Antonio Conte celebrates a year in charge of Tottenham Hotspur next week, but all signs are beginning to suggest it won’t be a happy anniversary.
The former Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan coach has been a success so far, in relative terms at least, by salvaging a seemingly hopeless situation when arriving at the club last November. By the end of the season he had guided the team into the Champions League on the back of a late run that saw Spurs overtake Arsenal in the final week to claim fourth spot.
Conte did what Conte does. He is the ultimate quick-fix coach — he brings fitness and organisation, demands absolute focus and commitment from his players, and that blueprint enabled Spurs to climb from ninth position on the day he arrived to fourth, with a two-point cushion, at the end of the campaign.
That achievement enabled Conte to demand, and get, strong backing in the summer transfer market when Spurs invested over £150 million in new players — including forward Richarlison, midfielder Yves Bissouma and defender Cristian Romero (whose loan was made permanent) — to transform the team from one with top-four ambitions to a side which could challenge for the Premier League title.
Yet despite overseeing Tottenham’s best-ever start to a Premier League season, recent results have significantly lowered expectations and the storm clouds that are never far away from Conte are beginning to return. The initial sugar rush that his teams always seem to enjoy when he takes over has started to wear off and history shows that the trajectory of results and supporter satisfaction only tends to go in one direction once the 53-year-old loses that early impetus.
It is why Manchester United rejected the chance to pursue Conte a year ago when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was losing his grip on the manager’s job at Old Trafford. Sources told ESPN that the club hierarchy wanted to avoid hiring Conte because of the short-term nature of his coaching career and the concern that his methods would work for only so long with United’s players.
But could United’s misgivings about Conte be beginning to appear at Tottenham? The next week should highlight whether the cracks that are starting to show can be smoothed over or if they will become even bigger.
Saturday’s trip to Bournemouth is a must-win game on the back of two straight league defeats, while Tuesday’s final Champions League group game against Marseille at Stade Velodrome is another which Spurs cannot afford to lose. And then comes the visit of Liverpool a week on Sunday — a team that have been faltering, but one that are unbeaten in 10 games against Spurs dating back to October 2017.
With Spurs fans now beginning to complain about Conte’s style of football, with the nostalgic glow of Mauricio Pochettino’s teams putting the Italian’s side in an unfavourable light, a failure to emerge from the current malaise in those games will increase the scrutiny on the coach.
Conte’s reaction to Harry Kane‘s VAR-disallowed winner against Sporting CP on Wednesday — which earned him a red card from the referee — highlighted his increasing frustration. And it is a frustration borne out of his team’s repeated failure to show they are able to take the step towards being a winning team rather than an unreliable and inconsistent one.
Quite simply, when Spurs have been asked to make a statement this season, they have failed. Conte’s team have lost against Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle — three direct rivals for the top four — and their indifferent form in the Champions League has left them travelling to Marseille next Tuesday needing to avoid defeat to qualify for the knockout stages.
Injuries have undoubtedly hampered the team’s progress, particularly with Dejan Kulusevski sidelined since mid-September and Richarlison struggling to recover ahead of the World Cup next month, but the inescapable fact about Spurs is that they remain totally reliant on the goals of Kane and Conte has done nothing to alter that. The England captain has scored 11 goals in 15 games — including 10 of the side’s 23 in the league — and is carrying the team once again. If Conte cannot find a way to spread the goal-scoring burden around the team, Spurs will be on a tightrope until the end of the season.
Being coached by Conte is often a tightrope existence for the clubs that employ him because of the way he works and his challenging personality. There is rarely a sense of calm with Conte, rather a permanent state of simmering tension with players, senior figures, match officials or supporters.
The uncertainty over his future at Spurs — his contract expires at the end of the season, with Spurs having a one-year option to extend — doesn’t lend itself to the calmness that is required and the team now look to be entering the state of flux that eventually affects all of his sides. The storm clouds are beginning to rumble and Conte’s first anniversary next Wednesday will be accompanied by the soundtrack of thunder if Marseille send Spurs crashing out of the Champions League.