And so the knives are being sharpened for Jose Mourinho. Indeed, by the time you’ve read this, Daniel Levy might even have conquered his queasiness over the scale of the payout required and done the deed.
By Dave Bowler
I would never qualify as a Mourinho apologist but in this particular instance, and heinous as Tottenham’s performance against Dinamo Zagreb in the Europa League was, not all of the blame can be laid at The Tarnished One’s door.
Regular readers of this column – it’s not too late to get psychological help – will have already picked through some thoughts on just how the season without crowds has impacted on teams, West Ham and Liverpool in particular, some for better, some for worse.
Beyond specific teams though, I don’t think there has ever been a more difficult season to manage a football club. Take Spurs and take Hugo Lloris’ comments after the Zagreb game.
“I hope everyone in the changing room feels responsible”. Lloris is not a rent-a-quote footballer, not one who courts controversy week after week.
By and large, his statements are measured and those above should be ringing alarm bells, not just at Tottenham, but at football clubs around the land for they speak to an issue that has been rife for a number of years – too many clubs carry too many passengers who coast along on far too much money and can often drag down the dressing room with their, at best, apathy and at worst, open hostility.
The presence of crowds can often dilute this and that’s what managers have been fighting this season. Do you think that some Tottenham players or Celtic players would have dared to stroll around as they have this season if they were playing in grounds full of thousands of their fans? Not a chance.
And while we should accept and understand that for some players, the challenges of this season have been tough, for others, Covid has offered a perfect opportunity to have a season off on full pay. Managers can do their best to motivate, but having 40,000 voices turning on you inside a stadium can often focus the mind that bit more clearly.
It is a self inflicted wound on the part of many clubs and their managers too. Clubs have squads that are bloated beyond any sensible level. Yes, for some there are more European games now and that stretches squads and so there is perhaps some sense in it.
But if you are, for instance, Brighton, Crystal Palace, Newcastle, West Brom et al, you have 38 games plus the two cup competitions which, in some cases, you will quite transparently do all you can to be knocked out of immediately. So 40, 41 games over what is, ordinarily, a nine month or 41 week season. Knock out four weeks for international breaks and you are still playing, on average, barely more than one game a week.
Given these clubs will be stuffed to the gills with “promising” post-Academy players who barely ever get a chance to play, why not run with a first team squad of 16 to 18 players and then allow these younger footballers to plug the gaps caused by injuries, loss of form etc?
But no, clubs will tend to have 25 or more senior pros on their bloated books, with no hope of giving many of them any significant game time. In fairness to them, when they do play, they’ve generally been shunted off into the League Cup to save the goalkeeper or the striker having to endure a trip to Colchester or Newport, and never mind that the fans of those clubs actually want to see the stars.
But when they do play, how many of them put a shift in to try and grasp an opportunity in front of the manager and how many just go through the motions while thinking how they’re going to squander the night’s appearance money?
It is not all the fault of the players. After all, if somebody offers you a three year deal on seven figures a year, the first question that comes to mind is, “Where do I sign?”
But such wealth and comfort can only breed complacency. If you looked into the Premier League and saw how many second and third choice keepers for instance, who are never getting near the team except through injury or suspension, were on £1million plus, you’d find it’s nearly all of them.
In which case, you need a certain kind of mentality to really put it in in training, especially when you know the manager doesn’t rate you and is never picking you until he absolutely has to.
I can also tell you that there are plenty of footballers at mid-range clubs, those who are playing every week, who have little or no ambition. Many sides pushing for European places suffer a late season collapse in form and in some cases, I can guarantee you it’s because senior players have said, “F**k the Europa League, we’ll never get a day off!”
The same reasoning applies at some clubs where year after year, they get knocked out in the early rounds of the cups – those blank weekends and midweeks are just too much for some to resist.
We’ve created a game awash with too much money at the top end, creating too much comfort for those whose ambitions extend no further than their bank balance. So sack Mourinho if you like. But remember, Pochettino couldn’t resolve the issues at Spurs either and he was trying to do it when the fans were there to help him.