WHAT will Tottenham Hotspur try next? Since they reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2019, the peak of the Mauricio Pochettino era, the club has been wringing its hands, agonising over the direction it should take.
Pochettino left shortly after the final in Madrid, perhaps burnt out, perhaps disillusioned that, despite the plaudits, Tottenham were never going to make it big with his squad. Spurs are still waiting to “make it” by winning some silverware and they’ve now tried three managers since “Poch” departed. Antonio Conte, the latest temporary employee, had 16 months that seemed to implode in a flurry of anger and recrimination in the space of a few weeks. Conte has had external issues to deal with, not least his health, but increasingly it became apparent this was a case of love on the rocks. As Neil Diamond sang, “’aint no big surprise”.
Conte clearly wasn’t Spurs’ man, Jose Mourinho wasn’t Spurs’ man, Nuno Espirito Santo didn’t get the chance to prove he was their guy. Three coaches, all with a track record before arriving at the Tottenham stadium, couldn’t make it work for Spurs. And with each passing season, a sense of anxiety has grown, among the fans, among the players and, one would assume, up among the prawn sandwiches. Spurs are in a spiral of tension where each component of the club may actually be feeding the anxiety of the others – fans, players and management. They all want success, they all want lovely football but they keep making the wrong decisions by backing the wrong men.
Tottenham Hotspur’s trophies
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Spurs have always caveated their lack of modern success by insisting the club wants to play beautiful football – winning the Spurs’ way. This has persisted since the early 1960s but in the age of hire and fire management, building something in a two year period that adheres to some form of mythical culture is impossible. Each of their managers arrives with their own style, a system that has made them successful at some stage of their careers, a way of working that has attracted the club to them in the first place. These men are not going to change their ethos, firstly because they probably cannot and secondly because it has worked well for them in the past. Hence, the club should know what they are hiring and it should be aligned to their own goals. How often have clubs disposed of a coach because his playing style was not compatible with the club’s supposed DNA? Given managerial jobs last barely two seasons these days, so a coach is unlikely to transform for a club that will undoubtedly sack him on a whim.
Furthermore, in this age of instant gratification, clubs cannot afford to look too far into the future and they want/need success almost immediately. This makes any plan to create development paths almost impossible. Look at the Spurs squad and compare it to the period when Pochettino was in charge. Only three players who were nurtured by Tottenham were in the squad that faced Southampton in Conte’s last fixture. Dele Alli has gone, his career in tatters in what has to be one of the saddest tales of underachievement and Harry Winks is on loan at Sampdoria. Kane is still banging in goals, but each summer signals another year older and still no medals. Some of the club’s acquisitions in recent years have been a let-down, such as Richarlison (£60m), Ndombele (£55m) and Reguilon (£25m).
This season, the club has gone out of the cups rather cheaply – a punchless exit in the Champions League last 16 to AC Milan, a defeat at Championship side Sheffield United in the FA Cup and a first time of asking loss at struggling Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup. For a club that has not known major success since 2008, they seem to allow opportunity to fly out of the window rather too easily.
Conte was clearly very unhappy and he let it be known. His rants did look like he was refusing to take responsibility for Spurs’ shortcomings. When he pointed to the club’s ownership tenure coinciding with a lack of success, the office was about to be cleared.
From Spurs’ perspective, they hired Conte to change the status quo, to become successful again. It didn’t work and was probably destined to fail. Conte will move on, but will his comments and manner of his departure affect the hiring of a new contender? Has Conte alerted the management world that the Spurs job comes with major challenges over and above managing a team? And if Arsenal end up winning the Premier, that task will have been made just that little bit more difficult.