It may be that the future comes to look on Tottenham’s 3–0 capitulation to Manchester United over the weekend as the most beneficial defeat in the history of the club. Narratives are rarely straightforward, but Saturday certainly has the feel of a sliding doors moment. What if Spurs had won? What if Nuno Espírito Santo had staggered on a few more weeks?
As it is, Nuno was dismissed Monday morning. After the meeting between Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy and director of football Fabio Paratici on Sunday, the suggestion was that Nuno would not be removed until a replacement was ready, and sure enough Antonio Conte’s appointment was confirmed at noon U.K. time Tuesday—four months after he probably should have been appointed. He's signed through the end of next season, with an option to extend.
It was no secret that Conte, who had just left Inter Milan after winning the Serie A title, was the club’s first choice, and he came very close to taking the job then. As negotiations dragged on, though, it seemed Conte began to doubt whether he would have the control he demanded, questioned just whether Levy would allow him to get on with the job in his own way.
“Last summer, our union did not happen because the end of my relationship with Inter was still too recent and emotionally too involved with the end of the season, so I felt that it wasn’t yet the right time to return to coaching," Conte explained in a statement Tuesday. "But the contagious enthusiasm and determination of Daniel Levy in wanting to entrust me with this task had already hit the mark. Now that the opportunity has returned, I have chosen to take it with great conviction.”
Conte is a combustible, intense figure who has left Juventus, Chelsea and Inter after falling out with the board. But he is also a winner, having claimed five league titles at three clubs in two countries. His pressing game is aggressive and so finely tuned that when he was Italy manager he would ban all but his closest staff from attending training sessions so that his plans did not leak. He is an undeniably glamorous figure, and Nuno was at least in part undone by the fact that he is not Conte and neither is his football so viscerally stirring.
But the circumstances are also difficult. This is a squad that has grown stale together. There is a lack of life and creativity in midfield. Dele Alli, who once provided a spark, has been out of sorts for almost three years. Harry Kane, who scored more goals and registered more assists than anybody else in the Premier League last season, tried to leave in the summer and has managed a single goal and a single assist in league play since. Even Son Heung-min has begun to exhibit signs of frustration.
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Given Conte's past record, it’s safe to assume that he would not have taken the job without assurances about the transfer budget. That past record also suggests a capacity to energize players who had previously seemed to be waning. In terms of reputation at least, Tottenham has appointed a manager whose status seems greater than its own and one who has not, like José Mourinho, shown any evidence of being on the decline.
All of this, of course, brings its own question. Had Spurs won Saturday, would Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have been sacked by United? And might Conte have been signing a deal at Old Trafford Tuesday instead? Frankly, it seems unlikely. There is a desire at United still for Solskjaer to succeed, an unwillingness to have to take another major decision. Conte joins Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel as a manager who was available but on whom United declined to act. Nor it seems, in as far as such hypotheticals can be assessed, was there much sense that Conte would be a good fit, given his volatility.
But that may be what makes him perfect for arresting a decline. The sense of drift has been apparent at Spurs for at least two and a half seasons. Spurs need somebody to shake them up, to find new directions, to inspire new life. At least in the short term, Conte seems as likely to do that as anybody.
“I can’t wait to start working to convey to the team and the fans the passion, mentality and determination that have always distinguished me, as a player and as a coach,” Conte said.
While United keeps clinging to the same old hopes, Tottenham’s new beginning has begun—or rather it will begin against Vitesse in the Europa Conference League on Thursday, a stark reminder of precisely where Conte's starting base is and how far he and Spurs have to go.
More Soccer Coverage From Jonathan Wilson:
- Nuno Takes the Fall for Tottenham's Overall Malaise
- Koeman Goes, But Barcelona's Problems Don't Leave With Him
- Saudi-Backed Newcastle Is a Long Way From the Top
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