As Antonio Conte’s era seems to be coming to an end at Tottenham Hotspur, it is natural to ponder how a regime that promised so much should end in such disappointment.
In the past few days, since Conte effectively made the situation irreparable by burning his relationship with the entire club, the debate has raged about who will come out looking the worst.
Is it Conte himself? The supposed serial winner, who ultimately failed to motivate his players and has now fallen for them to an astonishing degree.
Or chairman Daniel Levy? The man, ignoring warnings that Conte would perform exactly as he did, is now overseeing a club that is close to being in the same position they were in two years ago after sacking Jose Mourinho.
Maybe it’s the players you’re rooting for. After all, they were the constant in the churn of four head coaches (when Conte went) who lost their jobs in less than four years.
And then there is the reputation of the club itself, which has found itself in circus mode again, its name dragged through the mud by its manager.
Many of us in the media will also feel nervous once Conte’s departure is confirmed, given how we were received at the time of his appointment and at the end of last season when the “serial winner” credentials appeared more stronger than ever.
The truth is that no one goes out looking good.
Despite his attempts after the draw with Southampton to portray managing Tottenham as an impossible job, it’s easy to argue that Conte’s reputation has suffered more than anything else.
Spurs’ appointment of Conte was viewed as a coup in November 2021, but 16 months later, despite some notable successes, it is hard to imagine a Premier League club following him.
Too much aggro, too much money, too much 3-4-3.
Conte is always at pains to emphasize how the job at Spurs is beneath him, but in doing so, he undermines his own credibility. Why take a job you turned down a few months ago and don’t think is up to you?
Throughout his tenure, Conte has come across as someone in a relationship he doesn’t want to be with, but at the same time needs a companion and so he stays while constantly undermining his partner. The message was essentially: ‘Yes, I’ll stay with you, but you’re lucky to have me, and I will not be here for very long’ — underlined by the brevity of his contract.
The Premier League job Conte really wants is Manchester United, and it’s a testament to how the landscape has changed that at the end of last season, many United fans wanted to take him but now will feel good about with the club playing the long game and bringing on Erik ten Hag instead.
We shouldn’t forget how well Conte did last season, or the trying personal circumstances he’s endured in recent months, but a return to Italy now seems his most likely option. There were whispers in April 2022 that he wanted the Paris Saint-Germain job — suggestions he rejected — and in many ways, it seemed a good fit. But his disappointing record in Europe will certainly count against him there, as it might at other big clubs on the continent.
Antonio Conte’s painful relationship with the Champions League
Given the miserable manner in which Spurs exited the Champions League this season at AC Milan, his time in north London will not do his reputation any favors. The AC Milan tie also illustrates 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 that of Jose Mourinho after Manchester United. Where people are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of his past successes, and the ambivalence about how big a failure this is, but wonder if after a decade at the top, he’s starting to decline.
A failure to predict that Conte’s best days may be behind him – as Mourinho proved when he built Spurs – is one of the charges leveled against Levy. Is another Chelsea hand-me-down known for reactive football really needed less than seven months after sacking another manager who fits that description? Especially since he spoke about the need for a head coach with “Spurs DNA” in the intervening period.
In fairness to Levy, Conte was brought in first and foremost to save the season and secure Champions League football, and he did just that (an impressive feat, achieved 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 in the same position as two years ago after sacking Mourinho – and at a huge financial cost.
Perhaps most damning is the fact that no one can say Levy wasn’t warned. When United told former teammates about what Conte wanted in the job, some at Chelsea responded with variants of, ‘Well, if you think Jose is hardworking…’ Tottenham must have heard the same. Even in the public sphere, Conte has always been volatile, so none of this comes as a surprise. His miserable second season at Chelsea is similar to his current one at Spurs.
Then, as now, Chelsea’s players were tired of Conte’s intensity and mood swings. Many Tottenham fans have little sympathy for this sentiment, and agreed in spirit with what Conte said on Saturday about the players’ frustrations. In their view, the players have let down four consecutive Spurs managers and are also to blame for the failure of the Conte era.
Yes, players must take some responsibility, but given the ferocity of the competition, you cannot make it as an elite-level footballer without extraordinary mental strength and dedication. So to suggest that Spurs’ players somehow collectively lack the necessary grit to succeed is beside the point. With most footballers at this level, if you give them the right structures and someone who can motivate them they will respond positively. Can Spurs honestly say that with the combative Mourinho, the clearly short-term Conte, and the somewhat inadequate Nuno Espirito Santo they have given the players the structures they need?
Under the right manager in Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham’s players gave it their all and punched above their weight for five years, until eventually, and probably understandably, they and the manager ran out of steam.
Also under Conte, the players performed well to secure fourth place last year, but some may have felt less motivated afterwards, knowing their manager would be out at the end of the season .
In any case, the perception of Tottenham’s players as unmanageable or at fault, as Conte suggested at the weekend, serves to damage the club’s reputation as a whole and feeds into narratives that are difficult to change . There are people in the game who have expressed the idea in recent weeks that if Mourinho and Conte fail at Spurs, perhaps no one else will succeed there.
But perhaps one of the lessons from Conte’s time at Spurs is that football can sometimes be too deferential to its established names. This can happen in the media, where managers often trade on their former glories for longer than they should. Witness Gary Neville predicting last season that Rafa Benitez’s Everton would be the big overachiever that year, or conversely how Brighton & Hove Albion was mocked by Graeme Souness for signing Roberto De Zerbi, “a man don’t know our game”, in September.
With Conte, many have bought into the hype and the big-name pedigree. When Spurs beat Arsenal 3-0 in May to seal the final Champions League spot, the dominant narrative was that the master had taught the apprentice. And Spurs have future-proofed themselves by getting a surefire victory over their rivals who have taken a different path. The divergent fortunes of the two clubs over the next 10 months made a mockery of that view.
And here we are, inching towards Conte’s departure, and feeling like nothing is going to come out of this well. To use one of Conte’s favorite words, everyone involved has to suffer.