Tottenham and Antonio Conte at a crossroads as decision on long-term future looms

 (Tottenham/Getty)
(Tottenham/Getty)

Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Arsenal in May appeared to signal a potential long-term revival under Antonio Conte, but Sunday’s north London derby defeat felt significant for very different reasons.

A predictable result underlined the widening gulf between the clubs and their contrasting short- and long-term planning, which has turned Arsenal into champions elect and seen Spurs go backwards since they pipped their rivals to fourth place last season.

This week could still get worse for Spurs, with a visit to Manchester City on Thursday, and it is increasingly obvious that the club and Conte cannot continue to drift along aimlessly, trapped in an uneasy marriage of convenience.

Conte refuses to commit to Spurs beyond the end of the campaign, a position which appeared to incentivise his players last term but is now fostering uncertainty, impacting the team’s miserable form and the club’s plans in the transfer market.

If he is to agree a new deal, Conte is understood to want a significant pay rise on his £15million annual salary but, while the bigger picture is far from dreadful, there is no world in which he has earned a raise based on performances this season.

Daniel Levy and managing director Fabio Paratici must decide if it is worth the expense and hassle to persevere with Conte, whose outspokenness has undoubtedly contributed to the restlessness of supporters and increased the heat on the chairman.

If the club is committed to Conte’s vision, then he must be backed in the transfer market.

So far, the club has supported the Italian — it would have been hard to top the additions of Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur last January, while the summer business was encouraging — but there is no point in buying players he does not really want. Djed Spence, labelled “a club signing” by Conte, is yet to start a game since a move from Middlesbrough.

If he is to see through Spurs’s rebuild, Conte must sign a long-term contract and start showing genuine commitment, rather than acting as though he is doing the club a favour.

He would need to compromise on some transfer targets but should also accept that he is at a top club, with a talented squad and unrivalled infrastructure, where success is possible without consistently outspending rivals.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

If neither side can tolerate these conditions, they should part ways, allowing Spurs to hire a manager who is better suited to a rebuild, more in tune with the club’s traditions of playing attractive football and developing youth, and crucially, who acts like he wants to be there.

Conte’s contract is up at the end of the season, but the club has an option to extend his deal by a further 12 months. If performances and results do not improve, one feasible scenario is Levy declining the option, making for a clean divorce in the summer.

A reunion with Mauricio Pochettino is one possibility, ensuring a return to progressive football under a leading manager who understands Spurs, already has a connection with fans and some players, and has said he has unfinished business at the club.

Levy and Pochettino remain on amicable terms and have stayed in touch since the Argentine was sacked in November 2019, but whether the chairman would be willing to swallow his pride and go back to a manager who has been spectacularly proved right in the last three years remains to be seen.

There is also the question of whether Paratici would want to hire Pochettino, particularly as the club’s most popular and successful living manager would immediately have the upper hand in the event of a power struggle with the managing director.

Simmering away in the background is the loaded issue of Harry Kane’s future.

Thomas Tuchel is also out of work and has a reputation for the type of football which Spurs supporters favour, but turning to the German would mean Levy hiring a fifth former Chelsea boss, which would potentially divide the fanbase. Beyond that, there are no obvious candidates. Luis Enrique is not tested in England, while Brendan Rodgers’ stock has fallen.

Simmering away in the background is the loaded issue of Harry Kane’s future, with the England captain out of contract at the end of next season.

In appointing ‘win now’ managers in Jose Mourinho and Conte, rather than heeding Pochettino’s warnings and backing him, or turning to another project coach, Levy may have been partly motivated by a desire to convince Kane that Spurs were close to competing for the trophies he craves.

Paradoxically, had Levy thought long-term after Spurs’s Champions League Final defeat in 2019, the club might be in a position to take advantage of the uncertainty at City and Liverpool today. Instead, it may now be harder than ever to convince Kane to commit to another deal, whether Conte stays or not.

The situation could change quickly, as Spurs demonstrated with a fine second half to last season, partly prompted by a win at City.

As it stands, however, Spurs are at a crossroads, with Levy and Conte facing decisions which will define Spurs’s immediate future: continue down the road together or cut their losses and start afresh.