Tottenham tenures assessed as Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho renew bitter rivalry

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

One of the great Premier League rivalries resumes on Saturday when Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho get reacquainted, albeit in the sanitised setting of Haifa's Sammy Ofer Stadium for Tottenham's friendly against Roma.

To recap, from October 2016 the pair repeatedly clashed after Conte had succeeded Mourinho at Chelsea - famously dubbing their collapse to 10th place in 2015-16 as “the Mourinho season" - and the Portuguese subsequently took charge of Manchester United.

Among the many highlights were Conte describing Mourinho as “a little man” and accusing him of having senile dementia and Mourinho alluding to his rival's hair transplant and historic match-fixing ban.

They came to an uneasy truce in February 2018, although surely neither has forgotten the intensity of the feud as they prepare to meet again in Israel.

This weekend, there is an extra dynamic to the rivalry, with Mourinho facing his former club, having been succeeded by Conte (indirectly) for a third time.

Mourinho remains bitter about his time in north London after being sacked six days before the Carabao Cup Final and Spurs are his only club since pre-Porto where he has failed to deliver silverware following Roma's Europa Conference League triumph.

Since joining taking the job in November, Conte has clearly been concerned that he could suffer the same fate, and one question is whether his time at Spurs retrospectively reflects favourably (or otherwise) on Mourinho's 17 months in north London.

Conte's judgements on certain individuals - notably Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele - have vindicated many of Mourinho's decisions and, by and large, the two managers have trusted the same players.

Throughout Mourinho's reign, the enduring question was whether Spurs had a good squad badly in need of a progressive coach or, as the ‘Special One’ often appeared to suggest, a substandard squad who were almost beyond coaching.

Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte were in agreement over Dele Alli. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte were in agreement over Dele Alli. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The debate divided the fanbase between those who regarded Mourinho as the problem and those who felt he had not been given the tools to be successful. Unhelpfully, both camps can claim they were right in light of Conte's nine months in charge.

On the one hand, the Italian has admitted he underestimated the quality of the squad upon accepting the job, and his frequent moans about the gulf in class to the likes of Chelsea last season supported Mourinho's assertion that Spurs were short of quality.

Eric Dier and Ben Davies are transformed under Conte but he has not improved the likes of Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso, Harry Winks and Joe Rodon, who were all expected to impress under a different coach, while his side only established consistency after two astute signings in January.

That said, Conte still managed to do what Mourinho never looked capable of, namely organising the squad into a cohesive unit and leading them back into the Champions League. He could therefore claim to have shown up Mourinho again - although Conte has obviously enjoyed favourable conditions.

He has the top centre-back Mourinho always craved in Cristian Romero and is working with managing director Fabio Paratici, who according to many has been as influential in the speed and efficiency of Spurs' summer business as the demanding head coach.

Mourinho, by contrast, worked directly under Daniel Levy, and during the pandemic when the chairman feared for the immediate financial future of the club.

Although Mourinho was backed to an extent in the transfer market in January and summer 2020, most of his signings underwhelmed and the club is in a far stronger financial position to rebuild today (although in part, of course, because Conte led them back into the Champions League).

Antonio Conte and Fabio Paratici were reuninted at Spurs. (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
Antonio Conte and Fabio Paratici were reuninted at Spurs. (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

To hammer home the point, both managers signed a Brazilian forward as an understudy to Harry Kane in their first summer. Mourinho's was Carlos Vinicius, a journeyman loanee from Benfica who never looked capable of playing in the Premier League, while Conte's was Richarlison, a £60million signing and Brazil's current No9, who is already proven in English football.

Conte values the reliable Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, signed under Mourinho, while perhaps the Portuguese’s greatest legacy is in Kane and Son Heung-min, who both adapted their games under him and have continued to improve with Conte.

But Mourinho also left deep-rooted problems at Spurs, which his immediate successor Nuno Espirito Santo could not fix.

Conte inherited an imbalanced squad desperately short of fitness, a dressing room divided by factions and infighting, and a club lacking a modern management structure.

Mourinho is impressing at Roma but was the wrong man at the wrong time for Tottenham, not the cause of most of their problems but always unlikely to be a solution. Conte, by contrast, currently appears to be the perfect coach for this newly ambitious, post-pandemic Spurs, who are aiming to win now under Levy and Paratici.

Given the context, the pair are likely to deal in platitudes this weekend but it would be fascinating to know each's private views on the other's Spurs reign.

Mourinho could claim that Conte is finishing the process of rebuilding the squad and turning the remnants of Mauricio Pochettino's side from nearly-men into winners, which he began. Conte may consider that he has had to pick up the pieces from another ‘Mourinho season’.

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