London- Of all the tributes to Daniel Levy and his iron-fist-in-the-iron-glove negotiating style Sir Alex Ferguson’s is surely the most memorable. Dealing with the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, Ferguson recalled, “was more painful than my hip replacement”. It should be noted, too, that Ferguson got what he wanted from Levy. Despite all the agonies he was able to take the striker Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham to Manchester United in 2008.
Many people in the game do not get what they want from Levy. The very mention of his name can have agents and players letting out mournful signs before they launch into stories about how they thought they had a deal only for Levy to make an eleventh-hour revision to his demands.
Levy has been driving football folk to distraction since 2001 and that has included plenty of Tottenham personnel. He is a friendly, clubbable kind of guy, whom Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, has described as “shy, sensitive and funny”. But when Levy sits down to negotiate, even with people he likes, it is as if he puts on the blinkers. Relationships count for nothing. His side of the deal is all that matters.
There is an old line on Levy that says he goes to work during a transfer window only on deadline day, such is his fondness for brinkmanship and last-minute business. It is tongue-in-cheek. Levy is confronted by a ceaseless barrage of issues and right now the biggest one involves keeping Pochettino’s team together. It is a challenge he will confront with relish.
Tottenham have agreed to sell the right-back Kyle Walker to Manchester City for £50m – plus £3m in add-ons – but in terms of incoming deals they have been quiet this summer and it has been for a simple reason. Pochettino’s best XI have hit such heights over the past two seasons and polished their reputations to such an extent that the manager cannot see anyone on the market at an affordable price who would represent an upgrade.
The key word is ‘affordable’. Levy’s basic weekly wage ceiling is set at £100,000 and he also has the new stadium build to finance, the cost of which has risen to £800m. Show Pochettino an improvement, for example, on Mousa Dembélé or Dele Alli who earns less than £100,000 a week and would not break the bank in terms of the fee and he would take him. The reality is that the player is not out there.
Pochettino wants to add depth to his squad and it is clear that he needs to do so, particularly when the club’s desire to move on Moussa Sissoko and, possibly, Georges-Kévin Nkoudou is taken into account. Érik Lamela’s fitness is another issue. The winger, who has not played since last October because of a hip complaint, is doing rehabilitation work and he will miss the opening weeks of the season at least.
There was a time in the not too distant past when the club’s fans would be clamouring for action in terms of transfers and fretting about a lack of activity. It is not the case these days and that speaks volumes for the team which has been built for them, not to mention the work of Pochettino. Other managers and sets of supporters have felt the frustration.
Levy’s trick has been to enjoy elite-level performances from his players over a sustained period on less than elite-level wages. Harry Kane, for example, has won the Premier League’s Golden Boot for the past two seasons and, as such, he can lay claim to being the best striker in England. He is at the top of the Tottenham pay scale but it is stating the obvious to say that he could earn significantly more elsewhere. So could all of the club’s big names.
Pochettino has fostered a fiercely positive spirit and the players are loving being a part of something special. The fans are, too. They trust Pochettino implicitly. If he did not make a major signing this summer, they would not worry. But there is a flipside to having players who are, in effect, punching above their salaries – rival clubs believe they can tempt them away with better money.
The situation with United and Eric Dier is a case in point. United want Dier and they would be prepared to more than double his £70,000-a-week wage. Dier is tempted, mainly because he was displaced as Tottenham’s first-choice defensive midfielder by Victor Wanyama last season. The stories involve Dier at the moment but they have previously been about Alli, Kane, Hugo Lloris or Christian Eriksen and they will, most surely, come round again.
What is Levy to do? He is loth to break his pay structure, as it would threaten harmony and see everybody beat down his door for a rise, but he cannot compete, for example, with United’s proposed offer to Dier. It is the balancing act that holds the key to the summer and this team’s longer-term future.
Levy has managed it so far by granting regular and incremental rises to his best performers, in exchange for adding years to their contracts, which has enabled him to retain the element of control. But he has also needed to be uncompromising and that will remain the case. He has made it plain to the United executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, that Dier is not for sale and the Tottenham support will take heart from his hard-headedness, particularly when it is allied to Pochettino’s man-management magic.
Walker’s situation has been different. Pochettino has Kieran Trippier in reserve at right-back and, in the interests of raising funds that could be used to strengthen the squad as a whole, he has long been open to cashing in on Walker. Levy had been holding out for the basic figure of £50m from City and, after weeks of talks, he finally got what he wanted on Thursday. Walker is poised to complete the formalities of the move.
Levy has played it characteristically tough. Take his stance on Pau López, the reserve goalkeeper, who was on loan at the club from Espanyol last season. Levy had an option to make the deal permanent for €7m but he allowed it to lapse and, instead, he has offered €2m plus a further €2m in add-ons. Espanyol are not happy. But Pau has entered the final year of his contract and, if Levy has to wait until he becomes a free agent next summer, he will wait.
Levy is expected to sell Federico Fazio and Clinton Njie to Roma and Marseille respectively, where they were on loans last season, and Sissoko has compounded his underwhelming debut season with the fatal error of calling out Pochettino in public. The midfielder, who became the club’s joint-record signing when he arrived for £30m from Newcastle United, told L’Équipe at the end of May that he wanted clarity and honesty from Pochettino regarding whether he fitted into his plans. It is fair to say it went down badly.
Pochettino will see whether any of the club’s academy-developed players can help to give the squad greater depth, with Josh Onomah and Cameron Carter-Vickers hoping for more minutes this season. It will also be interesting to see whether Pochettino can find the room for Marcus Edwards, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder with the X-factor.
Pochettino says he would never block the first-team pathway for a youngster who has what it takes but, equally, if he can make a signing who fits in, he will do so. The priority is to retain the players he wants to retain. The existing balance is all-important. Over to you, Daniel.