Conte is a bad fit at Tottenham, and that won’t magically change as Spurs underperform
4: 51 PM ET
James OlleySenior Writer, ESPN FC
The ongoing internal tension at Tottenham Hotspur is perhaps best exemplified by manager Antonio Conte publicly calling for togetherness while also refusing to commit his future to the club beyond this summer. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the 53-year-old’s career will know he is no stranger to this sort of equivocation, as he’s known for manipulating his reputation as a proven winner to keep his employers honest. It ends in a bitter end.
Conte has never spent more than three years at any club since beginning his managerial career at Arezzo in 2006. In more recent times, he has delivered great success at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan — until disagreements with senior figures over future strategy contributed to an abrupt departure.
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Spurs knew what they were signing up for — anticipating anything different from Conte would be like getting a cat and expecting it to bark. The club felt that Conte would deliver the missing trophies in modern-day Tottenham, and the drama was worth it. After all, the other pieces have already been there for Tottenham — a stunning PS1 billion stadium, state-of-the-art training ground and, in Harry Kane, the talismanic England captain on course to break individual goal-scoring records for club and country.
Tottenham hired Conte not to win any trophy — although that would be a start since their last silverware came in 2008 — but to make a serious tilt at the Premier League, and maybe even the Champions League on the basis that they reached the final less than four years ago. Given the lack of public comment from owners ENIC Group and chairman Daniel Levy, it’s difficult to know how close the Tottenham hierarchy believed they were to becoming challengers when appointing Conte in November 2021. However, it is likely that Conte has made it clear that there is more to be done than they initially thought when he was hired. Conte repeatedly spoke out about the gap between Spurs’ and top clubs and the need to make significant, widespread investments in the squad. After losing to Aston Villa last weekend, Conte described securing Champions League qualification on the final day of last season as a “miracle” — a view with some truth given it required a late collapse from Arsenal to help them over the line.
Speaking ahead of the league game Wednesday against Crystal Palace, Conte continued to flit between insisting he is happy at the club and hinting he could walk away if not 100% convinced about the future. This is code for “Back me in whatever way I want” or “I’ll coach elsewhere.” “
He calls for this from a position of relative strength, secure in the knowledge his nine career trophies as a manager and 14 as a Juventus player provide a gravitas to his argument that is difficult to resist. Spurs have listened to him to a significant degree. Steve Hitchen had been Spurs’ chief scout since 2017, but left in February last year — three months after Conte’s arrival — following the appointment of Fabio Paratici as head of football. ESPN has been told by sources that Hitchen felt marginalized by Paratici as Conte’s close ally started to drive the club’s transfer strategy along with Levy.
They’ve also spent money, bringing in midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur and winger Dejan Kulusevski last winter before a net summer spend of around PS145m, which included 33-year-old midfielder Ivan Perisic, an atypical Tottenham acquisition given his age and severely limited resale value.
Conte wanted even more. Of course he did. He does it every month. The reason tensions are increasing is that he should be getting more from the players he has. This season’s football at Tottenham has been, in general, terrible. Forward Heung-Min Son has been well below his best, with just three goals and two assists in 15 league appearances. Sources close to the club question whether Conte’s intense training sessions are appropriate for the physical demands of a compressed, unprecedented season with a World Cup in it.
Conte also possesses a mixed track record in developing young players and his desire to spend, mixed with an urgency to deliver, has left some caught in the middle — none more so than defender Djed Spence, a hugely promising talent signed for PS19m who has made four Premier League appearances as a substitute totalling seven minutes (plus added time). Conte repeatedly called Spence a “club signing” in a hint at a dispute over transfer policy. “
There is a recognition that Conte is not a manager who will stay with the team for the long-term.
“We must stay together and know that we will do something good if time and patience are the key to success,” said Conte. He is known for being one of the most impatient managers his generation.
Conte insists that he is the one who will provide the foundation for success. He said Tuesday that he has always known they can’t win immediately, something he is used to. He said, “Now, the challenge is this, my biggest challenge is this: To continue to work so strongly with my staff, and the players to improve the club to create a solid foundation.”
But, what is that foundation? What is the foundation of a club that has Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino as their managers in succession?
Conte could benefit from more visibility from Levy, or even less likely, Joe Lewis, when describing the club’s vision. Instead, the vacuum has been filled with fan vitriol that has grown louder in Levy’s direction. Conte is left to defend a strategy that he doesn’t believe in or is at least at odds with. The divergence seems to center on Conte’s desire for victory now against the recognition that Spurs want a core group with a strong mentality capable of winning trophies, as more players are added. That long-term vision would be akin to the model of Manchester City or Liverpool, with one or two targeted-but-premium additions each summer.
Ultimately, while Conte insists he is fully invested in Tottenham’s strategy and the club would point to the compromises they’ve already made in return, both parties are not truly aligned. This is not surprising in a marriage of convenience like this.
Either Conte must accept that Tottenham are not a club who will spend in vain to win glory, or Spurs must be more bold in the transfer market. This uneasy alliance will only get more awkward.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.