Spurs hire big, but Conte’s stay won’t be the start of a dynasty

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR may just have made their most important managerial hiring since Bill Nicholson took the job in October 1958. Certainly, Antonio Conte is the most sought-after coach they have hired in a long time, and you can count José Mourinho in that field. Conte still has success ahead of him, is still considered contemporary enough to challenge the most glittering prizes.

Conte has considerable work to do to make Spurs into contenders, but he’s arguably the best equipped to have taken on that role since Mauricio Pochettino’s team went beyond its peak in 2019. But they will need to do it fairly quickly, because Conte, like Mourinho, does not hang around too long. There will be no clinging onto the job like some managers, no element of denial that the opportunity has passed. Conte is his own man and if that’s not permitted, he will be on his way. Being in London also positions him nicely for future employment, including a return to his old club, Chelsea, an unlikely destination at this stage but modern football has taught us to expect the unexpected. Interestingly, he becomes the fourth former Chelsea manager to take the Spurs job.

Since Conte joined Juventus in 2011, he’s only had one blank club season in terms of trophies, that was in 2019-20, his first year at Inter Milan. There have been other campaigns without silverware, but two were with Italy and one was in the period after leaving Chelsea. In total, he’s won four Serie A titles, the Premier League and FA Cup and he took Inter to the Europa League final in 2020.While Tottenham are unused to success in recent times, Conte is used to lifting trophies on an annual basis.

Antonio Conte appointments – 2011 – 2021

GamesWin ratePeriod
Juventus 15167.55%38 months
Italy2556%19 months
Chelsea10665.09%24 months
Inter Milan10262.75%24 months

Will Spurs warm to Conte’s style given one of the reasons for Nuno Espirito Santo’s exit was the way his team played? Some, wrongly, consider he is a defensive manager, but his approach is demanding and well organised, built on a strong back line but also intense attacking play. 

The days of Arthur Rowe’s “push and run” and Nicholson’s 1961 double team are long gone at Spurs and although they hanker for the attacking football the club were once renowned for, the best they will get in today’s game is the kind of mix that Conte can produce. The alternative is a Bielsa-type style that may excite but also make a team vulnerable – witness Leeds United’s second season syndrome. Spurs is one of the few clubs where dull, defensive football would not be tolerated even if it proved successful and filled the boardroom with shiny things.

Will Conte be given the time he needs to make Spurs successful? The team he inherits is ill-equipped and needs rebuilding with some quality acquisitions that can adapt to the conte system. His contract length – an initial 18 months at £ 20 million which can be interpreted as a probation period – looks rather strange given the current position of the club and the need to establish if Harry Kane and Dele Alli, for example, are part of the future. And this needs to happen before Conte decides to move on or he starts to lock horns with Daniel Levy.

If, however, this is the marriage that Levy has wanted all along, then Conte can end the most barren period in the club’s history since the inter-war years when they went from 1921 to the post-war season of 1950-51 without a major prize. It has been more than 13 years since they won anything. Spurs have been an under-achieving club for too long, now is the time to put that right and Conte may be the man to do just that. 

Did Tottenham know their man and do they know who they really want next?

NUNO Espirito Santo has been shown the door by Tottenham Hotspur after just 10 Premier League games and a 50% win rate. Admittedly, they were woeful against Manchester United in their last game, a 3-0 defeat at their gleaming new stadium, but has Nuno been given a fair crack of the whip?

Spurs, embarrassingly, had difficulty filling the job after they saw José Mourinho on his way in April 2021 and they finally got Nuno after a long list of names were thrown into the hat. Some turned them down and they may find they have the same trouble in seeking a replacement for their latest coach.

Since Mauricio Pochettino was relieved of his duties, Spurs seemed to have lacked direction and purpose. The players probably know it, hence Harry Kane expressed his desire to leave and the hangover of a summer of “will, won’t he”, has translated into one Premier League goal in nine games and a mysterious pre-season episode that seemed like the player had gone AWOL.

It’s time to acknowledge that the Pochettino team is now shot, the players have either become disillusioned or gone elsewhere. Look at Dele Alli, once one of the great hopes for English football, but now a shadow of his former self. That Spurs team, which was a joy to watch at times, is not going to win prizes now, at least what’s left of it. Kane will surely go now and Spurs will cash in, although after a mixed start to 2021-22, they may not get as much for their star striker as they would have in the summer. A big name motivator could still turn Kane around if Spurs want to keep him.

But the most worrying aspect of Nuno’s departure is the fact that Spurs didn’t like his style of play or his methods, at least that’s the word coming out of the north London woodwork. This is pure and utter nonsense as the Nuno style was there for all to see at Wolves. Had Spurs not done their homework, if they had why was his approach a surprise? This smacks of the same syndrome that has inflicted Manchester United and, to some extent, Chelsea. How many times has Roman Abramovich been unhappy with the style of his manager? And United, they moaned and groaned at the Mourinho way, yet surely they knew he would take to Old Trafford a style that had been successful for him in the past. The very thing that makes managers attractive – their results – is achieved by their own take on what makes a proficient coach. If that comes as a surprise when he turns up, then the club’s system of recruitment is clearly sub-optimal.

