Tottenham settle for second best – Antonio Conte could not change that mentality
Antonio Conte watched the All or Nothing documentary in preparation for taking the Tottenham Hotspur job, but the Italian has become the latest head coach to find starring in the Spurs reality show a turn-off after departing the club by mutual agreement.
The warnings had been there for Conte, both from what he saw with his own eyes in the documentary and from the advice he received from friends and allies about the frustrations he might experience at Tottenham.
But Conte, just as others have done before him, believed he could change the mentality of a club and a chairman that have, for so long, settled for second best. Tottenham’s ambitions do not reach beyond qualifying for a lucrative competition they stand very little chance of winning, which tells supporters all they need to know about where the motivation lies.
Supporters already pay some of the highest prices in the Premier League and are waiting to find out whether or not the cost of a season ticket will increase next season, but the commitment to football does not match the devotion to attracting headline acts such as Beyonce to the £1billion stadium that still has no name.
Tottenham live in the perennial hope of a miracle. Mauricio Pochettino almost produced one, going close in the Premier League and the Champions League, while Conte achieved a minor miracle by helping the club finish in the top four at the end of his first six months in charge.
But dreaming of success, real success, and planning for success are two very different things and Tottenham managers soon find themselves living in a bad dream where perception does not meet with the reality of the situation.
The perception was that spending around £170million in the summer should have been enough for Spurs, under Conte, to challenge for silverware this season. The reality, as usual, has proved to be different. A big chunk of that money was committed on a player who had already been at the club, Cristian Romero.
Tottenham’s London rivals, Arsenal and Chelsea, took forwards from Manchester City, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, who knew what it took to win and perform on a consistent basis. Spurs signed their new forward, Richarlison, from Everton following a successful battle against relegation.
Committing to a £60m deal for a player who was not even guaranteed to start looked like a new approach from Tottenham, but Richarlison has not scored in the Premier League for the club and has been just as little use as some of the cut-price benchwarmers that went before him.
Tottenham beat Arsenal to a place in the Champions League last season, but while the Gunners spent the entire summer delivering Mikel Arteta’s targets, Spurs mixed and matched between players for Conte, such as 34-year-old Ivan Perisic, and players for the club, as in the case of Djed Spence.
Right-back Spence was signed in a deal worth £20m and yet six months later, the 22-year-old was loaned out to Rennes and Tottenham signed 23-year-old Pedro Porro, who plays as a right wing-back, on loan with an obligation to buy him for £39m at the end of the season.
That’s £59m committed on two players of similar ages who play in a similar position, one of whom Conte did not want and one who might not be able to play in a back four under a new head coach. Arsenal recruited one full-back in the summer for £32m, Oleksandr Zinchenko, who had helped City win the Premier League the previous season.
Perisic was unquestionably a signing made for Conte, but there has been little to suggest he was keen on midfielder Yves Bissouma, who joined for a fee in excess of £25m from Brighton, while Clement Lenglet has looked exactly what he is - a stop-gap loan because other targets were not signed.
It is hard to assess the role of managing director of football Fabio Paratici in this. The Italian scored two spectacular successes in the 2022 January transfer window by signing Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski from his old club Juventus, and made other changes around the club that had a positive impact.
But backing the manager is not signing players from relegation teams and mixing and matching between those he wants and those he doesn’t, no matter how much money it costs. The summer window now looks to have created as many problems as it solved.
It was a similar story this January, when Tottenham landed their primary target in Porro but then made a late panic move to snatch Arnaut Danjuma from under the noses of Everton, a club that had seen the winger, whose attitude had been questioned at Villarreal, as the man to help them in a relegation fight.
The day after the transfer window shut, Paratici gave an in-house Tottenham interview in which he said: “We want to sign players who can add something for us, not just to sign players because we have to sign players or we are under pressure to sign players. It is not our style, not our plans. We know our plans, know our philosophy and we continue with this.”
Danjuma is still yet to start a game for Spurs, which is hardly surprising given Conte described him as somebody who has the characteristics to play as a number 10 or as a winger - two positions that cannot be accommodated in his favoured 3-4-3 formation.
Paratici also spoke of his belief that the season is split into two - the first part being before March and the second part running from March onwards. He declared his satisfaction that Spurs were still in the FA Cup, Champions League and fighting for a top-four place.
Yet here we are in March, looking forward to what should be the most exciting part of the season, and Tottenham are once again trying to cling on to their top-four hopes. Conte can go back to watching how the soap opera unfolds on his television in Italy, but the Tottenham fans must contemplate yet another rerun of Groundhog Day.