For years, Daniel Levy has been accused by some fans of stubbornness and predictability in how he runs Tottenham Hotspur. For being too set in his ways, too loyal to his own playbook: negotiate hard, sell at a premium, buy at the end of the window, come out on top on every deal, and never, ever blink first.
Depending on which side of the argument you take, it is either a far-sighted approach that has helped bring Tottenham to the brink of the elite without benefactor billions, or an unambitious one that has seen them win only one League Cup in more than 20 years of ENIC ownership. (Our point here is not to relitigate this particular debate, there is plenty of room for that elsewhere on the internet.)
But even the Levy defenders The Athletic has spoken to over the years have pointed to his reluctance to mix things up or vary his approach as his biggest weakness, something that has stopped Spurs from taking advantage of positions of strength. There have been moments — under Harry Redknapp or Mauricio Pochettino — when Spurs found themselves at a juncture of opportunity, when an out-of-character gamble might have won a huge pot, but Levy stuck to his cautious policy instead.
In this hot summer of 2022, Tottenham Hotspur have found themselves at another one of these junctures. But this time it feels as if Levy has taken the other fork in the road. He has prioritised the potential of the moment over loyalty to his own policy. Spurs have bought early, before they have sold, they have bought experience, and they have bought in positions of strength. It almost makes you wonder: who is this chairman of Tottenham Hotspur and what has he done with Daniel Levy?
Go back to May 2021, when Levy first spoke to Antonio Conte and Fabio Paratici about coming to work at Spurs. Levy was very clear and honest with them that there was not a lot of money to spend. Spurs had lost hundreds of millions of pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic and had not yet reopened their stadium to full crowds. If they wanted to spend big that summer, they would have to sell.
While Conte was not convinced and did not join until Levy went back four months later, Paratici was undeterred. He quickly took over the football side of the club, trying to find a new head coach. And his first summer window saw permanent deals for Bryan Gil, Emerson Royal and Pape Matar Sarr, with a loan plus obligation for Cristian Romero — all players aged 23 or under. It felt like typical Tottenham and a typical Levy window.
But we’ve seen something else this summer. The old transfer policies have been dumped in favour of a new, bold approach.
Take, for instance, the timing of the arrivals. Levy has always been of the view that the best deals of the transfer window are to be found at the very end. He is a master of patient brinkmanship, happy to use the ticking clock as leverage, whether he is selling or buying. At times it has worked very well. The classic example is Rafael van der Vaart arriving from Real Madrid in the final minutes of the summer 2010 window for just £8million (around $9.6m). That move was so successful that it became part of the Levy playbook. In 2011, Scott Parker signed on the last day. In 2012, Hugo Lloris and Clint Dempsey arrived. In 2016, Moussa Sissoko. In 2017, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente, and so on. Deadline day signings have become almost as Tottenham as Chas & Dave.
But it is not a policy that always works. Spurs left it too late to sign Joao Moutinho from Porto in 2012, leaving them without a real replacement for Luka Modric in the middle of the pitch. In 2018, they low-balled Aston Villa for Jack Grealish when he was up for sale, wasting time before a change in ownership kept him at the club. The next summer, they ran out of time to tie up a complicated but achievable deal for Paulo Dybala on the last day of the window.
Back in the present, Spurs will start their Premier League season on Saturday with six players already through the door, and all of their areas of relative weakness addressed. They may add one more midfielder, but even then he would be unlikely to come straight into the first team. And while some of those signings are what you might call typical Tottenham buys — Conte was at pains to call Djed Spence a “club signing” — some of them are absolutely not.
To start with, there’s Ivan Perisic, who arrived at the end of May, just days after the news that Conte would in fact be staying at Tottenham this season. Spurs have signed the 33-year-old on a free transfer on a salary in excess of £180,000 per week, making him one of Spurs’ top earners. The only other time they have signed an outfield player that old in the last decade was Fernando Llorente in 2017. And yet Perisic, who relies on athleticism that will not last forever, arrives on the big contract to come straight into the first team.
Conte has been speaking about the importance of signing experience ever since he arrived at Spurs. This was the main argument in his famous Sky Italia interview, talking about the benefit of signing experienced rather than young players. But it is not just Conte who has said this. Kane has been making this point internally since before Conte arrived, that Tottenham should be focusing on signing experienced, established players who can come straight into the first team.
But even Perisic is less atypical than Richarlison. Levy has been reluctant in recent years to spend big money on forwards, given that Spurs already have Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in those positions. (The last forward they signed was Carlos Vinicius on loan from Benfica in 2020, before then it was Llorente from Swansea.)
And yet, this window, Levy bought Richarlison from Everton for an initial £50million, plus £10million in add-ons. Spurs accelerated negotiations with Everton in the last week of June and the deal was more or less in place by June 29. Yes, Everton needed to sell by the end of the month, but for Levy to pay that much money, that early in the window, for a player who is not a guaranteed starter, was maybe the most uncharacteristic thing he has ever done. Even now, while there is plenty of admiration for the player and what he will bring to Spurs, there is bafflement inside the football industry that Levy has broken the habits of a lifetime to do it. (Suddenly, the days of Spurs digging in over their valuations of Grealish or Wilfried Zaha or James Ward-Prowse or Bruno Fernandes feel like the distant past.)
