SIR Alex Ferguson’s infamous sarcasm has taken on a different meaning.
Lads, it’s Tottenham. Just Tottenham, a bit of a joke, making neat passes in midfield, but only making up the numbers in the English Premier League, a routine three points and a reminder to others.
Never end up like Tottenham, lads. They’re pretty, but pretty vacant. There’s no depth, nothing to see beyond the unblemished white jerseys and the largely empty trophy cabinet.
Ferguson’s legendarily brief talk was condescending, but fair. Spurs were a classic example of style over substance, nice to look at, but easy to beat. Blow them over and move on.
Not anymore. What was once sarcasm now sounds sinister. On Sunday, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel could borrow Fergie’s words to issue a warning.
Lads, it’s Tottenham. Settled Tottenham, a legitimate trophy contender, full of goal-scoring options and attacking alternatives on the bench, tough to beat, even harder to out-run and ready to do a little mocking of their own.
Their rebuilding is mostly done, within two transfer windows. Just like that. Antonio Conte might move through clubs like the Road Runner, leaving devastation in his wake, but his cartoonish approach to discipline, fitness and control is vital when impatience is a virtue.
The Italian could be mocking his rivals now, ridiculing their perceived inability to do the bleeding obvious and match the right players with the right system, instead of mimicking the toddler who keeps sticking the round piece into the square hole of his first jigsaw puzzle.
Conte could even riff on Fergie’s old Tottenham dig.
Lads, it’s a rebuilding exercise. Get on with it. Pick one of the fashionable tactical templates currently on offer. Sign players who fit. Dump those who don’t. Drill the lot until they either faint, vomit, sulk or improve and pick the best XI in the most straightforward example of natural selection since Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands.
Suddenly, Conte is ahead and his London rivals are playing catch up.
Even before Spurs’ visit to Chelsea on Sunday, Tuchel had already expressed his admiration for Tottenham’s rapid progress under Conte, admitting that the Blues’ third-placed finish of last season will be difficult to repeat (especially as Conte will set his sights even higher).
But unlike Conte, the Chelsea manager has been circumspect in the transfer market as the club undergoes a strange transformation.
Apparently, Tuchel needs time, just like Erik ten Hag at Manchester United. They both need a lengthy grace period, a rare commodity that hasn’t really been seen in the EPL since Arsene Wenger retired. Patience and managerial appointments go together like Crown Paints on Liverpool jerseys. They belong to a different, simpler era.
Apparently, Tuchel gets a pass due to last season’s shenanigans at Stamford Bridge, which are typically glossed over now, as if they involved something innocuous and daft, like a drunken uncle falling on a bridesmaid at a family wedding, rather than a disgraced Russian oligarch trying to flog his assets after Russia’s illegal invasion of a sovereign state.
Still, Tuchel currently enjoys a generosity of spirit, shall we say, with regards to Chelsea’s transfer and recruitment strategy that hasn’t been shared with ten Hag at United.
To recap, Romelu Lukaku has yet to be replaced, after returning to Inter Milan just a year after joining Chelsea for the obscene sum of £97.5 million. Rather than reach for the Band-Aids and patch up whatever remains at the Bridge, Tuchel has taken the unusual decision to cut his losses on Timo Werner, too. The German striker is returning to his former club, RB Leipzig, in another heavily discounted deal.
In truth, poor Werner often gave the impression that he’d wandered onto the Stamford Bridge turf as a pitch invader, in full kit, and ran around in the hope of avoiding detection. It worked. He avoided team-mates, the ball and the goalmouth most of the time.
Tuchel is now left with Mason Mount, the only forward to reach double figures in the league last season, the mercurial Kai Havertz and the tireless Raheem Sterling, a committed performer not quite blessed with the consistency of a conventional striker.
At least United still boast the services of Cristiano Ronaldo – for this weekend at least – but Chelsea are short of goal-scoring options ahead of a London derby that could be billed as a battle between the impressively organised and the bafflingly disorganised.
Conte moved early, making the most of two transfer windows by convincing Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to stop treating the club’s recruitment policy like the closing day sale of a defunct department store in Orchard Road. In January, the outstanding Dejan Kulusevski arrived, a move that echoed Liverpool’s sterling work in signing Luis Diaz in the same period.
Indeed, if Chelsea’s transfer and tactical uncertainty are increasingly making them look Manchester United-lite, then Spurs are doing a passable impression of the Reds and Manchester City, completing their hirings and firings relatively early and with minimal fuss.
Richarlison, Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Fraser Forster and Djed Spence came in. Steven Bergwijn, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Jack Clarke and Joe Rodon went out and Conte may still consider offers for Sergio Reguilon, Harry Winks, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani lo Celso, displaying a ruthlessness missing at both Chelsea and United.
Conte has re-established the high back three that won him the title at Chelsea (a club not keen to take him back) and reasserted a strong, attacking central midfield that is clearly missing at United (a club that rejected the chance to hire him).
Even now, such snobbery and misplaced caution are hard to fathom. Conte fixes broken clubs or kicks sleeping ones until they wake. He’s a short-term solution for a short-term league that is forever one game from a crisis (prepare for the hysteria if United lose at Brentford.)
Conte fixes broken clubs or kicks sleeping ones until they wake. He’s a short-term solution for a short-term league that is forever one game from a crisis.
Tuchel, meanwhile, persists with a ponderous, deliberate system, built around two sitting midfielders, that often isolates forwards and feels counterproductive. It’s all a bit slow.
Chelsea, like United, continue to search for both a tactical approach that suits their existing players and new players that suit their tactical approach. They haven’t succeeded in either.
Their respective rebuilding projects are not short of legitimate excuses. Their squad problems are real. But Tuchel and ten Hag both know where to look for an uncomfortable answer.
Lads, it’s Tottenham.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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