Why Postecoglou is right to prioritise growth, not fourth place


Ange Postecoglou repeated his belief that a top-four finish is not the priority in the wake of Tottenham’s 3-0 loss to Fulham on Saturday. “I don’t see fourth as the prize,” said the Spurs boss. “I don’t want to finish fourth if we haven’t grown as a team.”

It is a line of argument that opens him up to ridicule given the sporting and financial significance of Champions League qualification. Spurs need the competition to fulfil their aims of rivalling the elite. They need it to pay off their stadium debt too.

But he is right to highlight the overarching importance of growth. Spurs pipped Arsenal to a fourth-placed finish in 2022 but look at the fortunes of the two sides since. Look at where last season’s third-placed finish has got Manchester United. Look at Newcastle.

None of that is much comfort to Spurs fans in the wake of such a poor performance against Fulham, of course. There was scant evidence of growth in the way they capitulated at Craven Cottage, handing the initiative back to Aston Villa in the top-four race.

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Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp shares his thoughts on Tottenham’s defeat to Fulham and its impact on their top-four hopes

They are only four points better off than at the same stage of last season and Postecoglou is under no illusions about the size of the task that still lies ahead. “Everything, mate,” was his response when asked recently in which areas he feels his side need to improve.

It is important to remember, though, that he is less than a year into a four-year contract. And that a side’s league position, particularly in the early stages of a project such as the one he has undertaken at Spurs, is not necessarily the best measure of growth.

Better is to look at the extent to which he has transformed their style of play. Spurs, often dour and reactive under Antonio Conte, are adventurous and proactive under Postecoglou.

Modernising the team’s approach and making Spurs exciting to watch again were key aspects of Postecoglou’s remit. Daniel Levy referenced his “fast, attacking style of play” in the first sentence of his statement announcing the 58-year-old’s appointment in June.

He deserves credit, then, for the speed at which he has managed it.

Spurs, although in a similar position in the table, are unrecognisable from last season in terms of their approach. A side that previously sat off opponents, ceding the initiative and waiting for opportunities to break, now seek to impose themselves in every game.

The statistics underline Tottenham's transformation under Ange Postecoglou
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The statistics underline Tottenham’s transformation under Ange Postecoglou

Opta’s advanced metrics show they have moved three metres higher up the pitch this season, the biggest increase by any Premier League side. The change to their pressing is even starker. Last term, they ranked bottom for high turnovers. This term, they rank top.

It is an extraordinary transformation. Spurs have become an entirely different proposition. It is also worth noting the identities of the teams around them in the rankings laid out above.

Last season, their numbers were comparable to those of West Ham, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace. This season, they are in line with those of the Premier League’s elite.

The only teams with higher start distances, for example, are Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Spurs are sandwiched between the latter two for passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), a key metric in measuring the intensity of a team’s press.

Spurs have gone from playing underdog football to playing football that befits their aspirations, in other words. Postecoglou, still only nine months into the job, has redefined expectations around how quickly a manager can implement his ideas.

His side’s clear identity certainly makes for an uncomfortable comparison for Erik ten Hag, whose Manchester United side remain a stylistic muddle, nearly two years into his tenure.

With the backing of the club’s hierarchy, Postecoglou has set about overhauling the personnel as well as the style. There has been a focus on youth, with every one of the nine players signed on a permanent basis since his appointment being 26 or under.

With Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris, Ivan Perisic and Eric Dier among those to depart, their starting line-up has gone from being the sixth-oldest in the division last season, at 27 years and 356 days old on average, to being the third-youngest this term, at 25 years and 152 days old.

This concerted effort to change the profile of the squad, to create a young, hungry group with room for improvement, draws parallels with Arsenal. It is no guarantee. But it is a means of facilitating long-term growth. Their neighbours are now seeing the benefits.

Some will argue that Postecoglou’s ability to continue the expensive process of remodelling and upgrading his squad – Spurs spent £212m on signings last summer alone – depends on securing the financial rewards of Champions League qualification this season.

After all, in terms of raising funds, there is unlikely to be a player sale that even comes close to the £100m achieved through Kane’s departure to Bayern Munich last summer.

Brennan Johnson celebrates scoring a late winner for Spurs
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Brennan Johnson, 22, celebrates a recent goal with Richarlison, 26

Postecoglou, though, has evidently received assurances.

“I doubt whether our off-season plans, in terms of strengthening, would change markedly from where we are now,” he said when asked about the importance of Champions League qualification to their summer recruitment plans in his press conference last week.

“We know what we need, we know the areas to strengthen, we know the kind of players and the profiles we need. That won’t change too much irrespective of how the season finishes. For us, it’s about growth, not about having one target. Those plans are well in place.”

It is of course crucial that those plans are followed. Spurs are a stronger team than last season but depth remains an issue, as shown by their dependence on Micky van de Ven, whose recovery speed at centre-back is uniquely important to the way they play.

Spurs have a win rate of 60 per cent in games Micky van de Ven has started
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Spurs have a win rate of 60 per cent in games Micky van de Ven has started

Postecoglou’s refusal to compromise his style has infuriated some fans. The high line remains in place even without Van de Ven. The full-backs are asked to step into midfield even if they are Emerson Royal and Ben Davies rather than Pedro Porro and Destiny Udogie.

But Postecoglou does it for the same reason Pep Guardiola insisted on playing out from the back even as Claudio Bravo toiled in his first season at Manchester City. Or Jurgen Klopp set Liverpool up to counter-press even after taking the job mid-season in October 2015.

The idea is that the style becomes ingrained, and that, once enough transfer windows have passed for the squad to be sufficiently strengthened, injuries to key players can be mitigated, and the flaws that inevitably surface in the intervening period can be concealed.

Until then, Postecoglou must battle the general tendency to frame every result in the context of what it does for his side’s top-four prospects. This is ultimately how perceptions are shaped.

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But those doubting his methods should also consider the views of his players. Postecoglou is universally loved at the club’s Hotspur Way headquarters. So too is his style of play.

That came across when talking to Rodrigo Bentancur last week. “He is a calm person who gives us a lot of confidence and trusts us,” he told Sky Sports. “The way of playing he has implemented is incredible. We have shown that throughout the season.”

At the very least, they have shown its potential. This Spurs side remain a work in progress. The defeat to Fulham was just the latest reminder of that. But when Postecoglou talks of long-term growth over short-term targets, it is worth listening.

The early evidence suggests they are on the right path.



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