Winning the window: Are Tottenham really kings of the transfer market?
First Tottenham lost the summer transfer window. Then they won the summer transfer window. Then, once again, they lost it.
Or so the narrative of their season has gone. It reflects the rush to judgment that produces knee-jerk reactions and the nonsensical way that hypothetical league tables are seemingly assembled on the basis of transfer business alone, ignoring the question of how newcomers are integrated, which players are retained and whether signings were even necessary.
It also shows how different conclusions can be drawn from different points in a season when the most definitive verdict of all can only be reached at its end. And yet, while they were exaggerated for effect, there is an element of truth in each assessment so far, even if the first, in particular, was ludicrously premature.
When the season began, Tottenham were the only Premier League club who were yet to make a signing. It made them losers for those who draw a simplistic connection between spending and success, between supposed statements of intent and the apparent lack of ambition conveyed by a seeming reluctance to splash the cash. But at that point, the Manchester clubs had spent more than £100 million apiece and Arsenal and Liverpool had broken club records to recruit Alexandre Lacazette and Mohamed Salah respectively. By standing still, Tottenham were going backwards. Or so the theory went.
Fast forward a few weeks and Spurs looked second only to Manchester City among English teams. Continuity was king. They had not tried to fix something that was not broken. They had not disrupted a successful formula by trying to integrate too many expensive additions. They had eviscerated Real Madrid with 10 starters who were at the club last season and destroyed Liverpool with nine.
The club-record buy, Davinson Sanchez, their belated and most eye-catching piece of business, was excelling. By signing Fernando Llorente, they had secured an upgrade on Vincent Janssen as Harry Kane's deputy with the added benefit of annoying Chelsea, who had looked favourites to sign the striker. Tottenham had been savvy. They had not felt the need to join the footballing arms race and were benefiting.
Until opinions changed again.
They only scored six goals in six games. They only took two points from a possible nine against West Brom, Leicester and Watford. Sterility became an issue. So, too, Tottenham's lack of strength in depth compared to their big-spending peers. When Dele Alli was out of form, when Toby Alderweireld was injured, when Sanchez was suspended, when Victor Wanyama has barely been seen all season, a squad looked stretched.
And then Mauricio Pochettino legitimised the two strands of criticism that Spurs had lost the window. Last Friday, and before the 5-1 win over Stoke, the Tottenham manager noted that "we signed good players but it was so late." Chairman Daniel Levy's fondness for end-of-window brinkmanship may make more sense in fiscal than footballing terms. Deprived of preseason with new teammates, is it a reason why late additions like Llorente and Serge Aurier or, in previous years Moussa Sissoko and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou have had slow or mixed starts?
Spurs, unlike the rest of the big six, had ended the window without a flagship signing or a truly expensive attacker. It was notable that Pochettino described the £40m Sanchez as "a 21-year-old." It was factually accurate; it was also a way of illustrating that his biggest buy was a rookie defender, another work in progress, whereas his peers signed finishers who were supposed to be the finished article.
The reality is that, funded by Kyle Walker's sale to Man City and including the fee from Schalke for Nabil Bentaleb, Pochettino made a transfer-market profit in the summer. Over five years, Spurs' net spend has only been £2m. They have won the transfer market by being pound-for-pound the best team of the big six. Yet when coming third and second, Tottenham filled a vacuum in a two-year period when both Manchester clubs underperformed as, in the first of those seasons, did both Chelsea and Liverpool.
Now City have been transformed by buying and coaching. Tottenham have looked largely to coaching, posing the question if exponential improvement is possible every year. In reality, it is probably not. Ben Davies, Kieran Trippier and Harry Winks have kicked on but Alli, who progressed rapidly in each of his first two seasons at the club, has not again this year. Tottenham remain broadly the same side: indeed, with Sanchez suspended, Pochettino could name an 11 without a summer signing against City on Saturday.
Context has made his job harder. Sooner or later, big spenders were going to stop punching below their financial weight. Tottenham are punching well above theirs. Their dealings put them in the black in the summer. Their wage bill is probably the sixth highest. Over several years, they have been transfer-market winners. Should they finish sixth this season, they may be deemed losers.
That would be wrong.
Money talks, and Tottenham have less of it than five other clubs. They have spent it later, in lesser quantities and never on the game's superstars. And sooner or later, that is likely to come at a different kind of cost. But for now and without their rivals' resources, theirs is a different definition of winning the window.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.