The anniversary falls on Friday. In the second extraordinary semi-final comeback in as many days, Tottenham overcame Ajax courtesy of a 96th-minute winner from their most recent recruit. A year and a half into his Spurs career, Lucas Moura completed his hat-trick. It was an advertisement for enforced continuity, an antidote to the obsession with spending as the only team in the top five European leagues to go through the season without signing anyone became Champions League finalists.
But it was not entirely true to call Tottenham the team without transfers. There was a golden age of recruitment under Mauricio Pochettino: not in 2018-19, but a seven-month spell in 2015 when Spurs brought in Dele Alli, Son Heung-min, Kieran Trippier and Toby Alderweireld all for less than £45m. Four years, and four top-four finishes later, each of a quartet which could have been valued at a combined £250m started the Champions League final.
The budget challengers laid the groundwork in 2015. Paul Mitchell was head of recruitment. David Webb, now head of football operations at Huddersfield, was assisting him as head of elite identification. They could not compete at the top end of the market. They were charged instead with unearthing Pochettino-style players.
“Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were the superpowers and were ahead of us in terms of what they could spend,” Webb says. “We identified players with potential because we felt we had one of the best teachers in the game and the best record at that time of developing them. Poch is a real developer. We would take players who we would think would tick all the attributes of what he was looking for but would be more behind in their development than some of the ready-made players.”
The criteria for a Pochettino player involved a combination of the physical, technical and mental. They had to suit the gameplan and chemistry. “They had to be tactically very capable and athletic, because of the transitions,” Webb outlines. “Tottenham were very big on transitions, breaking and getting from A to B very quickly. They had to be technically proficient enough to play for Tottenham in their position. Every player had to have certain qualities on the ball and they had to be good characters within the group because the dressing room was key. They would be extremely hard workers on and off the pitch.”
Alli was the flagship success, the £5m buy voted PFA Player of the Year in each of his first two seasons at White Hart Lane. Purchased in January 2015, he was loaned back to League One MK Dons for the rest of that campaign. Yet Alli’s early prowess came as a surprise. The long-term strategy initially entailed dispatching him to another club outside the top flight for 2015-16.
Webb, who scouted Alli for his previous club, credits Mitchell with the signing and says: “I was watching Dele myself for Bournemouth and Eddie Howe. My understanding when I arrived was Dele was potentially going to be loaned out, maybe to a Championship club, but during a very good pre-season it was evident to us that Dele could compete at Premier League level, maybe for a first-team place on a regular basis. He surprised us when we got him inside the building. With his character, his determination and his resilience, his work rate was phenomenal. When you have got those attributes, that ticks a lot of boxes straight away when you work with someone like Poch.”
Alderweireld was the other to make an immediate impact. Spurs had conceded 53 goals in 2014-15. They reduced that to 35, the joint fewest, in the Belgian’s debut campaign. “Mitch was very instrumental in bringing Toby to the club because he had worked with him previously at Southampton,” Webb says. “He knew he would fit Pochettino’s style. He has certain attributes that attracted us. It was his intelligence, he was very articulate, fantastic on the ball, a really good ball-playing centre-half.
“The way Tottenham wanted to play, he supplemented that because he can build your play and start with passing options from the back. He wasn’t ultra-quick but his game reading and his anticipation were excellent as well as being very good on the ball and he was a really nice character. He was a good communicator. He had good leadership qualities on the pitch, a quiet leader at interrupting other players around the dressing room.”
Alderweireld came in as the finished article. Trippier, bought from relegated Burnley as a £3.5m back-up, did not but he went on to score in a World Cup semi-final three years later. “He was ultra-competitive, giving Kyle Walker a run for his money straightaway. Physically he was very good, getting up and down the way Poch wants his full-backs to play; they have to be very athletic. There was the fact he can deliver crosses from various areas of the pitch. We knew we were getting someone who was still quite raw [defensively] and had the potential to improve.”
Son was a slower starter, scoring eight goals in his first year in England before getting 75 in the next four. “Some players hit the ground running, some take time to adapt but we were never in any doubt that he would flourish,” Webb says. “He was a fantastic player. He was different to anything we had and we did our homework on profiling him. He was a very family-orientated person, a very confident character and a really nice lad.
Son added versatility and another dimension. “He was multi-functional,” Webb says. “That was important. If we needed to play him as a false nine, to play him wide, in the half spaces, one of his main attributes was that he could run beyond. We had some good ball players and we had never really had those players who could stretch.” As defences were stretched, horizons were expanded by the 2015 buys. Four years later, Spurs were 90 minutes away from being champions of Europe.