It has taken three long transfer windows since the appointment of Antonio Conte. It took almost one whole week of exasperating negotiations with Sporting Lisbon, during which time the deal looked off, then on, then off, then on again, then off, before it was finally agreed. But in the end, Tottenham got what they came for: the signature of Pedro Porro and a likely solution to their years of drift in his area of the pitch.
We often get too excited by signings and put too much emphasis on their capacity to be the difference between whether a team wins or loses. But this particular transfer feels like the most important Tottenham have made in recent years — not only for what he will bring on the pitch but also because of what he signifies at a moment of political tension inside and outside the club. Bringing in Porro, who flew to London on Monday night to complete the deal, could transform the mood at the club, just when a change was needed most. Like the moves for Richarlison and Ivan Perisic in the summer, it is a change of policy for Spurs: it is far more than they have ever spent on a player in January as they try to solve their problem on the right with one of the best players on the market. Rather than pulling out of a difficult deal, Spurs paid the money to get it done.
The fact Porro is joining Tottenham is a testament to the club’s persistence to complete an unusually complicated deal. On the surface, it looked simple because of Porro’s €45million release clause but Sporting were extremely reluctant to sell. It was no secret that coach Ruben Amorim did not want to lose a key player halfway through the season. To understand Sporting’s tactics, you have to go back to last summer, when they sold Joao Palhinha to Fulham and Matheus Nunes to Wolves. Nunes was sold to Wolves at the end of the window for less than his release clause, even though Amorim had been assured this would not happen. From Sporting’s point of view, the equation was simple: they would never sell Porro for anything less than the value of his release clause.
So even though it was clear halfway through last week that Tottenham were happy to pay the clause, Sporting were determined to drag it out. The total fee was one thing, but agreeing on the structure of the payments was quite another. When the representatives from CAA/Base, who worked on the deal, tried to get a position in writing from Sporting to take to Tottenham, they were left frustrated. There were moments when it felt as if negotiations were heading in the right direction and a verbal agreement was close, but these proved to be false dawns more than once. The goalposts kept moving.
Porro was desperate to move to Spurs as soon as he learned of their interest. Sporting were hoping Porro might decide to stay until the end of the season and even if he did not, they wanted him to play in the Portuguese League Cup final against Porto on Sunday night.
There was a hope on Saturday that after the game Sporting would soften their position and a deal could be reached. But that was not the case and the deal looked off on Sunday evening.
It was only on Monday afternoon, when a delegation returned to Lisbon and Porro missed training, that the finer points of the deal could be agreed. Porro would join on an initial loan with a €45million (£39.7m; $48.9m) obligation (plus bonuses) that Spurs would take up in the summer, an arrangement that suited Sporting and one similar to the deal to sign Cristian Romero from Atalanta in 2021. Spurs have also given up 15 per cent of their rights to Marcus Edwards. Late on Monday evening, Porro flew to London, arriving at the training ground at 3am. He started his medical as soon as he got up on Tuesday morning.
This is a potentially decisive moment for Spurs for two reasons.
First, for the simple reason that until now, Tottenham have been trying to play a wing-back system under Conte without having a top-quality player on the right-hand side. Conte has tried to make the best of the situation with Emerson Royal and Matt Doherty since he took over but it has been like trying to bake a cake without flour. Emerson and Doherty have, at times, dropped down the pecking order before being recalled in the absence of any better alternatives.
Porro was not a Spurs target last summer but it is no secret Conte desperately wanted a player like him. And the fact Tottenham would agree to a €45million deal during the January transfer window shows how determined the club was to deliver the player for Conte.
It is not too much of a stretch to say with a player like Porro in the Spurs side — someone who could provide width and depth on the pitch, get into the final third and create chances — the whole team will improve.
But there is another aspect to this. Tottenham are again tagged up in political tension, which seems to come around sooner and sooner every year. Conte’s contract expires in five months and he is in no rush to sign a new one. His views about the club’s transfer policy are no secret.
Despite the uncertainty over Conte’s future and the team’s underperformance this season, it’s looked in the last few games as though Spurs fans are more sympathetic to Conte than to Levy. During away games against Fulham and Preston North End, chants of Conte’s name were interspersed with those calling for Levy to leave the club. (Of course, the chants were not necessarily sung by the entire away end at either game, but they were easily audible in both instances.) It feels right now — and this could change with another downturn in results — that Conte is winning the PR battle.
This has put even more pressure on Levy and ENIC, which owns the club, to deliver. Conte has not been shy about criticising the club’s strategy. (Some of these criticisms may be self-serving, in that he knew precisely what the club’s strategy was before he took the job and has, in fact, been the beneficiary of signings Levy would never have sanctioned for previous managers.) If Spurs had failed in this market, Conte may well have made his feelings known in public, which would only have exacerbated the anti-ENIC mood among some of the support. Further protests are planned for Sunday’s home game with Manchester City.
Keeping Conte and Spurs fans happy is not easy, but Levy must know that landing Porro could transform the mood at the club. He has proved he is committed to delivering the players Spurs need to succeed. At the start of the window, Conte talked about how any signing would have to fit in with the club’s “policy” of only signing younger development players, but Porro could make an instant improvement, in the way Romero, Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur did before him.
The Porro deal hints that there may still be hope for what football people call ‘alignment’ between what Conte wants and the recruitment strategy of the club. But most of all, it shows that this is still a club that can use its money to fix the problems in its team. This might sound obvious, but in this particular corner of the pitch, it is something Tottenham had failed to do for years.
