The deal that nearly led to Antonio Conte becoming the next manager of Tottenham Hotspur fell apart in spectacular fashion last Friday. It might have been the best thing to happen for all parties involved.
Before we get too deep into this, I want to start off by saying that once Conte and Inter Milan decided to part ways, Conte immediately became the top manager on my personal wishlist for Tottenham Hotspur. In Conte, Spurs would have appointed a serial winner who has won the domestic league he has managed in in five of the last seven seasons.
Conte coming in may have reminded Spurs fans of José Mourinho in large part due to his winning pedigree. However, in comparison to the Portuguese, Conte is known for his successful management of his players as well as his ability to not leave a club in shambles. By appointing Conte, Spurs would have had a master tactician who would get the most out of his players by playing his form of rigid, yet efficient football.
Conte is a true winner, who, similar to Mourinho, is known to demand the final decision-making power over the players brought in and shipped out of the club. For a team like Spurs, Conte may have been the perfect person to right the ship and improve a club at a serious crossroads. But, as history has shown in the past, Spurs were unable to fully get the deal over the line. This has become a recurring theme for Tottenham. Let’s take a look at a few instances where Spurs were close, yet not close enough.
Sadio Mané? Tottenham apparently had him at the training ground in 2016 and failed to bring in the Senegalese winger. Jack Grealish? Spurs had the player interested and Aston Villa were in desperate need of cash at the time, but the agreement fell apart due to an ownership change and Daniel Levy’s insistence on trying to get the best possible deal. Bruno Fernandes? Tottenham were rumored to be favorites at a point, but ultimately backed away due to his price tag. There are many, many more unfortunately. Spurs’ inability to complete signings of future superstars could be an entirely separate article.
There is something of a conspiracy theory floating around that Spurs had leaked all of this Conte news to the press (shout-out to Alasdair Gold and Dan Kilpatrick) right before the season-ticket renewal deadline. With the deal falling through, Spurs really find themselves back to square one in their search of a new manager. Mind you, Mourinho was fired on the 19th of April. Now, it supposedly falls to Fabio Paratici, Spurs’ incoming Director of Football, to make his first and most important decision right away this summer.
So let’s play devil’s advocate and talk about a few reasons why Spurs may have dodged a bullet in not appointing Conte.
Are Tottenham ‘big enough’?
Let’s start off with the issue of Tottenham as a club versus the rest of the clubs in world football. There is not one metric out there, outside of revenue, that puts Spurs in the same argument as a Manchester City, a PSG, a Barcelona, a Real Madrid or even a Manchester United for that matter. In my opinion, Conte is one of the top 5, if not top 3, managers in the world. For a club like Tottenham, with so many problems both on the field and up in the club hierarchy, appointing the Italian could have somewhat of a ripple effect for the short-term, but it may not guarantee his placement in the long-term.
We have a perfect use case in recent memory regarding a Premier League manager perhaps overshadowing a club. The appointment of Carlo Ancelotti at Everton turned a lot of heads and many thought that the Toffees were on the verge of doing big things in the future. While the experiment started out well, injuries and woeful performances at home led to Everton finishing a disappointing 10th. This summer, Ancelotti jumped ship for the Real Madrid job. In the summer of 2020, Everton spent a lot of money, bringing in the likes of James Rodríguez, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Allan to name a few. Now, the Toffees find themselves without a manager and have a ton of big-money players on the books, players who really came to play under the Italian boss.
For Conte to come to Spurs, he would have to sort out the mess of ‘deadwood’ within the roster. While Conte has shown the ability to come in and immediately improve his team, using the past year at Inter Milan as an example, it is hard to imagine him staying at Spurs long-term in the event that an opportunity at a bigger club opened up. It is definitely an intriguing prospect to bring in Conte, but the two parties seem to be in different playing fields at this time.
Investing in the youth
With all of the talk of Conte’s demands for a squad refresh and his win-now mindset, it remains to be seen whether Conte would invest in Tottenham’s youth, something the club takes great pride in. While there are younger players in and around the squad that could have blossomed under Conte, see Oliver Skipp and Ryan Sessegnon, it is questionable whether he would have the patience to bring along younger debutants from the academy into the squad.
Managers who are more entrenched into a long-term project and vision in a club are more likely to bring along younger players. Conte is not known to sticking around for a long time at clubs and for a manager who is so nit-picky, the forbearance in giving game time to younger players may not have been something that would have caught Conte’s interest.
Is the project long-term or short-term?
In the ENIC era, Tottenham have gotten the closest to the pinnacle of club football under a long-term project, envisioned by Mauricio Pochettino and his progressive system. Taking a look at Conte’s history, he has never stayed at a club for longer than three seasons.
There are no doubts in his ability to instill his style of an expansive 3-5-2 in attack, while also shape-shifting to a 5-3-2 when defending. But as there are around 10 players who need to be moved on, should Conte move on around a year or two, where would that leave Tottenham when he leaves?
It could possibly mean that Spurs could be bolstered by short-term “mercenary” players brought in by Conte to do the job in his way. This approach has not always worked at Tottenham, with the club preferring a long-term vision where they bring players through the ranks and gain continuity within the squad. Levy specifically mentioned this as a point of emphasis in his season-ending letter to Spurs supporters. There may not have been such a project under Conte.
Too little too soon?
Most importantly, if Conte were signed and Spurs were to win something under the Italian, it still would not change the fact that Spurs still need to break the squad down and start over. The appointment of Conte would really be like throwing lipstick on a pig. The harsh reality is that Spurs are possibly a few years away from competing for some of the bigger trophies and the Premier League in particular, something seemingly recognized by Conte and one of the reasons for his hesitation to take the job.
When Mourinho entered his first transfer window with the club, there were demands for many new players to work with. Some of them were brought in, yet some of them (Milan Škriniar to name one) were not. Under a manager who is so intense and who barks out directions constantly, the pressure to win could put the club in a similar situation that they find themselves in now.
Despite the personal animosity between the two, there are a lot of similarities between Conte and Mourinho. They both are known to win and to do it in their ways, from a perspective of man-management and tactics. Mourinho is known to ostracize and isolate certain players and that is his way. Conte is known for his ability to invigorate a squad to believe in his ideas while also knowing how to get the most out of his players. Mourinho is known for his pragmatism and reactive approach to tactics. Conte is known for his strict system where each individual knows what to do and stays within their role.
Levy tried the quick fix approach by appointing Mourinho after firing Pochettino and it did not work. It backfired and set the club back. Hiring Conte would be yet another quick fix solution. For a club with so many problems from top to bottom, going for the win-now approach at the expense of a longer, more deliberate rebuild at the hands of a project manager could have been the wrong choice.
Disclaimer: this opinion is written with the intent of fostering discussion. For the counter-argument, see Dustin’s appeal for Conte’s appointment on May 26.