Throw in Yves Bissouma, Spence, Fraser Forster and a loan for Clement Lenglet, and it has been a remarkably proactive window for Tottenham. Of course, it has been made easier by the £150million equity injection that was announced at the end of the season, Levy arranging for ENIC to borrow the money so that they could buy new shares in the club. But even that was a radical change in policy for Tottenham, their first major fundraiser since £15million in 2004, which they used to buy Jermain Defoe. Other Tottenham managers of recent years — not least Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho — could be forgiven for wondering where this Levy was when they were in charge and when every transfer window was a battle to get the money for the players they needed.
What cannot be forgotten here is that Levy spent most of the last decade working on building – and paying for – a new £1.2billion stadium. Of course Spurs did not have hundreds of millions to spend on players when they were building the new ground. Now the ground is open and bringing in money, the picture is different.
So the old policy of selling before you buy — or at least selling and buying at the same time — seems to have gone out of the window. (This was perhaps the single biggest cause of the decline of the Pochettino era because the clear-out Pochettino demanded never happened, meaning no new players and no chance to build a second young hungry Tottenham team.)
But so far this summer, the only first-teamer Spurs have sold has been Steven Bergwijn to Ajax. Conte did not take Harry Winks, Sergio Reguilon, Giovanni Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele on the Korea tour with him, making clear where they stand in his thinking. Even this was an unusual approach for Tottenham, given what leaving the players at home means for their valuations in the market. The last time Spurs had a ‘bomb squad’, at the start of the 2014-15 season, was when Pochettino excluded unpopular players who were inimical to his group ethos. Winks, Reguilon, Lo Celso and Ndombele are not exactly that, they are just not in Conte’s plans.
But all of this just brings us back to the main question: why would someone as clear in his own mind as Levy suddenly change course this drastically? Why would he start behaving so out of character, 21 years into the job?
One theory is that maybe Levy has realised what many of his critics say, which is that his own caution has held Tottenham back in the past. You can look back at January 2012, when Spurs only signed Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha, and failed to build on a strong start to the season, which ended up with them slipping from third to fourth and missing out on Champions Leauge football. Or you can look at the more recent failure to grant Pochettino a clear-out and a rebuild when he needed them most. But sources familiar with Levy’s thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity, do not believe this is how he sees the situation.
Another theory is that this is ultimately to do with Spurs’ position in the market. The idea was always for the club to be more assertive in the market once they had the stadium up and running and it is only now, three years after it opened, that they have enjoyed their first season of full crowds. With another full season of matchday revenue on the way and the return of Champions League football, plus the fact that it is a buyer’s market right now, makes this the optimum time for Tottenham to throw their weight around. (Nor will it have escaped attention that another London club, without the same quality facilities as Spurs, has just been sold for £4.25billion.)
But perhaps the most persuasive theory boils down to politics. It was one of the masterstrokes of Levy’s tenure to convince Conte, at the second attempt, to come and coach Tottenham. Levy is understandably proud of the fact and believes Conte to be the best manager he has ever appointed. The players have returned to pre-season more enthusiastic and optimistic than ever been before. And the fans love Conte, too, and see him as the man to finally take Spurs to the promised land. The problem here for Levy, given Conte’s popularity, is the power balance between the two men.
When Conte joined, he only signed an 18-month contract, which now has one year left. Since almost day one Conte has dangled the possibility that he might walk out on Spurs if he was not happy. He did not want to be yet another Spurs manager who was not fully backed. Even towards the end of last season, the mood was still that Conte might walk, right up until the point when he decided to stay. And Levy knew this was not just an empty threat, as shown by Conte’s past departure from Juventus and Inter Milan.
This fear of Conte walking out on Spurs — and the fans blaming Levy for it — has hung over the last nine months at N17, far more so than it ever did with Pochettino. The Argentine was much more reluctant than Conte to criticise Levy in public, and Levy tied him down to the club with long-term contract extensions in 2016 and 2018. The power dynamic there was very different to now, and Levy has been under huge pressure both to keep Conte happy and to show the public that he is doing so, as shown by the proud announcement of the £150million equity injection.
The internal pressure has not only come from Conte, either. Fabio Paratici has proven to be the most assertive and ruthless director of football Spurs have ever had, dominating the training ground like a manager himself and persuading Levy of the value of signing early. When Levy appointed Paratici, the hope was that he could bring “Juventus standards” to Tottenham and help Spurs to conduct themselves more like a member of Europe’s elite. In this assertive transfer window, that is what we are seeing.
Maybe this summer’s change of policy was inevitable from the point Levy brought in Paratici and then Conte in 2021. There is no point in making these big hires unless they are going to change how the club is run. Levy moved heaven and earth to get them in, so naturally he is desperate that they should succeed. After a difficult few years, optimism has returned to Tottenham Hotspur. It has just taken a different Levy to help deliver it.
(Top photo: Getty Images)