Antonio Conte must learn from past Champions League mistakes as Tottenham return to Europe’s top table

Must do better: Antonio Conte’s league successes have not been matched in Europe (Getty Images)
Must do better: Antonio Conte’s league successes have not been matched in Europe (Getty Images)

As Tottenham make a return to the Champions League tomorrow, Antonio Conte’s record in the competition remains the only blot on his excellent CV.

Conte won five league titles in six seasons as a manager before joining Spurs, but his form in Europe’s top club competition is dismal by contrast and the one thing that still sets him apart from rivals Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, who have all coached European Cup-winning teams.

Ahead of Marseille’s visit to London, Conte’s Champions League record stands at 12 wins, 11 draws, 11 defeats and an average points-per-game of 1.38 — way short of his 2.19 average domestically.

In five Champions League campaigns with Juventus (two), Chelsea (one) and Inter Milan (two), Conte’s solitary quarter-final appearance came in his first season in the competition with the Old Lady of Turin, while his only knockout win was against Celtic. His Inter side crashed out at the group stages in consecutive seasons.

Characteristically, Conte has tended to blame the depth of his squads.

Towards the end of his time at Juve, he equated their chances in the competition to being in a €100-a-head restaurant with just €10 in his pocket, although Massimiliano Allegri, his successor at the club, stretched his kitty far further by leading roughly the same squad to the final the following year.

Conte used the same excuse during his first season with Inter, when they finished bottom of their group after blowing leads over Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.

He has already laid the foundations for similar explanations if Spurs underwhelm in a group with Marseille, Sporting Lisbon and Eintracht Frankfurt, having last week offered a sober assessment of the strength of his squad compared with their Premier League rivals.

This season’s truncated schedule will strain every squad competing in Europe and, admittedly, Spurs do look short of the required quality in a couple of areas, despite an encouraging transfer window. Conte can be expected to make only tweaks to his XI tomorrow, even if Marseille at home is, on paper, Spurs’ least challenging group game.

Historically, however, Conte’s complaints have not always stood up to scrutiny, and his own shortcomings are as significant to his record in Europe.

Allegri’s Juve, who were runners-up in 2015 and 2017, were more measured, canny and flexible in European games than Conte’s, leading to suggestions that the latter could have enjoyed similar success if he was more willing to rotate and less tactically rigid. Conte’s ‘war machines’ are perfectly designed for gruelling league seasons but are, arguably, not creative or expansive enough in possession to dominate in Europe, not helped by the coach’s reluctance to deviate from his 3-5-2 system or allow his side to play at a slower tempo.

While Conte’s body of work at Spurs is more or less beyond reproach, they have at times been short of guile and ponderous in possession during an unbeaten start to the season — failings that are more likely to be punished in the Champions League than by the likes of Wolves or Nottingham Forest.

Antonio Conte needs to show he has learned from past mistakes (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
Antonio Conte needs to show he has learned from past mistakes (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Since joining Spurs, Conte has not been afraid to give the impression that he is, in some respects, above the club and certainly not to blame for any problems experienced by the team, while there is a sense from supporters that they are lucky to have such a proven winner in the dugout.

When it comes to the Champions League, though, Spurs have more pedigree than Conte the manager (as a player, he won the competition with Juve), having been runners-up in 2019 and punched well above their weight under both Harry Redknapp and Mauricio Pochettino.

In Spurs’ last five seasons in the competition, they have played six knockouts ties, compared to Conte’s total of two. This inverted dynamic therefore increases the pressure on the head coach to improve his Champions League record, particularly after Spurs avoided the big guns in the draw.

Many of the factors which have seemed to contribute to Conte’s shortcomings at this level are still present in north London, so there is onus on him to show he has learned from past mistakes.