For most clubs, starting the season with a home win and a draw at Manchester City – a team that has amassed 198 points on their way to lifting successive Premier League titles – would represent positivity. Tottenham are not most clubs, though; in fact, they are in a rather unique position. Without either extremely deep pockets or a rich history of challenging at the very top, they are nevertheless expected to impress yet again this season, but Mauricio Pochettino appears far from happy with the situation. On Sunday, Spurs lost to a Newcastle United side on the brink of crisis themselves, further magnifying the troubles in north London.
Not for the first time during Pochettino’s reign, the club is struggling with off-the-field problems spilling onto the pitch. There are new expectations to manage – their incredible stadium, which was only complete a matter of months ago, was a statement of intent, but it needs Champions League football to truly fulfil it.
Famously, chairman Daniel Levy has stuck to a very rigid wage structure which is not comparable with the teams gunning for the same honours, placing a glass ceiling on progress. Pochettino’s frustrations are understandable because, despite some unfair criticism, he has worked wonders under such constraints, keeping Spurs in Europe’s premier club competition – reaching the final last year – and on the cusp of a title challenge for the past three years.
But big contract renewals aren’t as regular an occurrence as they might be, and part of the current situation can be attributed to the fact that three first-team stars have less than a year remaining on their respective deals.
Quite why nobody (especially Manchester City) activated Toby Alderweireld’s £25m release clause remains a mystery, but at least he is still playing. Jan Vertonghen is yet to play a minute, while Christian Eriksen has started only the City game. The Dane came off the bench to inspire a late revival on the opening day against Aston Villa, and while he could not do the same against Newcastle, the impetus he gives the side is still patently clear.
The context of his exclusion is slightly different to Vertonghen’s; he has not hidden his desire to leave Spurs for a new challenge, with Real Madrid his ideal destination. With the European transfer window open until next week, it makes sense to see him taken out of the firing line, and also explains why Pochettino is a little more on edge than usual.
If Vertonghen starts, we don’t concede that goal. If Eriksen starts, we’d have created much more. I’m sorry but regardless of how spineless the players were, Pochettino is making some ridiculous decisions but some Spurs fans are so far up his backside to notice. I’m fuming man.
— LP ☬🛫 (@thfclp__) August 25, 2019
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume the Danish playmaker envisaged more interest in his signature when he informed Spurs of his decision. Levy is world renowned as a tough negotiator, and Real Madrid have found it particularly tough to deal with him in the past. He placed a reported £60m price tag on Eriksen’s head, which has seen interest cool in the Spanish capital, though Zinedine Zidane’s desire to bring number one target Paul Pogba to the Santiago Bernabéu has been another factor. Previous interest from Barcelona can be filed under ‘tentative’, while Juventus’ name was also mentioned without anything concrete emerging. Eriksen, while undoubtedly a talented enough player to play for any of those teams, appear to have accepted he will have to stay put for this season.
An offer of a new contract has reportedly been rejected, much to Spurs’ bewilderment, but it is easy to see why Eriksen wants to make the next step. Pochettino has transformed the club and the level of expectation, without the financial backing to do it; he has relied on the slower development of the same players, but perhaps they are reaching their ceiling. This summer’s net spend of £74.6million, on Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon, the loan with an obligation to buy of Real Betis’ Giovani Lo Celso and Fulham youngster Ryan Sessegnon, isn’t enough to make them seriously competitive alongside the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, because it came after 18 months with no signings at all.
Keeping the incredibly talented squad together and making sure it works to its absolute maximum is all Pochettino can do, and it hasn’t yet been enough. Looking at the lack of ideas on show without him, selling Eriksen would be a silly idea, possibly even sillier than losing him for nothing next summer. With no way to replace him, they risk the frustrations of the Villa and Newcastle games becoming regular, potentially permanent issues.
The hope is that Lo Celso will step into his shoes, which could conceivably happen. But Spurs would be better off reintegrating their main creative source and pushing on again, before reshuffling once Eriksen departs unless, by some miracle, he signs a new deal. But it is a tough situation; the club does not have the resources to match the ambitions of some of the people they have so far managed to keep. That is people, not players, because Pochettino has flirted with the exit door too.
Logically, there is sense for both a potential buyer and the player to wait. Eriksen holds all the cards, and in a similar way to Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal last season, will have better offers if he does not have a transfer fee on his head. Real would see a door open for them to sign both him and Pogba, rather than one or the other; time is certainly on his side, too, with Eriksen turning 28 by the time he is free to make his move. The status quo could suit all parties, particularly a Tottenham side that looks flat without the Dane.
Harry De Cosemo – follow him on Twitter