Last time I wrote a piece on this blog was just a week ago. At the time, Tottenham Hotspur were coming off two convincing home wins against West Ham and Chelsea. It looked as if Cristian Stellini and company were righting the ship with Antonio Conte still recovering back in Italy. The defense had looked a bit sturdier and there was plenty of optimism that Spurs could finish the season strong with favorable matchups in the FA Cup at Sheffield United and in the Champions League tie at home against AC Milan.
Fast forward a week later and Spurs have endured three losses in as many competitions — two of which saw them bounced from the FA Cup and the Champions League. And while the three losses were draining, the fact that Spurs were kept scoreless on all three occasions proved to be even more exasperating and demoralizing. Enough is enough — it’s not working and it’s time for a change at the top: Conte needs to go, and Spurs should do it now.
A lot can change in football and this past week is certainly up there as one of the worst periods for Spurs supporters in recent years. Another year will go by without a trophy to show for it despite having a real opportunity in the FA Cup — had they beaten Sheffield, they would have faced Blackburn at home in the quarterfinals for a chance to go to Wembley.
Tottenham managers have come and gone quite a bit for the club since Mauricio Pochettino left in November 2019. José Mourinho lasted till just April 2021 and Nuno Espírito Santo only a few months in his first season before Spurs brought in Conte. With Conte in the fold, Spurs seemed to finally be getting the manager that would keep the players accountable. Whereas before under Nuno and even José to a degree, it was a mixture of the blame being placed on the manager and the players. But with Conte, the expectation was that the manager was still top class so this would be a chance to really find a lot out about the team — especially with someone like Fabio Paratici in a position to oversee the vision and install a footballing structure.
There is no denying that Conte and his staff had Spurs humming towards the tail-end of last season, looking ultimately like the second-best team in all of England. Spurs’ movement up the table combined with the excitement of important summer summer signings as well as the fact that other Premier League rivals were going through various periods of rebuilds had some supporters dreaming of a possible title challenge.
But as we turn the page to today, fresh off a toothless performance against Milan, Tottenham are starting to look more and more like at the end of Pochettino’s (and Mourinho’s) tenures — the players just do not look to be responding to the manager. It’s important to note that Conte does not deserve all of the blame. While they did spend a considerable amount of cash in the summer on players that were expected to push for places and competition in the squad like Richarlison and Yves Bissouma, they were kept a little short particularly in the creativity department and the defense.
In addition, Spurs have not had a whole lot of injury luck. Bissouma and Richarlison have dealt with nagging injuries throughout, Dejan Kulusevski’s form and confidence have been up and down due to time away from the pitch, and the loss of Rodrigo Bentancur certainly hurts. But injuries aside, there are plenty of reasons to point the finger squarely at Conte for Spurs’ underachievement.
For starters, Conte’s automations have just not been as coherent and frequent this season as they were last. Also, for a manager that is known for concrete defenses, the side has leaked more goals that any other team in the Top 10. Yes, perhaps Conte is not working with the quality of players he is accustomed to, but the forms of a number of key players in the side have taken hits this season in comparison to last season where players were operating at an extremely high level. Son Heung-Min was in blistering form last season which saw him share the Premier League Golden Boot. But this season, Son has been asked to play in a deeper role where he is further away from goal in tighter areas which is not suited to his strengths. It almost feels like the areas Son is receiving the ball this season is where Harry Kane was receiving it last season — Conte made it clear that he wanted Kane to operate more and more in the box this season but the decision to do so has dented Sonny’s confidence. Conte has not changed anything to help bring Son back to his normal levels either.
Which brings me the Italian’s stubbornness and his refusal to change. With the Premier League switching to five substitutions this season and Spurs having a deeper squad, the expectation was that Spurs would shape and shift the squad based on the type of game and game state but that has just not been the case. Outside of some small minor inclusions and exclusions in matchday XIs, everyone that follows English football knows that Spurs will line up in a 3-4-3 shape that has featured Son (more recently Richarlison) and Kulusevski out wide with Kane in the middle, the midfield pairing of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Bentancur (more recently Oliver Skipp with the injury to Bentancur) and a back three with Eric Dier consistently in the middle. Despite the poor and infrequent form of Dier, Son, Emerson Royal earlier in the year and Clément Lenglet, Conte rarely tried something new. His substitutions always felt like they were made too late and it always felt if Conte’s Plan A was not working, then there should not be a Plan B and it should just be to do Plan A better.
Conte is a manager who prefers experienced, older players. So it’s perhaps no surprise that time and time again, Conte has forced players into the side over more natural, if less experienced, fits. When Kulusevski was injured in December and January, Conte was forced into playing Bryan Gil at right wing because he was so completely committed to the 3-4-3. After a short run in the side, Gil started to display some elements in his game that made fans wonder why he had not been utilized all season. When Spurs were forced into playing Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr in the Champions League away tie at Milan a few weeks ago, the duo were the best Spurs players on the pitch that night. Many supporters wanted Conte to try out Djed Spence at right wingback all season long when Emerson and Matt Doherty were not taking hold of the spot, but Conte opted against it. Spence is currently playing (and playing well) on loan at Rennes.
Now, maybe because of his stubbornness and unwillingness to change, the players look careless and the players that were once trusting of the manager look to be switching sides and allegiances. The tea leaves show a pretty clear picture of how the players are feeling — the squad looks uninterested and uninspired now.
I have been a Conte supporter all season long even despite the above. I may still be a Conte supporter and really think he could succeed here under other circumstances. But the fact of the matter is that the evidence is becoming more and more obvious that this manager and this club are just not a relationship destined for success at this point in time. It has obviously been an extremely difficult season for Conte on a personal level. He has lost friends extremely close to him and has been dealing with the effects of his recent gallbladder surgery for quite some time now. I wonder if Conte may be watching the clock and counting down the days until his deal runs out — remember that his family has remained in Italy and he has lived in a hotel since coming to Spurs.
With 13 games left, Spurs have only the Premier League and the possibility of a top four finish to play for. Despite how inconsistent and dry this season has been for Spurs at times, they remain in the driver’s seat for fourth. Perhaps Conte can pull one more rabbit out of his hat and playing one match a week will certainly help in that. However, Spurs have a nice landing spot here to give a new manager a runway to work with to assess the overall levels and abilities within the squad ahead of an important summer window. It would not cost the club a hefty price to sack Conte either. And here’s a positive to end on — there is plenty of young talent in the squad already and while the club has more work to do, the next manager will need assurances and the patience required to oversee a longer-term project. It just is not working with Conte and it’s time for him to go.
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