision that looks increasingly inexplicable with hindsight, as though he felt the need to act like a big club by appointing a big-club manager. There were only three problems: Mourinho is not a man to build on a limited budget, his best days were at least a decade in the past, and a big-club manager comes with a big-club cost.
The consequence is the current malaise: a manager everybody knows was nowhere near the first choice struggling with a squad whose morale is broken, in a first-rate stadium that offers a constant reminder that only two years ago Tottenham were in the Champions League final. His appointment has undermined faith not only in Nuno himself but also in the sporting director, Fabio Paratici.
Underlying all of that is the status anxiety that seemed to underlie the reluctance seriously to contemplate selling Kane – a symbol of big-clubdom – the fee for whom could have begun the process of rejuvenation. That is assuming Paratici could have been trusted to spend it well – he may have been serenaded by the fans on his arrival but his early record does little to inspire confidence.
That something has to give is clear. But getting rid of Nuno, or even Paratici, just puts Spurs back in the position they were in six months ago when Mourinho was dismissed. This crisis is far deeper rooted than that.