Spurs face the reality that Conte just wasn’t their man

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


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.

Soccer City: Basel – where everything works

AS SOON as you arrive in Basel, you’re impressed. The railway station is well organised, it is spacious, it is clean. It is run in a manner you would expect from Swiss train services. Switzerland’s trains are legendary, of course, for being on time and efficient. Exit the SBB Basel station and the city maintains this orderly theme, with trams and buses working in tandem to make Switzerland’s third most populous city very navigable. According to locals, things are not as reliable as they used to be, but compared to countries like the UK, for example, Swiss public transport makes life easier, not more challenging.

From a football perspective, Basel could be mistaken for being a one-club city, but there are others beyond Fussball Club Basel 1893, the 20 times Swiss champions with a very distinctive shirt design. Twelve of those 20 league titles have been won since 2001, but the most recent success was in 2017 after which Young Boys Bern took over as the leading club in Switzerland. Basel had a particularly glorious period between 2007-08 and 2016-17 when they were Swiss Super League champions in nine of 10 years, but this season, Basel are in sixth place, their lowest placing in over 20 years.

Basel’s first league title came in 1952-53 when they benefitted from the goals of one Hügi Josef, who netted 32 times. He was also a pivotal figure in the Swiss-hosted 1954 World Cup and scored six goals. In his career, his strike rate was excellent – 244 in 320 league games for Basel.

Prior to FC Basel’s initial league success, another team from the city, FC Nordstern, finished runners-up in Switzerland in 1924, 1927 and 1928. Founded in 1901, they also reached the Swiss Cup final twice in the 1930s. They last appeared in the Swiss top flight in 1982. Two teams from Basel are in 1.Liga at present, FC Black Stars and FC Concordia who both date back to 1907. BSC Old Boys, who play in the Bachletten quarter at Stadion Schützenmatte, are further down the pyramid but are enjoying a reasonable season in 2022-23. Today, these clubs have been cast into the shadows, with crowds of less than 200. Back in the 1930s, both Nordstern and Concordia were as well supported as FC Basel.

Basel average over 22,000 at St. Jakob Park and only Young Boys Bern with 28,000 draw bigger crowds. Given the population of Basel itself is 175,000 and the municipal area is around 800,000 the club seems well supported. The average gate in the Swiss Super League is currently 13,000 – a record for Swiss domestic football. 

Basel’s stadium, which cost some 220 million Swiss francs to build, was designed by the high profile architects Herzog & de Meuron, whose headquarters are in the city. On first glance, it is an unremarkable ground, hidden behind the façade of a shopping centre that sprawls beneath the stadium, but its simplicity is its appeal. It hosted the UEFA Europa final in 2016 between Sevilla and Liverpool, maintaining UEFA’s nod towards the city that began in the 1960s and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final between Slovan Bratislava and Barcelona, and continued with further finals in that same competition in 1975, 1979 and 1984. St. Jakob’s Park was Herzog & de Meuron’s first football arena and while it lacks the drama of the Allianz Arena in Munich or Bordeaux’s eye-catching, ode to minimalism, it combines many of the qualities of a classic English-style stadium within a neat, European setting.

Basel have a reputation for being developers of talent and the club that has become a stepping stone for ambitious players. For example, the Swiss World Cup squad 2022 included 12 players who had played for Basel at some stage of their career, among them being Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka, Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji and one of Europe’s most tracked young players, Noah Okafor of Red Bull Salzburg.

According to CIES Football Observatory, Basel are among the top 12 clubs that provide talent to the big five European leagues, many of whom move to the Bundesliga. Among the most successful Basel exports was Mohammed Salah of Liverpool, who had a stint with Basel before joining Chelsea in 2013. Other big names to have passed through the club’s dressing room include Ivan Rakitic and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Basel have the youngest squad in the Swiss Super League and also a high level of expatriate players. Their 27-man squad includes 10 different nationalities and 11 Swiss players. Their interim coach, Heiko Vogel, who is also their sporting director, is German. He took over in February 2023 after Alex Frei was sacked after just 30 games having joined the club in the summer from Winterthur. Basel appeared to have a long-term strategy that was focusing on youth, but the results had been below expectations. Frei’s departure was not entirely unexpected as Basel have a reputation in recent years of lacking patience.

While Basel’s league season has been disappointing, they are in the last eight of the Europa Conference League and the semi-finals of the Swiss Cup, where they will face Young Boys on April 4. Their European campaign has been interesting and they have already played 16 games, including four ties against Slovan Bratislava (group and last 16) as well as clashes with CSKA Sofia, Tranzonspor and Brøndby. Their quarter-final opponents are France’s Nice. Basel could yet end the 2022-23 season with some silverware, but it won’t be the Swiss Super League, which seems to be in the bag for YB Bern.

Basel, like many mid-size European clubs, have had their challenges during the pandemic years. In 2020—21, they lost CHF 14.3 million despite earning around CHF 60 million due to expenses reaching CHF 74 million. The club also lost major sponsor Basler Kantonalbank at the end of 2021-22.

As a football destination, there are few more satisfying places to visit than Basel. With its excellent stadium, the city’s location beside the River Rhine and the high quality of all things Swiss (but beware, they come at a price), Basel is a Mitteleuropean go-to city. 

The Game of the People team visited Basel by train via Paris and Strasbourg and stayed at the excellent Hotel Krafft in Basel.