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. 

Football management – it’s business, not personal

FOOTBALL MANAGERS at the highest level don’t seem to be too upset when the axe falls. For a start, you never get to hear about the end of a managerial reign, most victims undoubtedly sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), the tool of the employer who feels uncomfortable about sacking an employee. The corporate world has long used these documents to silence people that have been “terminated” because their face doesn’t fit anymore or the end of year headcount needs to be reduced. 

Football seems to have adopted a similar approach, issuing bland statements that include terminology like “mutual consent” and empty messages of gratitude for what the manager has done. However, we can all see through it – if the club was that grateful, they wouldn’t be writing press releases along those lines in the first place.

Managers know that nothing lasts forever. They are also aware the cycle of tolerance is getting shorter and shorter. When Martin O’Neill walked into the City Ground a few years ago to take over Nottingham Forest, he hinted his appointment was short-term and that nobody has a lengthy period to build anything lasting these days. O’Neill is an intelligent man, he knew the score better than most.

Building dynasties, that great myth in football, and committing to the long-term, are things that just don’t happen, no matter how many times a club says their current manager is the man they’ve always been looking for. And not too deep down, the manager knows he’s not got much time to make an impact. Everyone talks about José Mourinho’s three-year cycle, but that’s about average these days, Mourinho is no different from the majority of club managers in the Premier and Football League or even the non-league structure. For every Arséne Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson there are hundreds of Antonio Contes.

Chelsea is a case in point. When Maurizio Sarri arrived with his so-called “Sarri ball”, you read plenty about a breath of fresh Neopolitan air and how the players loved his style. But just a few months later, with Chelsea struggling to hold on to a top four place, Sarri spoke-out about the difficulty of managing his squad and there were rumblings of problems behind the scenes. Sarri was destined to go before the two-year cycle is up, and Chelsea started again. But we never heard much about the mechanics or why things went wrong, because the lawyers will ensure the coach is shifted out of view in the dead of night. Chelsea are not alone in taking this approach, but it is a cynical, short-sighted way to do business.

Right the way through football, the manager is the centre of attention when it comes to the well-being of the club. In non-league, there’s an added ingredient and that’s over-familiarity. In the big time, supporters and officials can turn their backs on the manager when things are going wrong because it is a business decision. They all know the manager will be well compensated for his time and inconvenience of being sacked. Some managers make a living out of being hired and dismissed in a fairly predictable series of events. But in non-league, it is hard to be anonymous although the same culture of impatience exists – one thing is certain, the manager will get sacked at some point.

That’s why it’s important to retain some realism about the role. A manager that hits on a bad run has not become a bad person, he’s simply run out of juice, contacts and ideas. Supporters and club officials will give the manager the benefit of the doubt if they like him as a person because sacking “good guys” is not an easy task and they will retain loyalty up until the last moment. But even the manager has to realise that loyalty does not win points and as everyone knows, football is a results business and if those results are sub-optimal, it is far easier to dispense with the manager than a group of players.

Often, sacking a manager doesn’t mean the club will necessarily obtain a better replacement, but it can provide fresh impetus and enthusiasm for an ailing team. It has been proven that managerial changes do sometimes prod a team to produce better results, but that does depend on the tools the manager has to work with. If the squad is so bad that the team looks doomed, then only a last-ditch rebuilding programme can prevent the drop.

How long should a manager be allowed to remain in his job? The days of Wenger and Ferguson are over and we have to acknowledge these were two exceptional men. Brian Clough stayed too long at Nottingham Forest, despite winning two European Cups, and left with the club relegated and tears running down his cheeks. It was a shabby finale for a legendary manager. All through football’s history, great managers have often bowed-out with their reputation-making triumphs long in the past. Knowing when to go has always been hard for football people, whether they are players, chairmen or managers.

But that’s because human nature tells us that it is difficult to look people in the eye and say, “time to go, mate”, because the person on the end of that comment sees any lapse in loyalty as utter betrayal. But actually, the manager’s acolytes are precisely the people that should be telling him the party is over  –  the individuals that will, at every turn, give their manager the truth. It’s often overlooked, but loyalty is not just about telling your pal that he’s great all the time – like the Emperor’s New Clothes –  it is also about saving someone you respect from humiliation, reputation erosion and, at its worst, ridicule. The trouble is, there are not many folk around who will speak the truth when the situation is eye-to-eye, and not many managers want to hear it, largely because football is a simple game where the narrative is black or white (one goal completely changes an afternoon!). It becomes very personal, but perhaps they need to take a leaf out of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. “It’s business, not personal.”

A manager who stays too long runs the risk of using-up all his cards and ending up like a desperate poker player trying to turn things around. In any walk of life, creativity is not infinite, there is a build-up, a peak, a plateau and a slope. The secret is knowing how to prevent a long decline and to time the end to perfection. Sir Alex Ferguson went out with a title, Wenger departed with his reputation still largely intact, although Arsenal were a long way off their best days under the Frenchman. It is maybe more difficult to measure what success really means in the non-league football world – is it silverware, financial management, community engagement or perhaps just consolidation?

Whether it is in the higher echelons of the game or in local non-league football, the manager stands or falls by his record, but it will always be the most recent results that will dictate the mood around a club. That’s why loyalty only has so much value – if a team is losing, doing the same thing time after time is rarely going to transform a club’s fortunes. To overcome bad results, fresh ideas have to come to the fore, either from the incumbent or from a new man. That’s not football speak, that’s just plain common sense.

