While it was illuminating to hear Andre Villas-Boas express his frustration this week at the way Gareth Bale has helped engineer his impending move to Real Madrid, it was another comment, about another player entirely, that really piqued the interest.
"First, Chelsea wouldn't sell to Tottenham in any way or form, as they think that we are title contenders,” Villas-Boas responded.
"Mata is a great, great player—player of the season last season—[a] very, very important player for Chelsea.
"They're just not going to strengthen another team that, in their opinion, are rivals for the title."
Villas-Boas was speaking in the knowledge that the club was about to lose Bale, its pre-eminent player of the previous campaign and almost inarguably the second-best player in the entire league (he was surely closer to challenging Robin van Persie’s pre-eminence than being threatened by another star).
Bale was instrumental—scoring nearly a third of his side’s league goals—for his club last season, and Spurs could still only finish fifth.
Yet, even if only in his roundabout way, Villas-Boas is absolutely right to characterise his side as potential title challengers this season.
Even before Bale’s departure was all but confirmed, Spurs had been extremely astute in the transfer market. It has been well-covered already, but the additions of Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Etienne Capoue and Roberto Soldado bolstered the squad both in strength and depth ahead of the new season.
The benefits of those additions have already been seen in Spurs’ successive (if somewhat unremarkable) 1-0 wins to start the league campaign—Soldado grabbing both winning goals, with Paulinho gaining a man-of-the-match award on his debut and Capoue shining bright against Swansea in his first full start.
“At the moment everything is okay,” a content Villas-Boas said after that second game. “The shape was tremendous; the central defenders, Capoue protecting, Paulinho’s workrate was immense.
“Everyone has been working hard.”
Restoring Bale to that mix looked like making them early favourites to finish fourth over Arsenal (who have yet to strengthen in any meaningful way) and Liverpool (who have also bought astutely but continue to lack squad depth), and even outside challengers for the title.
Instead, of course, Bale is now certain to leave White Hart Lane for the Santiago Bernabeu in a world-record transfer deal. But, as the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” and Spurs have moved quickly to turn their £80 million-plus worth of lemons into something more useful.
In his old guise as a left-winger, Bale had already been replaced by the arrival of Chadli, who has been tasked with making that flank his domain. The first tranche of funds from the Bale sale—around £28m, according to reports such as this one in the Daily Telegraph—has gone on Roma’s Erik Lamela, a versatile forward it is hoped will replace much of Bale’s creativity and attacking thrust.
Like Bale, Lamela is left-footed, although unlike Bale he preferred to roam in from the right during his time in Italy. His 15 goals in 30 league games last season nearly compares with Bale’s tally of 21, while his five assists actually outmatch the Welshman’s four.
Comfortable on either flank, his direct running game from the wing is akin to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Blessed with more brains and creative qualities than CR7, Lamela is a slighter, leaner figure but still one capable of destroying defences.
Lamela, for his part, greeted his move in more understated fashion: “I'm ready for Tottenham, I want do great things for Spurs. And thank you, Roma.”
Lamela’s arrival would seem to threaten Aaron Lennon’s berth on the right of the attack, meaning there is still Bale’s old space to fill in the middle. Villas-Boas already has options there—Lewis Holtby, Gylfi Sigurdsson, even Mousa Dembele—but has now targeted Christian Eriksen, long considered one of the more coveted prospects in European football.
With one year left on his current deal at Ajax, and Spurs still sitting on a large part of that Bale windfall, reaching a deal for Eriksen would not appear to be particularly problematic (unless a rival team swoops in, of course).
"There is no agreement yet until it's signed," Ajax director of football Marc Overmars warned on Wednesday according to the Telegraph.
"Obviously, if it happens, we won't be happy at all to lose him but he only has a year left on his contract."
The presence of other options means there will be little pressure on Eriksen to immediately slot in and dictate play from that spot behind Soldado, but it will surely be hoped he can make that role his own over time in a way Holtby in particular has seemingly failed to manage.
"Our idea is to be stronger than the year before," was how Villas-Boas reflected on the process of moving on from Bale.
"If we conclude certain targets that we are looking for, we can be that team [that improves after Bale].
“If we conclude other targets, maybe we are not that team.”
One area that it was clear Spurs needed to strengthen over the summer if they were to become viable title challengers was in defence. Instead, they streamlined, selling Steven Caulker to Cardiff for £8m and leaving them heavily reliant on Jan Vertonghen, Michael Dawson and the injury-prone Younes Kaboul,
The (nearly) finalised sale of Bale has seemingly allowed for the impending signing of Steaua Bucharest centre-back Vlad Chiriches, a move that was temporarily shelved at the end of July.
Chiriches' arrival reinforces the heart of the defence, although signing a left-back (Spurs had been reported to have asked for Fabio Coentrao from Real as part of the Bale deal) surely remains a consideration.
As Villas-Boas added: "I have told you that we will continue restrengthening the squad so we are looking at different positions to make us stronger.
“Not only those players [that have been mentioned], others as well. In the next couple of days, we will have further news. I think we will see further additions at Tottenham."
Even if there are no further additions, however, Spurs have changed their existing paradigm. Prior to this summer, they were a club constantly striving and narrowly failing to reach the promised land of the Champions League (barring that one season of participation they enjoyed, in the year after Liverpool’s demise but before Manchester City’s full ascension).
Last season’s failure to reach the promised land has been widely characterised as one where the all-powerful Bale took the team on his back and led them single-handedly to the verge of glory, but that is a somewhat lazy interpretation.
Yes, Bale dominated the final run-in, but this was always a side that seemed just one top-class striker short of having every reason to believe it could usurp Arsenal. It remains feasible his dominant talent only led teammates to shrink in the moment.
Bale played as well as he possibly could, yet it was not enough. He needed support, yet the higher calibre—possibly even the highest calibre—of support the club has now gone out and bought could surely only have been financed by the sale of their single biggest asset.
That is how Tottenham have seemingly acquired that needed striker along with a multitude of talents to replace the loss of Bale’s singular drive.
It is always hard to predict how new signings will settle in the Premier League (many a manager has paid the price for trying to overhaul a squad too quickly), but if anything over half of Spurs’ summer arrivals settle quickly then the side will be formidable.
Whether all the new signings will settle is a risk they would not be taking if Bale had stayed.
But the potential rewards, if all goes well, are far greater than anything that could have achieved if the Welshman had remained.
From contending for fourth, Spurs have suddenly put together a squad with the potential to take on the league's very best.
In the end it is selling Bale, not keeping him, that has allowed the club to reach that stage.
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