When the Premier League returns, the focus will be on the football at least, but the fact that the season arrives so soon might just make the panic even more real for Tottenham Hotspur.
So far this window, no money has been spent and no players have arrived. By itself, this is an objectively bad thing – because no squad can’t be improved upon somewhere – but it looks even worse in the context of the summer we’ve had already. Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and even Everton have all spent lots of money overhauling their squads. Spurs were in need of some players this summer whatever happened, but given the scale of the spending by the other clubs, their thriftiness now looks even more worrying.
There’s still time, though, even if there isn’t an awful lot of it. But even if Spurs do make signings between now and the end of the window, history will tell you that when Tottenham, under Pochettino, sign a player after pre-season has well and truly got underway, they struggle and flop. Perhaps that’s down to the players they’ve signed, like Moussa Sissoko and Benjamin Stambouli, but it might also have to do with Pochettino’s famously heavy pre-season: the players who have come through it are ready, while those who have missed it aren’t.
On the other hand, late August signing Son Heung-Min blossomed in his second season, after a full pre-season, so perhaps Sissoko and Vincent Janssen will this year. If that happens – though it’s by no means certain, and relying on it would be a huge gamble – then all of Tottenham’s summer transfer woes would more or less be solved.
With one of the best starting XIs in the league, though, whatever happens, Tottenham are still a formidable force. But treading water whilst everyone else swims forward is never a good idea.
In an era of huge excess brought about by a TV deal without precedent, clubs have been eager to spend. But if the bubble bursts – and it surely has to – other revenue forms will become incredibly important, and only the clubs who have the best-run businesses will be able to deal with that properly.
And that’s why new stadiums are so important Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton, and why anything to get recognition in some of the league’s ‘emerging markets’ like Asia and North America, will be so important. Pre-season friendlies half-way around the world are one way, but another is partnering with the NFL.
But thinking too much about the long-term leaves a risk of getting left behind in the short-term. And the example Spurs should be worried about following is one that’s very close to home.
Back in 1997, Arsenal started to explore a move to a new ground. They needed a boost in matchday revenue streams just as badly as Spurs now need theirs, but for different reasons. In 2000, they bought land at Ashburton Grove and built their ground.
In the decade between the conception of the idea of a new stadium and its completion, football had changed dramatically. In 1997, the Premier League’s income from TV rights was £191m, from a deal signed in 1992.
In 1998, that changed, and rose to £670m over the next three year period, before passing the £1bn mark in 2001. And so essentially, Arsenal had taken a financial hit to build a stadium at the worst possible time: when the Gunners decided they needed to build a bigger ground, money gained on matchdays was the biggest earner for Premier League clubs, followed by commercial partnerships both at home and overseas.
Back then, Manchester United had a huge 70,000 seater stadium and worldwide appeal, and Arsenal needed to keep up. But by the time they were packing up boxes and moving to the newly-named Emirates Stadium, the world of Premier League football had changed. Money from tickets and half-time pies – while still an important revenue stream – was no longer the biggest one. Selling the rights to televise their games had become bigger.
Arsenal, though, didn’t see a need to panic. They felt that surely TV companies couldn’t afford to keep this bubble expanding. After all, paying over £1bn for TV rights was surely too much? But it kept growing and growing. And, perhaps most importantly, so did the overseas rights – TV companies outside of the UK buying the rights to show the games in their own countries. The Premier League is the most popular league in the world, and Arsenal were, in some ways, the victims of that.
There were two reasons for that: one was that they refused to join in with the increased spending. In part, they couldn’t because of stadium repayments and their financial structure, but it also had to do with a firm belief that the club would be able to resist the bursting of the TV bubble. If they didn’t spend beyond their means, they’d be the only club who came out of the Premier League football crash in a solid state. But the crash never came.
The other problem that Arsenal faced was one which was perhaps less foreseen: billionaires started buying Premier League clubs, as the game changed once again.
Both problems are lessons to Spurs over the next few years as they move into their new stadium. The on-pitch difficulties of moving into a new ground are one thing, but the off-pitch ones are incredibly important. But that leaves Spurs in a delicate bind.
Last month, Daniel Levy rang the Nasdaq opening bell in Times Square in New York and spoke about ‘unsustainable’ spending. In Levy’s view, not only is the current spate of spending on player transfers too high, it’s also dangerous for the football club. He spoke of the club’s history, and his desire to hand over the reins of the club one day with the business on a solid footing.
“The stadium is fundamental because with that we get more fans and more income and that’s the way to clearly have a more sustainable business.” – Daniel Levy
Reading between the lines, Levy seems – like most onlookers, to be fair – to foresee a huge bursting of the TV rights bubble and a resulting crash. And if that comes, just like Arsenal in 2006, Spurs’ new stadium will keep them afloat and put them in a good position. If it doesn’t come, though – or doesn’t comes soon – then Spurs could also be in the same position as their neighbours found themselves in a decade ago.
That is left behind after refusing to spend their money in order to invest it on sustainable growth and make sure they had enough for a rainy day. It’s eminently sensible, but it’s also risky too, because if the bubble doesn’t burst then it doesn’t matter how sensible Spurs were – they’ll have made the wrong choice.
Still, there’s a difference between investing wisely in your playing staff and spending nothing at all. And even though there’s still almost a month left in the transfer window, you get the feeling that Spurs have taken the financial sensibility to an extreme if that’s the case. But you do start to wonder if it has something to do with refusing to pay what Levy and – possibly – Pochettino see as too much.
And if that’s true, then maybe Spurs have taken their first step on the road to looking very much like Arsenal did a decade ago. The difference is, squeezing out a Champions League spot every year for the next decade is tougher now than it was back then.