Has Pochettino’s dinner date with Levy eased the Tottenham tensions? | David Hytner | Football
To Daniel Levy, the numbers added up, and to Jack Clarke, the 18-year-old Leeds winger, it was a dream move, the chance to continue his development at Tottenham in the Premier League. Levy had been alerted to Clarke’s potential by statistical analysis of his performances last season and, at a cost of around £10m rising to £11.5m, the Spurs chairman felt it all made sense.
Levy closed the deal at the end of June but there would be one problem: Mauricio Pochettino did not want Clarke in his squad this season. Leeds had asked for a loan-back at the beginning of the negotiations only to be told by Levy there was no chance of it happening. It was never on the table and then, all of a sudden, it was.
Clarke came to London, posed for pictures with the Spurs shirt and headed straight back on the train to Leeds where he is contracted to spend the season on loan. Spurs have a recall option in January.
It has come to feel a little awkward for Clarke, who was considered to be a fine impact substitute during his debut season last time out, particularly ideal to throw on when Leeds were chasing a game. He made 22 Championship appearances, 18 off the bench.
This season Clarke has yet to kick a ball in the league. He was an unused substitute in Leeds’s first two matches in the competition and he has not been in the squad for the past three. He has started twice in the Carabao Cup but was taken off at half-time against Stoke on Tuesday.
The problem has been that Leeds have six loan players and, under Championship rules, can name only five in the match-day squad. Ben White and Jack Harrison are first choices, Illan Meslier is the backup goalkeeper and Eddie Nketiah and Helder Costa are ahead of Clarke in the pecking order.
There will surely be injuries and suspensions to the loanees, together with fluctuations in form, but, at present, Clarke’s situation is a long way from being ideal for him or Spurs.
The story raises all sorts of questions at Spurs, one of which relates to the functionality of their recruitment strategy. Levy wanted Clarke, he saw him as a useful squad member and paid a fair amount of money for him, but Pochettino would not even look at the player in training. It is inconceivable that Pochettino did not discuss Clarke’s readiness for the Premier League with Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds manager and his mentor.
What it certainly does do is shine a light on the sense that all has not been well at Spurs over the summer and goes some way towards explaining why Pochettino has been so irritable of late.
Remember when Pochettino said at the end of July that the club ought to change his job title back to coach from manager as he was in the dark over transfer activity? “I am not in charge and I know nothing about the situation of my players,” Pochettino said. “Sell, buy players; sign contract, not sign contract – it is not in my hands. It is in the club’s hands and Daniel Levy’s hands.”
As he prepares for Sunday’s visit to Arsenal, Pochettino is on familiar ground – burning with ambition but frustrated by sobering reality, which is principally shaped by finance. But there was also the sight of him moving to draw a line under the recent friction, to look ahead with optimism. Pochettino had dinner with Levy on Thursday and it was hard not to see the meeting as being designed to clear the air.
“We talked about everything,” Pochettino said. “We needed to have a conversation last week and this week it was the same. The most important thing is to help the club and the team to perform and be on the same page. To communicate in a good place always helps.
“Sometimes our vision in the professional side cannot be the same and sometimes [we] can have some disagreements. But the most important thing is that the personal relationship is still strong. This morning Daniel showed me a picture that we took on the last day at White Hart Lane where we are together with the coaching staff and his family and he said: ‘Look, our personal relationship is still there.’”
Pochettino says that Spurs fans are now seeing “version 6.0” of him, as he starts his sixth season with them, and he wanted the summer to mark a new beginning.
Positive things did happen, especially the club record £55.5m signing of Tanguy Ndombele, a player whom Pochettino had championed. Ryan Sessegnon joined for £25m and Giovani Lo Celso signed on loan. The net spend stands at £59.9m, although the window remains open in many European countries.
But in a summer in which Manchester City spent £60m on João Cancelo and £62.6m on Rodri, was it enough to lay the groundwork for a title push, to close the gap to the champions and Liverpool? Deep down, Pochettino knows the answer.
Pochettino is acutely aware that if Clarke was not ready, then Sessegnon, at 19, will need a season to assimilate. Ndombele, 22, and Lo Celso, 23, are also far from being the finished articles. Sessegnon arrived with a hamstring injury and has yet to work with the squad while Lo Celso had a disrupted pre-season.
The rather glib reading of Spurs’s summer is that they have finally signed some players and, having reached the Champions League final in June,are equipped to take the last step to glory. Pochettino knows he must manage this perception; that Spurs remain on a different track to City and Liverpool.
“The situation the people can believe is that Tottenham was so active in the transfer market but be careful with that as we can create an expectation that is not real,” Pochettino said last week. “We need to give time to the young players.”
Pochettino understands the market trends are for big clubs to sign younger players with potential; top internationals can be prohibitively expensive. And he understands how Spurs’s lavish stadium has impacted on transfer budgets. But it does not stop him from being frustrated or having the occasional moan.
He can veer off-message in the emotional aftermath of a game and he did so last Sunday following the 1-0 home defeat by Newcastle when he complained he had never known his squad to be more unsettled at the start of a season.
There are problems with a clutch of players, the biggest headache for Pochettino being whether Christian Eriksen will be prised away before Monday’s deadline. Eriksen, who has entered the final year of his contract, has said that he is open to a new challenge.
Jan Vertonghen, who is also in his last year, has not yet kicked a ball and what is going on with Danny Rose? He was left out of the tour of Asia to allow him to find a club but he did not do so and has since started in every Premier League game. Rose’s next interview will be a good one. There is uncertainty, too, over Toby Alderweireld – another key player in his final year – and Serge Aurier and Victor Wanyama are up for sale.
Pochettino is obsessed by the smooth flow of positive energy; he cannot tolerate disturbances in the force and it is no wonder that he has been a little up and down. Plainly, some players have had or do have their minds elsewhere during the week. His post-Newcastle comment that unity in the squad was “still far, far away” was a stark admission and the European transfer window cannot close soon enough. Pochettino needs to know who he can count on – and how quickly.
Yet his pre-Arsenal message was one of passion and defiance. There were rumours on Thursday night that Pochettino was about to walk out on Spurs. To say that he gave them short shrift would be an understatement.
“Every single period needs to be put in context,” Pochettino said. “My position was always to make sure we can be competitive again. Of course, when you are not on the same page or side there’s no point to be happy. Performances or results or some reality I describe in pre-season can change your perception of me but I am still the same person with the same principles and the same big heart.”