Tottenham are in crisis, if only they realised it

A VERY TEPID Champions League exit, coming shortly after a FA Cup defeat at the hands of Championship side Sheffield United, a big money signing hitting-out at his lack of game time and a manager who hints that he’s leaving at the end of the season. The morning after losing to AC Milan 1-0 on aggregate, Tottenham have a few issues to deal with. If they win a trophy next season, the barren period would have been 16 years long.

Spurs remain one of football’s great underachievers; 16 major trophies, just two league titles and the last FA Cup won more 33 years ago. They’re won three European prizes, but the last of those was almost 40 years ago. In the Premier League era, Spurs have lifted just two, and they were both the Football League Cup. The last time Tottenham’s fans experienced such a dry period was between 1921 and 1951 and if you factor in the lost war years, it was a 23-season wait.

There is talk of Antonio Conte leaving, either via the chairman’s black cab or his own choice and Mauricio Pochettino returning to the club. Since the popular Argentinian left in 2019-20, some fans have longed for his return as if it was a utopian era. Pochettino had a decent and exciting team that helped England build Gareth Southgate’s nearly men, but he did not win a solitary bauble. His teams were attractive and competed but the Champions League final of 2019 represented the peak and since then, Spurs and Pochettino have looked a little lost. But is it wise to go back?

Second spells are rarely as interesting or as successful. José Mourinho, Malcolm Allison, Hellenio Herrera, Terry Venables, Howard Kendall, Kenny Dalglish and Carlo Ancelotti have all returned to clubs where they enjoyed considerable success in their first stint. It is very seldom the same experience, for a number of reasons.

Antonio Conte was always going to be a short-term hiring, because that’s the way he works. Like Mourinho, there’s a short cycle that ends when he decides the job no longer fits his requirements – at least that’s what it looks like from the observation platform. We live in a football world where players and coaches decide their own future and announce they are leaving, even if they are in contract. Conte is out of contract in the summer, so Tottenham are unlikely to offer him a new deal when his track record suggests he won’t be hanging around for much longer. It is almost inevitable that Conte and Tottenham will be parting company very soon. He seems to be sending signals to potential employers and he has, after all, had a rough time recently.

Where does this leave Spurs? Even without a lengthy contemporary honours list, the job is still one of the top assignments in European football. They have a spectacular stadium that is packed with 60,000 fans, they have stability, they still have some good players and they also have something of a blank canvas to offer – any form of trophy will be seen as success. 

Spurs need Champions League football to consolidate their position and to drive revenue generation, so the remaining weeks of the season are going to be vital. Conte and Mourinho were never going to work at Tottenham even if they possessed two of the strongest managerial brands in world football. If there is a football entity that still hangs on to the myth of a “club style”, it is Spurs. But they should have known how managers like Conte operate, his risk-averse approach is well known and it is what has made him successful. He was never going to change that. The same applies to Mourinho, and Nuno Espirito Santo, the other coaches since Pochettino left the club.

However painful it may be, it may also be the time to acknowledge that the Kane-Son years are coming to an end. Kane elected to stay at the club but two years on, he’s still without a medal and he’s approaching 30. He has netted 20 goals this season, but how much longer can he keep the current rather limited team afloat? Son, who is slightly older than Kane, is not the player he was. Most importantly, can they keep Kane, who the fans continually refer to as “one of our own”, as the club examines why they have failed yet again?

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.