When Pochettino left the club, he had generated a win rate for league games of 56% in his time at Spurs. Mourinho’s win rate was 46.6% and Nuno’s exactly 50%. A few draws would have made a big difference, for Spurs also had a 50% loss rate in the Premier League.

Who will Spurs turn to now? Daniel Levy may feel that Spurs have lost their way and they are being upstaged by Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham in London. Furthermore, their record against the so-called and rather shaky “big six” members is poor, a win rate of 25% since 2019-20.

There’s an interesting situation developing now that may also include Manchester United. If Solskjaer’s position is under threat (and it changes week-by-week), then there may be a battle for the available talent involving United and Spurs. If, for example, Antonio Conte is the man they want, the fact Spurs are now in the market could force United to act quicker than they might have and deal with their own managerial problems.  If that happens, Spurs may find they are back to square one.

Inter Milan’s scudetto as the kingdom falls

ITALIAN football probably needed this, the end of a nine-year run of titles for Juventus and the revival of Italy’s other football hub, Milan. Juve have been the only Serie A club who have come remotely close to the very top of European football in recent years, but there were signs of decline a year ago.

By hiring one of Europe’s serial winners in Antonio Conte, Inter brought in a coach who, by hook or by crook, would steer his team to the summit. Inter’s hordes rejoiced, singing and dancing outside the iconic Duomo – despite the cathedral being in the yellow zone for covid restrictions – but the future of their champion team is far from certain.

Already there is talk of the muscular and forceful Romelu Lukaku, the overwhelming symbol of this success, being lured back to the Premier League. Chelsea and Manchester United are said to be interested in him once more, a bizarre turnaround since both clubs let him go. In particular, his time at Chelsea, where he was seen as the young pretender to Didier Drogba’s throne, was a case of a rookie not being given the chance to shine. Lukaku’s time has now come and Inter’s owners may have to raid the war chest to keep him at the San Siro.

And then there is Conte himself. He is the archetypal employee with itchy feet and in theory, he should be anticipating a Champions League campaign in 2021-22. He doesn’t have a good record in the competition, having reached a quarter-final in 2012-13 but little else since. In fact, at Inter, his team has not yet gone beyond the group stage. Inter were once considered European Cup royalty, winning the competition in 1964 and 1965 and then the Champions League in 2010 under José Mourinho. 

Rumours also proliferate where Conte is concerned. There is talk of friction between him and the club’s owners and also of a personal desire to go back to the Premier League, with Manchester United a possible destination. Some have even named Max Allegri as his successor should he decide to leave. Conte himself has said, “I took on one of the biggest challenges of my career, let’s enjoy this scudetto,” as if to suggest that talk of the future is inappropriate.

Conte called the title win “a work of art” and that his team had “overthrown a kingdom” in ending Juventus’ nine-year run. Juve have been warned about their ageing team, which they tried to remedy by bringing in youngsters, but there are still too many with long teeth in their side. Cristiano Ronaldo has continued to score goals, but the team has lacked organisation under new coach Andrea Pirlo. Juve are going through the early stages of a rebuilding process, but there has to be doubts about Pirlo being there to see the process through. Critics believe Pirlo simply doesn’t have the experience to take on a job as big as Juve and that’s he’s not a natural manager in any case. It may be that Andrea Agnelli and his committee were a little hasty in sacking Maurizio Sarri and bringing in Pirlo.

For Inter, the title is their 19th scudetto, one more than AC Milan, whose young team faded after a bright start to the season. It comes at a time when Inter have gone through a rebranding that is aimed to take the club’s profile to a new level. They have learned from Juventus, who made the letter “J” their own when changing their identity two years ago. Inter – and their rivals AC Milan – have always believed their rightful place is among Europe’s elite, but over the past decade, they fell out of contention for major prizes. The rebrand also recognises the globalisation of the game and the need for instantly recognisable iconography.

Can Inter now dominate Italian football in the way Juve have for the past nine years? Since Conte took over, Inter have lost just six league games in two seasons and have won more games, accumulated more points, scored more goals and conceded fewer than Juve, who have lost 12 in that timeframe.

But Inter have their own considerable challenges. For a start, the club has lost a lot of money since the pandemic hit Italy. Their net loss was € 102 million in 2019-20 and they have net debt of € 323 million. Revenues were down by almost a fifth. They also have a wage bill that is almost 70% of income. With the title secured, Inter are allegedly looking for a cash injection and have been talking to a number of potential providers. 

Suning, the club’s 68.5% owner, has been heavily impacted by the pandemic and recently sold 23% of its shares to state-owned investors to bolster its equity base. They were looking to sell the club and at one point, thought they had an agreement with BC Partners, a UK-based private equity firm. The two parties could not agree on a valuation and the deal collapsed.

Suning has invested some € 700 million since acquiring its stake in Inter, but around € 250 million is required to meet immediate needs and cover the club’s losses. Lukaku, who will be 28 on May 13, is valued at between € 70 million and € 105 million. Other players, such as Nicolo Barella, Achraf Hakim and Lautaro Martinez are worth a combined amount of € 250 million.

Conte will, naturally, look to the owners for indication of transfer funds for 2021-22. If the budget is diminished and Inter cannot strengthen their side, then they may be looking for a new coach for the defence of their title. At the moment, though, Inter and their fans are enjoying the moment, but they have been advised to “celebrate responsibly.” 

Photo: LAMY