How Antonio Conte’s move to Tottenham can change the course of this Premier League season
It was during the second half of the abject defeat to Manchester United, as the Tottenham Hotspur crowd began to chant the chairman’s name rather than the manager’s, that a furious Daniel Levy made his decision.
Nuno Espirito Santo was out. Antonio Conte was in. A huge mistake was quickly rectified.
The situation moved extremely fast from Saturday evening to Monday morning but that was because some groundwork had been laid. Spurs had been thinking about replacing Nuno for weeks. Conte, who came close to the job during the summer, was naturally being considered.
Influencing all of that was the situation at Manchester United, and the Italian’s own feelings on it.
Spurs ultimately think they can beat United to the top four this season, which is a real reprieve given how badly they’d messed up their decision-making in the summer. Conte ultimately realised he would not be getting the Old Trafford job any time soon. The United hierarchy had too many reservations, independent of the uncertainty over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s future. They see Conte as “another Mourinho”, with all that entails.
That is a mistake, in a similar way to how they may have erred in persisting with Solskjaer in general. United’s win over Spurs on Saturday could come to be seen as one of the season’s turning points, although not in the way that might have been expected from a 3-0 win.
There should be no mistake about this. Conte is no Jose Mourinho, at least not a post-2012 Mourinho.
He is one of about six truly world-class coaches in world football, and four of them are now in the Premier League. It’s just one of them is at White Hart Lane, and not Old Trafford. United’s stance pushed him towards Spurs. Tottenham have just secured a considerable weapon, in what amounts to an arms race between the super clubs.
Conte, in short, is generally worth all the trouble. He can shake up the order of the league. He can restore Spurs to true competitiveness, let alone relevance.
You can feel it around the club now. Spurs are no longer drifting. There’s a spark again before they’ve even played a game under Conte. This was essentially all the benefit they thought they were getting from Mourinho’s initial appointment. It is the right move, both four months too late, and two years too late.
All the staleness, and the manner in which the club was calcifying, has been washed away. For all it can change the Premier League, though, it also says something about where the competition is at.
Leicester City are now in real danger of being pushed aside. They should have been thinking that the top four might finally open up this season, but this is bad news for them. It should also be something of a lament. A club like that can make every good decision for three years, and prove themselves a model operation, but end up with little because the clubs above them just have more money.
On the other side, Spurs meanwhile have pretty much made every wrong decision for the last three years – going right back to how they didn’t invest in the summer of 2018 when Mauricio Pochettino had them on the brink of becoming a truly top team.
Conte’s appointment is down to the work of Pochettino, of course. This is what reaching a recent Champions League final, and becoming a regular Champions League club, ultimately gives you. It gives you that status that attracts managers like the Italian.
This is the power of being a superclub, even if Spurs are only just hanging on to the very bottom tier of that bracket. Many Spurs supporters might rightfully say ENIC’s running of the club has made that position precarious, but it’s equally fair to say that Levy’s wider-perspective decisions have played a large part in putting them there.
The argument now is that he’s got lucky in how this has played into their hands. But that’s also the thing about luck. You have to be in a certain position to avail of it. This is where the size of that stadium helps.
Circumstances have undeniably played into their favour, right up to that defeat to United on Saturday. It has had quite a chain reaction.
You probably couldn’t have a better example of that Buddhist fable about the old monk just telling everyone to “wait and see” made famous in Charlie Wilson’s War. We will have to wait and see on this, too, but Levy has acted with impressive decisiveness.
It will cost him, of course. The Spurs chairman will have to make the investments the club wouldn’t in the summer, not to mention the pay-out to Nuno. They have paid a high price for the initial indecisiveness. The false economy of some of those decisions has been proven. But Levy and Fabio Paratici have swallowed some pride here. They’ve seen their first big appointment together, in Nuno, just wasn’t working.
A more cynical perspective is that this was precisely because the crowd began to sing Levy’s name, and that he knew he had to offer the big signature statement that he had withheld for so long. But that is why it has been decisive.
It has also represented a decisiveness lacking at Old Trafford. That may well cost United now. They will suddenly have to work that bit harder for top four, because Conte is going to make Spurs work much harder. That is the first message he delivers to any squad, and the first thing they will realise. It will all be so much more intense. Spurs will up it by 10 per cent, and maybe more.
Conte generally extracts much more out of any group of players. That’s a given. For all the criticism about how much he demands from a board, too, the great triumph of his title-winning 2016-17 season at Chelsea was how he quickly figured out a formation that perfectly suited his available players. It was a triumph of tactical adaption, that is beyond most managers.
This is the potent weapon Spurs are really getting. This is the benefit of appointing a coach of such quality, too. Players like Harry Kane know this. An excitement has spread around the squad. They know he can make them much better. It should be exciting for Spurs to imagine the pick-up in so many players.
As Conte has proved with the likes of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, too, previously dismissed players can look completely different under such a coach. It will be instructive to see what he does with Dele Alli, Matt Doherty, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso.
There’s also the promise that his effect is generally quick. Chelsea clicked and went on a title run straight away after the move to three at the back. Italy immediately became one of Europe’s best international sides. Internazionale were instantly transformed into title challengers. So, can he turn a Tottenham team that had been drifting into a Champions League side again?
The reality is there is still a huge gap between the quality of their squad and that of the “new big four”. Conte is a tactical genius but he isn’t an alchemist. The likelihood is still that that big four will finish in the top four.
United alone have a wealth of stars beyond Spurs. Spurs now just have a star manager. But this is the most salient point. Through this appointment, they’ve given themselves the best possible chance of competing. Levy and the Spurs hierarchy may not have taken the best route to get here, but so much has changed since the summer. Conte can now change the course of this season.