The virus has slowed the management treadmill

THE PANDEMIC may be having an unexpected impact on the football management sector in that fewer managers have been sacked so far in 2020-21. With the Premier League at the halfway stage, only one manager, West Bromwich Albion’s Slaven Bilic, has departed in a mid-season taxi. There will surely be more to come, but the Premier is not alone, the axe has not swung as often in Italy and Spain.

Successful managers are a rare, sought-after commodity, hence they command high wages. There is a group of “hired gun” bosses who know that wherever they get hired, they have a good chance of winning something as they will have the budget and expectations to match their enormous salary. Equally, they know their time at any club will be relatively brief and that if the curtain falls, it invariably comes mid-contract when compensation is due. Little wonder you never hear much in the way of gossip about the clubs with a revolving door policy  – a hefty cheque and a non-disclosure agreement makes sure of that.

Over the past 10 years, the club with the most loyalty to their manager is arguably Burnley. They’ve only had two in that time and their average number of games per manager is 227. Arsenal and Manchester United have higher averages if you include the exceptional and extraordinary careers of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Without these legendary figures, Arsenal’s average is 61 and United’s 104 (versus 456 and 383), but given Burnley have not won a major prize since 1960, the stability they have from keeping faith with their manager is very impressive.

Manchester City (206), Liverpool (141), Everton (140), Tottenham (132) and Brighton (110) are among the least trigger-happy when it comes to firing managers. Crystal Palace have the lowest games per manager with just 52. Chelsea’s average is just over 70.

Only half of current Premier League managers have won major silverware in their careers with just seven lifting a big prize over the past five years, no matter where they have been employed.

Over the past decade, club management’s really big names have been Pep Guardiola, Max Allegri, Antonio Conte, Jürgen Klopp, Laurent Blanc and Zinedine Zidane. Then there’s José Mourinho, Thomas Tuchel, Luis Enrigue, Carlo Ancelotti and Ernesto Valverde. There’s an alarming lack of British managers among the elite, Sir Alex Ferguson left the party in 2013 and only Brendan Rodgers has won serious pots when he was at Celtic. At present half of Premier League clubs have British managers, but only one club among the “big six”, Chelsea, has a UK-born boss.

Football management has been a clique for a long time and breaking into the gang is tough. Gradually, though, new talent is coming through and lesser-known names are starting to become household figures in the game across Europe. Unai Emery was one such manager who had considerable success at Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain before joining Arsenal. It didn’t work out at the Emirates and Emery is back in Spain with Villareal, but he’s young enough to have another stab at one of the elite clubs.

Thomas Tuchel was another of the so-called new breed. He was at Dortmund with Klopp and succeeded his mentor in 2015. Tuchel later replaced Emery at PSG but was recently shown the door after two league titles, one Coupe de France and one Coupe de la Ligue, as well as a UEFA Champions League final in 2020. Tuchel also had the best win percentage in Ligue 1 history, a very notable 75.6%. PSG is one of a handful of clubs where even success can be rewarded with the sack!

Tuchel, very much his own man, had a difficult relationship with the PSG management and it would appear his comment on German TV, “I feel more like a politician in sport than a coach”, proved to be the final straw. PSG have gone for Mauricio Pochettino, another name that was often thrown around when a top job became available. 

Clubs like PSG, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal don’t often go for coaches with little in the way of a track record of tangible success, but that’s what they’ve done. Pochettino, Frank Lampard, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mikel Arteta were all appointed with no major trophies on their CV, although Solskjaer won two Norwegian league titles and a Norwegian Cup with Molde. Arteta has the FA Cup now, but the others are still making their name in management. Pochettino, who has made a predictably good start in Paris, desperately needs a trophy to enhance his credentials. He should get that elusive bauble this season.

Some managers have excellent credentials, but their success is long buried in the past. Marcelo Bielsa, for example, last won a club honour in 1998, while Roy Hodgson’s last major bauble came in 2001. Nuno Espirito Santo has seen plenty of highs, but his most recent important medal was in 2009 at Porto. Carlo Ancelotti and José Mourinho, both enjoying decent seasons in 2020-21, haven’t had to polish their trophies since 2017.

One stellar name waiting in the wings and wondering who will twitch first is Max Allegri, who has been on a sabbatical since leaving Juventus in 2019. Allegri has won six league titles over the past decade, a record he shares with Pep Guardiola. He is undoubtedly watching what happens at Arsenal, Chelsea, maybe even Manchester United over the coming months. There are also a number of clubs across continental Europe who would welcome the calm and intelligent former Juventus manager. 

Julian Nagelsmann is another coveted and much-discussed figure. Still only 33, you get the impression the wunderkind of German football management is on a learning curve that will eventually lead to the biggest jobs in football. That will surely include a stint outside of Germany, but he has time on his hands, and has yet to win anything as a coach.

The one thing that comes with being part of the top manager’s club is constant rumours about your next move, be it speculative reporting or strategic leaks by intermediaries. As we have seen with the likes of Solskjaer, Arteta and more recently, Lampard, the outlook changes by the game. Some newspapers are very quick to write the epitaph for managers still in their job, claiming that their current employer is already speaking to his replacement. Nothing is sacred, it would seem.

Photo: PA Images