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If there remained any uncertainty as to Tottenham Hotspur's increasingly prominent position near the top of the English football hierarchy, Antonio Conte's recent comments dispelled the doubt. The Chelsea boss stated rather forwardly that:
“If [Spurs] don't win the title, it's not a tragedy. If they don't arrive in the Champions League, it's not a tragedy. If they go out in the first round of the Champions League, it's not a tragedy. If they go out after the first game that they play in the Europa League, it's not a tragedy.
“Every team has to understand what their ambitions are. If their ambitions are to fight for the title or win the Champions League, you must buy expensive players. Otherwise you continue to stay in your level. It's simple. My question is this: What are Tottenham's expectations?”
With those words, Tottenham’s status as perennial Premier League title challengers – and potentially, one day soon, champions – seemed to be sealed. By engaging in underhand tactics, publicly criticising his opposition and city rivals, Conte made clear just how much of a threat he feels Spurs are to his Chelsea side.
There is a history – at times enthralling; at other times boring – of psychological warfare between managers in the English top flight. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger started it, José Mourinho built on it, and now mind games are seen as common practise.
Conte was probably attempting to get under the skin of his fellow manager, Mauricio Pochettino, by questioning Tottenham’s approach to the transfer market. But the statement is unlikely to alter a strategy that seems embedded and has ensured great success, even if silverware is yet to show for it.
Spurs are the only member of last season’s Premier League top six to have made a profit in this summer’s transfer window. In an era of extravagance to the point of grotesquery, they have stood apart. And they have done so deliberately.
Discussing his club’s approach, chairman Daniel Levy recently said that:
“We have a duty to manage the club appropriately. Some of the activity that is going on at the moment is just impossible for it to be sustainable. Somebody spending £200million more than they're earning, eventually it catches up with you. And you can't keep doing it.
“Our position on transfers is that we have a coach who very much believes in the academy, so unless we can find a player that makes a difference we would rather give one of our young academy players a chance.
“The academy is important because if we produce our own players we don't have to spend £20m or £30m on a player. An academy player has that affinity with the club and that's what the fans want to see.”
Levy’s statement came before Conte’s, but the Tottenham ethos is unlikely to change. They will remain committed to sustainability and selective signings, because it has brought them sterling results in recent times and the direction of travel is a positive one.
TOTTENHAM’S CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT
This is highlighted by league position statistics since Pochettino took charge in 2014. Of the Premier League top six, Spurs are the only one to have made progress for two consecutive seasons, going from fifth to third to second from 2014/15 through 2016/17.
Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have enjoyed just one campaign of improvement in the same time, while Manchester United’s position has declined each season.
Tottenham have also been one of the more consistent sides of the group, with a positional range of three that only the two Manchester clubs can beat. In this respect, Chelsea have in fact got the worst record in the time period specified with a range of nine thanks to a deeply disappointing tenth-place finish in 2015/16.
Spurs’ average position punctuates their consistency is matched with quality – their average finish over the past three seasons is 3.3 – only Manchester City can top this with three, while Chelsea (four), Manchester United (five) and Liverpool (six) are behind.
Tottenham’s long-term thinking can be backed up both through financials and in terms of the age profile of the individuals their starting line-up tends to be comprised of.
They may have finished seven points behind Conte’s side last season, but they paid a much smaller price to achieve that result. The overall cost of Pochettino’s regular line-up was £90.6million, a figure which pales in comparison to the £218.2million Chelsea spent to assemble their XI.
What this meant was that, compared to the champions, Tottenham paid £11.6million less per player. In addition, they paid a mere £1.1million per point gained, while Chelsea paid over twice that much (£2.3million per point gained).
The profiles of the teams fielded were telling, too.
Of the top ten youngest sides to take to Premier League pitches last term, four belonged to Spurs. The only other top six sides to make the top ten were Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United (once). And the latter only did so thanks to their line-up on the last day of the season against Crystal Palace, a match of relatively little significance.
Thanks to their age and upside, Pochettino’s team will only improve in the years to come – assuming the core of the squad is kept together. This belief is given weight by their improvement of position in each of the last two seasons. And they will do this while also spending wisely.
Conte is aware that Tottenham pose a legitimate threat, hence his recent comments. But it will take more than mind games to make Spurs re-think a strategy that so obviously works.