Knowing when to start a story about Spurs’ struggle to find a top right-back is a bit like knowing where to start a story about the origins of World War I: you can go back as far as you want. We could start with the failure to replace Kieran Trippier after selling him to Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019. We could even start with the sale of Kyle Walker to Manchester City in 2017 before re-investing half of his transfer fee in Serge Aurier.
But in the interests of coherence and brevity, let’s start from the summer of 2021, the summer Spurs appointed managing director of football Fabio Paratici and took 10 weeks to find a replacement for Jose Mourinho. Spurs had Aurier and Doherty but were not wholly happy with either of them. Doherty had a difficult first season under Mourinho, struggling to adapt to the challenge of playing in a back four. Aurier had been told to find a new club. At the end of the window, Paratici found a right-back by spending £25million on Emerson Royal from Barcelona.
It felt like the perfect signing for Tottenham at that moment: Nuno Espirito Santo wanted to play a defensively robust 4-3-3 rather than the wing-back system he used at Wolves. Emerson struggled to make much of an impact in the final third but he could give Spurs more solidity in the role than Doherty. Emerson’s arrival also allowed Tottenham to release Aurier from the last year of his contract. Emerson started six of Nuno’s 10 league games in charge, the other four going to Japhet Tanganga.
But when Nuno was replaced by Conte in November 2021, the back-four system went out of the door with him. Conte wanted to play 3-4-3 at Spurs (and has done in all but one of his 66 games in charge so far), with all the width coming from two attacking wing-backs. Conte had used this system to win the Premier League at Chelsea six years ago, as well as Serie A with Inter Milan the year before he joined Tottenham. The problem? Finding someone who could play that right-sided role.
Conte stuck with Emerson for the start of his tenure but it was never a natural fit. Emerson has his strengths but unlocking opponents in the final third is not one. Spurs were playing a system designed to get him the ball in dangerous areas and the sad reality is that he was consistently unable to do that. What should have been Spurs’ cutting edge was blunted whenever he played. It did not take long for opponents to wise up to this, shifting their defence over to allow Emerson to have the ball, confident he would not be able to hurt them with it.
It was clear Spurs needed a new right wing-back in the January 2022 window. Trying to play Conte’s 3-4-3 without proper attacking wing-backs was like putting petrol in a diesel car. And in that January transfer window, Paratici and Conte had a plan.
January 2022 was not even the first time Paratici had tried to sign Adama Traore for Spurs. In August 2021, he had moved for Traore, hoping to reunite him with Nuno and play him as a winger. Wolves were initially open to a loan deal with an obligation to buy, knowing Traore was not going to sign a new deal at Molineux. But when Traore started the 2021-22 season as well as he did, Wolves decided to keep him after all.
Fast forward half a year and Traore was down to 18 months left on his Wolves deal. Conte and Paratici had a specific plan for him: to convert him into a wing-back. It was what Conte had done so well with Victor Moses at Chelsea in 2016 and he envisaged Traore being able to do the same thing. Conte had even tried to sign Traore for Chelsea in 2017, with the idea of doing the same thing and providing competition to Moses.
Wolves were open to a deal and Spurs wanted to send Doherty back to Molineux as part of it. But it never happened: Levy was unconvinced about an outright purchase, Traore had doubts about changing position and as Spurs waited, he signed for Barcelona instead.
Another window gone, another missed opportunity to sign a right wing-back. Tottenham did sign two very good players in Bentancur and Kulusevski. Conte even said Kulusevski “has the potential” to play at right wing-back but one year on, this is only something he has done as a stop-gap during matches rather than from the start.
It took Doherty’s return to the team in the second half of last season to give Tottenham what they needed at right wing-back. The burst of form — six league wins out of seven — that propelled Spurs back up the table towards fourth was also Doherty’s first real run of consecutive league games since he joined the club. When he was injured at Villa Park in April, it opened a place for Royal to come back into the team. Spurs’ form wobbled but they turned it around at the very end of the season to get fourth.
Tottenham went into last summer’s market with right wing-back as one of the priority positions to strengthen. In some key positions, they got their top targets, such as Perisic at left wing-back, but Conte knew there would be little point in asking Spurs to pursue a player of the quality of Achraf Hakimi, another whom he managed at Inter, to play on the opposite side. Instead, Spurs ended up signing Djed Spence from Middlesbrough, a very talented young player but not someone Conte had asked for, as Conte was not shy in making clear.
So Spurs started this season with Emerson, Doherty and Spence available for the right wing-back spot. Spence was not trusted: to date, all four of his league appearances have been as a substitute in the final minutes. And Conte did not think Doherty had recovered his fitness levels from last season. The result was that Emerson became first choice again, starting the first eight games in a row. When Conte was asked in Frankfurt on October 3 about playing Doherty or Spence instead of Emerson, he said: “I’m not stupid, I don’t want to lose.”
Doherty did eventually force his way back into the team and before the World Cup break, he was rotating with Royal. But his best run of games this season is three in a row. He has not hit the levels of last spring and though Royal has improved in the final third and remains a solid option, he is not of the level Spurs need. It is notable that for arguably Spurs’ biggest game of the season so far, Marseille away in November, Conte picked Ryan Sessegnon at right wing-back instead of any of the specialists.
Tellingly, it is only at the end of this window, with the arrival of Porro, that Doherty and Spence have been allowed to leave on loan, drawing a line of sorts under the first half of the season. Royal will be Porro’s understudy in this position, which feels about right.
Maybe now the years of drift in this position are finally over. Tottenham have finally done what they have needed to do since Conte walked through the door, if not before. For the mood at the club, the mood of the fans and, most importantly, for the team on the pitch, it could be the moment that starts to turn things around.
(Main image: Tottenham Hotspur FC)
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