Walking into Red Bull Arena, I was surprised to see how many random soccer jerseys were being worn. I’d come to watch Tottenham Hotspur play AS Roma after all, but if you’d told someone with no knowledge of the fixture to come, they’d have had a hard time telling you exactly who was playing whom. Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United — I even saw an RSL kit — were just a few of the clubs whose colors were on display as I made my way from the parking lot to the press entrance.
Unlike Barcelona vs Juventus — which I’d covered just a few days earlier at MetLife Stadium — this match had a much more casual feel to it, despite both contests being billed as friendlies. Outside of the Arena, Tottenham had set up a tailgate equipped with a mini turf field, the popular beanbag tossing game Cornhole, a merchandise stand and similar offerings. Celebrity and proud Spurs fan Adam Richman was present meeting fans.
AS Roma, on the other hand, were without a team kiosk or much of any real presence outside of the Arena before the game. It almost felt like the Serie A club were here for the match and the match alone. Any major advertisement for the club would come thanks to the quality (or lack thereof) of the team out on the field. Perhaps that’s a statement in and of itself: We’re here to perform and we’re focused on doing so.
Manager Eusebio Di Francesco, who only joined the Roma outfit last month, seemed keen to make the most of this opportunity to assess his team. Engaging in a competitive, exciting match with last season’s Premier League runners-up provided him with a good test of his side’s abilities while also exposing their deficiencies.
Roma were ahead by a goal going into the halftime break, and looked in control of any and all Spurs efforts to claw their way back into the match. Mass substitutions after halftime, as are typical in any friendly, killed the momentum for both sides and completely changed the dynamic of the game making for a very exciting second half for neutrals.
A five goal affair (in front of a crowd of 26,192) that goes down to the wire is exactly the sort of advertisement for the International Champions Cup that Relevent Sports would want. But that didn’t seem to matter much to Di Francesco, who felt there were areas in which his team could have done better.
“I was not happy with the end of the game, how we gave the ball away too much — we took too many risks. What I saw was a team who can improve a lot.”
The Italian manager was, however, realistic about the tournament and his opposition.
“We cant expect to dominate for 90 minutes, but we played a good game. The final stages prove that football matches are never over until they are over. Fortunately, we were able to kill off the game with the last play.”
His counterpart Mauricio Pochettino seemed to be far less concerned with the result.
“I’m calm, I’m happy, the team is doing well. The result is not important. What is important is that we get fit.” Still, it didn’t take long for the question on every journalists’ mind to be asked: What was the reason behind Spurs’ inactivity in the transfer market? Surely the team needed reinforcements to challenge for the title and compete in the Champions League??
Pochettino, who has steadily guided Tottenham closer to the Premier League title than ever over the past few years, seemed genuinely unbothered about any transfer speculations. “After analyzing Tottenham for three years, it’s clear that [not spending big] is the best way [for us] to achieve success. That’s the strategy that you have seen.”
I pressed the Spurs manager on whether or not he agreed with José Mourinho’s recent comments, echoed by Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, that Premier League spending is ‘unsustainable’ and if that is why the club were being so uncompetitive in the market. “I respect every philosophy, every way that another manager or club are doing things. But we are Tottenham and we create our own philosophy and our own way.” Pochettino also seemed completely unaware of Levy’s statement from that morning, “I did not hear or know of Levy’s comments. I don’t know. It’s better if you ask him, or maybe I will ask him tomorrow, if I have the possibility to see him, if it’s true or not.”
Pochettino has championed bringing youth players into the first team rather than buying expensive players and for the last three season it’s paid off. Still, it’s not always that simple. Acquiring players for minimal fees who will surely have a chance to break into the first team seems a sound strategy, but if it were easy every club would do it.
Di Francesco’s Roma have recently signed Gregoire Defrel, Aleksandar Kolarov and Cengiz Ünder and may still have a fresh face or two in training ahead of the start of the season. In his press conference, Di Francesco was critical of his team’s deficiencies while lauding the new signings who had recently joined the team. He also asserted that spending was how he felt he could best ameliorate the side.
The managers’ opposing philosophies on transfers are interesting, and they helps shed some light on the means by which a club chooses to compete. While these days Di Francesco’s model is the more conventional of the two, Pochettino’s success may drive other managers to reassess the way in which they acquire players. If Premier League spending really is unsustainable, Levy and Pochettino just might be ahead of the curve.