As the Antonio Conte era seemingly comes to an end at Tottenham Hotspur, it’s natural to reflect on how a regime that promised so much should end in such disappointment.
Over the last few days, ever since Conte effectively made the situation untenable by torching his relationship with the entire club, the debate has raged about who comes out of this looking worst.
Is it Conte himself? The supposed serial winner, who has ultimately failed to motivate his players and now fallen out with them to such a spectacular degree.
Or chairman Daniel Levy? The man who, in ignoring the warnings that Conte would behave exactly as he has, now oversees a club about to be in the same position they were two years ago after sacking Jose Mourinho.
Maybe it’s the players who are the subject of your ire. After all, they’ve been the constant in the churn of four head coaches (once Conte goes) losing their jobs in less than four years.
And then there’s the reputation of the club itself, which finds itself in circus mode once again, its name dragged through the mud by its manager.
Many of us in the media will also be feeling a little sheepish when Conte’s departure is confirmed, given how taken in we were at the time of his appointment and at the end of last season when those “serial winner” credentials appeared stronger than ever.
The reality is that no one comes out of this looking good.
Despite his attempts after the draw at Southampton to portray managing Tottenham as an impossible job, it’s easy to argue Conte’s reputation has suffered most of all.
Spurs’ appointment of Conte was viewed as a coup in November 2021, but 16 months on, despite some notable successes, it’s hard to imagine a Premier League club going after him.
Too much aggro, too much money, too much 3-4-3.
Conte was always at pains to stress how the job at Spurs was beneath him, but in so doing, he undermined his own credibility. Why take a job that you turned down a few months earlier and that you don’t think is at your level?
Throughout his tenure, Conte has come across like someone in a relationship he doesn’t want to be in, but at the same time needing the companionship and so sticking it out while constantly undermining his partner. The message was essentially: ‘Yes, I’ll stay with you, but you’re lucky to have me, and I won’t be here for very long’ — underlined by the shortness of his contract.
The Premier League job Conte really wanted was the Manchester United one, and it’s an indictment of how the landscape has shifted that at the end of last season, many United fans must have wished they’d hired him but now will be feeling pretty smug about the club playing the long game and bringing in Erik ten Hag instead.
We shouldn’t forget how well Conte did last season, or the trying personal circumstances he has endured in recent months, but a return to Italy now appears to be his most likely option. There were whispers in April 2022 that he wanted the Paris Saint-Germain job — suggestions he denied — and in many ways, it would appear a good fit. But his disappointing European record would surely count against him there, as it might with other big clubs on the continent.
Given the wretched way Spurs exited this season’s Champions League to AC Milan, his time in north London won’t have improved his reputation. The AC Milan tie also illustrated Conte’s caution and lack of tactical flexibility — two charges that have become more pronounced throughout his time at Spurs.
Conte now finds himself at a crossroads, potentially just one of the wandering big-name managers on the gun-for-hire carousel, in a position comparable to Jose Mourinho’s after Manchester United. Where people are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt given his previous successes, and the ambivalence about how much this failure was his fault, but wondering whether after a decade at the top, he’s starting to decline.
Failing to forecast that Conte’s best days might have been behind him — as Mourinho’s proved to be when he pitched up at Spurs — is one of the charges levelled against Levy. Was another Chelsea hand-me-down known for reactive football really what was required less than seven months after ditching another manager matching that description? Especially given he had spoken about the need for a head coach with “Spurs DNA” in the intervening period.
In fairness to Levy, Conte was first and foremost brought in to rescue the season and secure Champions League football, and he did that (an impressive achievement, pulled off with some style). But his appointment ultimately proved to be a sticking plaster and one with little strategic or long-term merit. Spurs find themselves pretty much in the same position they were in two years ago after sacking Mourinho — and at a huge cost financially.
Perhaps most damning is the fact that no one can say Levy wasn’t warned. When United were sounding out previous colleagues about what Conte was like to work with, some at Chelsea responded with variants of, ‘Well, if you thought Jose was hard work…’ Tottenham would surely have heard similar. Even in the public sphere, Conte has always been volatile, so none of this has come as a surprise. His miserable second season at Chelsea was eerily similar to the one currently playing out at Spurs.
Then, like now, Chelsea’s players tired of Conte’s intensity and mood swings. Many Tottenham fans have little sympathy for this sentiment, and agreed with the gist of what Conte said on Saturday about the players’ failings. In their view, the players have ultimately let down four consecutive Spurs managers and they too should take a chunk of the blame for the failure of the Conte era.
Yes, the players must take some responsibility, but given the ferocity of the competition, you simply cannot make it as an elite-level footballer without extraordinary mental strength and dedication. So to suggest that the Spurs players are somehow collectively lacking the necessary fortitude to succeed doesn’t add up. With the vast majority of footballers of this level, if you give them proper structures and someone who can motivate them they will respond positively. Can Spurs honestly say that in the combative Mourinho, the clearly short-term Conte, and the patently not-good-enough Nuno Espirito Santo they have provided the players with the necessary structures?
Under the right manager in Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham players gave everything and punched above their weight for five years, until eventually, and probably understandably, they and the manager ran out of steam.
Under Conte as well, the players performed impressively to secure that fourth-placed finish last year, but some might have felt a little less motivated subsequently, knowing for some time that their manager is off at the end of the season.
In any case, the perception of Tottenham’s players being unmanageable or having some shared flaw, as Conte suggested at the weekend, serves to damage the club’s reputation as a whole and feed narratives that were already hard to shift. There are people in the game who have expressed the idea in the last few weeks that if Mourinho and Conte have failed at Spurs, maybe no one can succeed there.
But maybe one of the lessons from Conte’s time at Spurs is that football is sometimes too deferential to its established names. This can definitely be the case in the media, where managers often trade on their former glories longer than they deserve. Witness Gary Neville predicting last season that Rafa Benitez’s Everton would be that year’s big overachievers, or on the flipside the way Brighton & Hove Albion were derided by Graeme Souness for hiring Roberto De Zerbi, “someone who doesn’t know our game”, in September.
With Conte, many bought into the hype and the big-name pedigree. When Spurs beat Arsenal 3-0 in May to ultimately pinch the final Champions League spot, the prevailing narrative was that the master had schooled the apprentice. And that Spurs had future-proofed themselves by hiring a sure-fire success compared to their rivals who had gone down an altogether different path. The divergent fortunes of the two clubs in the subsequent 10 months have made a mockery of that view.
And so here we are, inching towards Conte’s departure, and with the sense that no one comes out of this well. To use one of Conte’s favourite words, everyone involved has had to suffer.
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