When was the last time your seventh choice for anything worked out well? It might have seemed a little premature for Tottenham Hotspur to dispense with Nuno Espirito Santo on Monday after just 17 games and exactly four months in the job — and replace him with Antonio Conte the very next day — but his chance of success was irrevocably undermined from day one.
This is a Spurs squad still requiring a manager with the strength and vision to drag it forward from the Mauricio Pochettino era. Jose Mourinho tried to do so with his force of personality, but the players failed to respond to his combative approach — markedly at odds with Pochettino’s “band of brothers” feel — and a functional style of football, also a stark contrast from what had gone before.
Nuno does not possess a body of work remotely comparable to Mourinho’s, and so the authority of his position was absolutely paramount to ensuring he could be effective in implementing change. Yet how could any player truly buy into his methodology when they all knew the club appointed him only after failing with at least six other candidates?
Sources have told ESPN that talks reached varying stages with Hansi Flick, Erik ten Hag, Pochettino, Conte, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso. There were others sounded out for their interest, too, including Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Nuno was struck off the longlist, given reservations over his conservative style in the context of chairman Daniel Levy’s brief to “revert back to our core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football.” And yet, after a 72-day search described to ESPN by sources close to more than one candidate under consideration as “confused” due to Levy and managing director of football Fabio Paratici “not always speaking with one voice,” they U-turned and plumped for Nuno.
The 47-year-old arrived as a compromise and he was compromised as a result. That is a poor reflection on Paratici in particular, appointed in the summer to bring fresh clarity and purpose to Tottenham’s decision-making.
Nuno was unfortunate to inherit another situation that played out in public to his detriment: Harry Kane‘s desire to join Manchester City. Spurs held firm to their £150 million valuation and Kane stayed put, ordered to continue honouring his current £200,000-a-week contract that expires in 2024. Yet Kane has hardly reaffirmed his commitment to the cause in subsequent performances, only serving to further detract from Nuno’s credibility among a group of players who know he was lucky to get the job in the first place.
Sources have told ESPN that the level of hostility among Spurs fans on display throughout Saturday’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester United surprised senior figures at the club, some of whom were willing to dismiss grumbling among the fans to that point as little more than teething problems for their new manager. Yet sources have also indicated that several players had become disillusioned under Nuno some time ago, frustrated that his cautious, rigid tactics weren’t playing to the squad’s strengths.
While the botched nature of his appointment did Nuno little favours, he was also to blame for the way things unravelled. Discipline and professionalism had become a problem. One source close to a squad member claimed “some players were getting away with murder” with poor performances. Cristian Romero, Davinson Sanchez and Giovani Lo Celso were all fined for breaching club rules and flying to South America for international duty with their respective countries without Tottenham’s permission. Although the politics of the situation were complex given an unprecedented Premier League-wide mandate, the move was seen by some internally as a damning indictment of Nuno’s grip on the squad.
Spurs might have beaten Manchester City on the opening weekend of the season, with Nuno ending August as Premier League Manager of the Month following three 1-0 wins, but the football was largely uninspiring. By the time of his departure on Monday morning, Tottenham had 103 shots in the league from their 10 League games, joint-worst along with bottom club Norwich City. Only Norwich (two) have scored fewer than Spurs’ nine, while they are the worst team in the division for distance covered by game (99km) and no team has more defeats by three goals or more this season (three). Put another way: They don’t shoot, they don’t run and they can’t defend.
Julien Laurens believes Daniel Levy should take full responsibility for the current “mess” at Tottenham.
Nuno is a genial and intelligent man, but he lacked either the willingness or communication skills to convey his vision to players and supporters. He regularly spoke with his coaches in Portuguese around the training ground and his English-speaking news conferences were often uninspiring affairs, while some players are said to have found a lack of consistency in team selection particularly unusual. For example, sources told ESPN that following Nuno’s arrival, Tanguy Ndombele was offered to Lyon during preliminary negotiations over a deal to sign midfielder Houssem Aouar. Ndombele later told Spurs he no longer wished to play for the club, but a move failed to materialise. And then, suddenly, Ndombele started six of the club’s next seven matches across all competitions from mid-September onward. He was later surprisingly left out of the lineup against United, in what turned out to be Nuno’s final match.
This incoherence contributed to wider frustrations among a fan base that has found Levy’s tenure increasingly divisive of late, with tensions exacerbated by the club’s inclusion in the failed European Super League project.
Levy’s detractors accuse him of a lack of ambition, which is a familiar refrain. When about to mount a title challenge midway through the 2011-12 season, then-manager Harry Redknapp wanted two new elite signings: Gary Cahill and Carlos Tevez. Instead, he was given free transfers Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha, and Spurs fell away.
Pochettino wanted Levy to jettison several fringe players and urged the club to “think big” prior to the 2019 Champions League Final, but instead that showpiece became the apotheosis of his five-and-a-half years in charge and the club has declined ever since. Sources have told ESPN it was also a factor in Conte’s decision not to encourage Spurs’ interest earlier this summer. So what has changed now?
This is the ultimate question because for Conte’s appointment to succeed, something has to.
No excuses once Conte arrives
The former Inter Milan, Chelsea, Italy and Juventus boss is an excellent manager, a serial winner whose trophy haul makes his appointment a significant coup for a club that has not won any silverware since 2008. Past evidence would suggest Conte is not an obvious fit for a club targeting “attacking, entertaining football,” but the events of recent days have brought him the gravity of Tottenham’s present situation.
With sizeable debts on a £1 billion stadium to pay off, Spurs cannot afford to play Europa Conference League football next season and if the Pochettino era is ever to be the stepping stone to success Levy wants it to be, they cannot fall any further behind. This may be why he is willing to cede more of the control that Conte craves. Levy will be emboldened further by the knowledge Paratici has worked with Conte before, at Juventus, and is therefore better placed to deal with the 52-year-old’s sometimes volatile behaviour.
Sources have told ESPN that Conte will now be given sizeable influence over the club’s transfer strategy and a significant war chest for use in January and next summer. Reports in Italy on Monday suggested that Spurs are willing to invest considerable sums in January, something they were more reluctant to do in the summer. A net spend of £54.6m was lower than Arsenal (£131.8m), Manchester United (£103.7m), Manchester City (£72.7m), West Ham (£63.3m) and Leicester City (£55m). Conte will demand more and perhaps Tottenham’s poor start to the season — Nuno is the first Spurs boss to lose five of his opening 10 Premier League games since Christian Gross in 1997 — has downgraded internal assessments of the squad’s capabilities. In the summer, uncertainty over Kane’s future was another one of Conte’s reservations. Reviving Kane’s form will be one of Conte’s biggest challenges but his managerial pedigree is a useful asset in the ongoing battle to convince the England captain his ambitions can be achieved in north London.
There will be no excuses for the playing staff not to perform. Question marks quickly formed around Mourinho as he fell back into familiar combative tropes, and Nuno’s brief tenure was unconvincing from the start. Now, Conte arrives as a highly coveted manager with a fine reputation and an insatiable desire for immediate success. There should be no hiding place. With sustained and consistent backing from Levy and Paratici, the message to the players will be unequivocally clear.
Paratici’s first instinct when joining Spurs in June was to go for Conte, who had just left Inter Milan after winning the club’s first Serie A title in 11 years amid a dispute over plans to sell players to offset financial difficulties.
Time will tell if he is the right choice. But Tottenham going for their first choice gives Conte a better chance.