Antonio Conte returned to Tottenham Hotspur this morning for the second time after his emergency gallbladder surgery a month ago. However, there’s now a growing sentiment that his return to leadership could just be the start of a protracted farewell.
Two prominent UK football journalists — Jack Pitt-Brooke in the Athletic [£] and Gary Jacob in the Times [£] — are suggesting that there is a very real possibility that Conte and Tottenham could decide to mutually part ways, whether that’s at the end of the season, or if results don’t improve, even sooner than that.
Every Tottenham fan knows that this is a possibility. It’s been the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the team going back as far as last summer, when Conte’s intransigence at revealing if he’d return for a full season in charge became a running story into the summer. The ongoing status of Conte’s Spurs contract, which expires this summer, has almost become a running joke, with nebulous “discussions” rumbling on for months. The latest, hinted at in both articles, is that the most recent contract talks fizzled out around Christmas, and that Conte isn’t keen to decide until much nearer to the end of the season.
The reality is that the end could come a lot sooner than that. Pitt-Brooke writes in The Athletic that neither the club nor Conte are particularly interested in a new deal, and that there’s a growing sense that a parting of the ways is coming no matter how Spurs end their season. Jacob goes one step further, hinting that if Tottenham flame out against AC Milan in their Champions League match on Wednesday, that the end could come even sooner.
I don’t think anyone would especially blame Conte for wanting to leave. He’s had something of an annus horribilis in London this season, with three close friends passing away including his assistant coach Gian-Piero Ventrone a few months ago, his family remaining in Italy, and his recent surgery. Conte is something of an open book emotionally, and he’s made no secret of the fact that he would like to return to Italy. And that’s not even factoring in Spurs’ disappointing performances relative to expectations this past summer. Despite Conte’s statements in press conference that he’s happy and enjoys the work in North London, there doesn’t appear to be anything in the wind that suggests he’s ready to commit his long-term future to the club and its project. Spurs may have a clause to extend his stay for another year, but why would they do so to keep an unhappy manager in a place he doesn’t want to stay?
Jacob says that there is definite interest in Conte from several clubs in Italy should he opt to leave Spurs. Inter Milan has apparently held informal talks about appointing Conte. Tottenham’s opponent on Wednesday, AC Milan, is another option, as is Fiorentina, Roma, and even Juventus (though this appears unlikely).
So let’s stick with the assumption for now that, regardless of Wednesday’s Champions League result or whether Spurs finish the season in the top four, there will be a parting of ways. What comes next? That, unfortunately, is an even more complicated question.
Pitt-Brooke notes the ongoing questions hanging over Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici, especially regarding his recent ban from football in Italy over financial malfeasance stemming from his time at Juventus. Italian football authorities are appealing to FIFA to make that ban global, and if that goes through it would obviously make his current job at Spurs untenable. But Paratici’s presence at the club adds another dimension to what is already a complicated situation with Spurs’ managerial future.
The obvious replacement for Antonio Conte is, of course, Mauricio Pochettino. The former Spurs boss has been unemployed for a year after leaving PSG. The idea of a return to Tottenham is a compelling one, not only for football reasons — Pochettino’s style of play is closest to Levy’s “club DNA” of any manager since Harry Redknapp — but also for the vibes. Despite how things ended, Pochettino was wildly popular with the fans while at Spurs, and after two “win now” managers in Conte and Jose Mourinho that employed negative football tactics to less effect, there’s a real sense among supporters that Poch’s return could rekindle some of the positive feelings between club and fans that characterized his first stint with the club.
Pitt-Brooke notes that Daniel Levy tried very hard to hire him back six months into his tenure in France, but PSG refused to let him go. The end result was the hiring of Paratici, and since Pochettino was reluctant to work with a director of football in his first stint at the club, there are open questions as to whether he’d be content to do so should he return to Spurs. Pochettino’s arrival may be predicated on Paratici’s departure.
But Pochettino isn’t the only name mentioned. Thomas Tuchel, still unemployed after being unceremoniously sacked by Chelsea for Graham Potter this fall, is an option, though the optics of hiring yet another former Chelsea manager at Spurs looms large. Thomas Frank at Brentford is another name admired by some at the club, as is Brighton’s Roberto di Zerbi, Fulham’s Marco Silva, and even Forest boss Steve Cooper. There have also been suggestions that the club could even consider 32-year old Ryan Mason, Conte’s assistant and a figure wildly popular at the club, as a permanent appointment two seasons after he filled in for the fired Jose Mourinho.
Meanwhile, should Paratici remain, he could be put in charge of finding Conte’s replacement, with former Barcelona and Spain manager Luis Enrique apparently high on his list of successors. But Paratici was also in charge in the disastrous summer of 2021 that led to the near-hirings of Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso, and resulted in the short-lived Nuno Espirito Santo era. The appointment of Conte wasn’t Paratici’s decision, however — that was apparently done by Daniel Levy and it’s unknown if he would give that up due to the magnitude of the decision, or if it would be a good thing even if he did.
You know of the old (apocryphal) Chinese curse — “may you live in interesting times”? That’s not a unique state for any football team, but Spurs seem to have been living perpetually in “interesting times” for years. Unfortunately there remain too many open questions, potential scenarios, and range of outcomes to really get a full picture of where the club is at the moment, or where the future may take them. But it starts with Conte, his future, and whether or not Spurs are able to do any advanced planning for next season. And who knows, the whole process could kick off tomorrow evening in the Champions League at White Hart Lane. Who knows whether that match is what starts the snowball rolling down the hill?