Tottenham Hotspur's transfer dealings are like clockwork -- an alarm clock, upon which you have thumped the snooze button a dozen times and which is now beeping only to tell you that you're late for work again. Another summer window deadline day, another cluster of cameras outside the gates at Spurs, poised to capture the last-second drama. Will this new "partnership" with Real Madrid, forged alongside the transfer of Luka Modric, mean the arrival under darkness of Kaka? Will a deal finally be struck with Porto for Joao Moutinho? Is there any money left for Shakhtar Donetsk's Willian? These are the questions reporters, shivering inside their raincoats, will field repeatedly before the midnight chimes bring it all to an end.
Already in these feverish few days Tottenham has signed the Fulham midfielder Moussa Dembele and looks to be close to a deal for the Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris; both signings will be paid for by the money Real paid for Modric and both will please Spurs fans -- even if they do feel a hot pang of jealousy as Fulham uses a fraction of the £15m Dembele fee to sign the former Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov from Manchester United.
On paper, the loss of Modric has not felt like a blow because it has been so long coming -- fans were through the seven stages of grief before it even happened. But on the pitch, it has been yet another make-do-and-mend start to the season, with anticipated change hanging in the air like a fine rain. Even after last weekend's draw with West Brom, which Spurs controlled for much of the first half, the Guardian report summed up the prevailing feeling inside White Hart Lane: "something was missing." Dembele is not a like-for-like Modric replacement, but he is a player capable of taking on some of the responsibilities borne by Modric, and his bustling box-to-box style, allied to an improving defensive game and incisive short passing, cannot go unnoticed in Tottenham's midfield.
No wonder, then, that there is a kind of getting-ready-for-the-prom giddiness about all this that is very seductive. The trouble is that the prom has already started, and while others are already pulling shapes out on the dancefloor, Tottenham is in the bathroom frantically rearranging its outfit.
Some have criticised the club's decision to sell Modric for £30m this summer when it could have made £40m by selling him to Chelsea last summer, but that is a nonsensical argument. Though the chairman Daniel Levy's words on the benefits of the partnership with Real Madrid might be unconvincing (there are fears that while Tottenham will get first dibs on Real's cast-offs, it will be the likes of Gareth Bale heading in the other direction), it is infinitely better for Spurs to sell abroad than to a domestic competitor; having held on to Modric last season, Tottenham finished above Chelsea for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign. There is no "lost £10m" to speak of.
What has been lost, once again, is time. As early as the first week of July, reports from Spain put Real's valuation of Modric at £28m, but Tottenham hoped to leverage the length of Modric's contract and the nerve shown in resisting Chelsea last summer to obtain closer to £40m. This week the agreed deal earned Spurs £27.8m up front, with up to £5m in future add-ons -- and left the club with a few days to "spend, spend, spend", as The Times put it. Even if the summer's wrangling has earned that extra £5m, it seems a daft way to do business -- especially if they genuinely had to sell before embarking on the kind of signings the new manager, Andre Villas-Boas, has been talking about since he arrived.
The summer started promisingly, with the early arrivals of the attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson and the central defender Jan Vertonghen. The deal thrashed out for Emmanuel Adebayor was tricky, given the wages he had been on at Manchester City (though City has earned £5m from Tottenham for the striker, the contributions the club has agreed to make to his weekly wage at Spurs will eat up most of that in the first year), so that, naturally, took longer. But Villas-Boas has been mentioning Moutinho, for example, since the week he arrived in north London. Leaving your key deals to the last minute is fine when you are prepared to pay whatever it takes (as Chelsea was when signing Fernando Torres, and thus Liverpool was when replacing him with Andy Carroll), but that is not the case at Tottenham.
Moutinho, valued at £25m by Porto, is by no means the first player at whose price tag Levy has balked, and rarely has a summer's haggling got Spurs much of a discount (saving a couple of million on Scott Parker, signed this time last year from West Ham United for £5m rather than the £8m initially quoted, is about as good as it gets.) More often, and especially when the valuation is over £20m, it means the player does not sign at all.
There is also the problem of the famously strict wage structure in place at White Hart Lane -- the adherence to which is admirable, really, whether it is down to prudence or an effort to avoid prima donnas. For a long time, though, wages have been key in swinging a move, and we seem to have moved in to an era in which players are happy to say as much. In recent weeks Julio Cesar (just signed by QPR) and Gaston Ramirez (in talks with Southampton) have eschewed the usual "ambitious club" spiel for something along the lines of "they offered me loads of money, and I took it!"
In the past couple of years a variety of players -- including Joe Cole, Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, and Ramirez -- have reportedly turned Spurs down on account of the pay packet. If Tottenham will not match the kind of wages that other clubs will, they can hardly afford to leave the matter of personal terms to the 11th hour.
There have been calls (they seem to come annually now) for the transfer window to be closed before the start of the season, but there is some sense in allowing managers the opportunity to nip and tuck on the basis of the opening weeks. And besides, it is the habits of the clubs that have created the problem. When Jose Mourinho was in charge at Chelsea he was always keen to have business done before the first game of the season, doing important deals later than that only when the selling club changed its stance (as Lyon did in allowing Michael Essien to leave in 2005) or when other deals fell through (as in the arrival of Juliano Belletti after the collapse of the Dani Alves deal in 2007).
Tottenham has the opposite reputation; one that long predates Berbatov's disruptive departure in 2008 and subsequently has not wavered. Charlie Adam, since signed and vanished by Liverpool, would have become a Spurs player midway through the 2010-11 season but for the fact that the deal was started so late on January 31 that it could not be finished before midnight. There is no doubt that deadline day has brought the north Londoners some fine deals: Rafael van der Vaart may not be in Villas-Boas' plans, but at a cost of £8m, the past two seasons have been more than worth it; in terms of players sold, the last-gasp agreement that took Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios to Stoke City for a combined £18m in August 2011 was impressive. Such switches ought to be recognised and enjoyed for their serendipity, however, rather than used to determine a club's modus operandi.