Antonio Conte is betting on himself. He’s betting that he can restore star-crossed players to greatness (or, at least, a level of output equal to their salaries/transfer fees). Betting that he can jolt Tottenham Hotspur to life. Betting that his “intensity/winning mentality schtick” — which has generally been around as long as coaches, in any sport, have existed, but which he takes to another level — will be so successful that it persuades the club to loosen the budget constraints and invest meaningfully in the squad.
(And — a corollary to that last wager — betting that if they don’t spend, he’ll still achieve enough that he’ll be able to jump ship to a bigger club, hence his 18-month contract.)
Knowing what we know about Spurs and about Conte, the above is simply the most rational and plausible explanation behind the union of the thriftiest Big Six club in the Premier League and a man who left his last three club jobs (Juventus, Chelsea and Inter) because his team were unwilling or unable to “invest” to a degree that matched his ambition.
Over the past decade, Tottenham’s net spend has been €233.3m, an amount dwarfed by Liverpool (€342.9m), Chelsea (€430.1m), Arsenal (€619.3m) and the two Manchester clubs (City and United are both well past the billion Euro net spend mark). Their wage bill has also consistently been lowest out of the Big Six, too. It’s true that Spurs have spent more than usual in net terms over the past three seasons — according to Transfermarkt, they’ve actually outspent Liverpool and Chelsea in that time frame — but it’s equally true that they were hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic and have a massive stadium to pay off.
Other possible explanations? Maybe Conte, 52, isn’t as obsessed with winning and ambition as he once was (unlikely). Maybe the club is about to be sold to Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or some other multibillionaire happy to bankroll massive losses in exchange for success (also unlikely). Or maybe the club’s existing billionaire owner, Joe Lewis, has decided, now that he’s in his mid-80s, that he’d rather pour cash into the club and see them win rather than sitting around in the Bahamas (even less likely). So let’s stick with the most plausible one: Conte is betting on himself and putting his reputation on the line, and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s done this either.
Conte did it in 2014, when — after winning three straight Serie A titles — he walked out on Juventus, complaining that they weren’t signing “top players” (he famously compared it to expecting him to dine in a €100 a head restaurant with €10 in his pocket) and took the Italy job, at a time when the Azzurri‘s talent pool was at its lowest ebb in 60 years.
That Italy side, featuring the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini, Graziano Pelle, Eder and Mattia De Sciglio, lost to Germany on penalties — remember this? — but played some of the best football in the tournament. Conte showed that he could take some very average players and achieve great things through coaching, hard work and tactical savvy.
His critics will point out — not unfairly — that he won league titles at Inter, Chelsea and Juventus (at least his second and third) with star-studded, free-spending sides, and that when the cash infusions stop, Conte tantrums and leaves, complaining that the club’s “ambition” doesn’t match his. (Frankly, it’s a rather cheap line: it’s easy to be “ambitious” with someone else’s money.) But his experience with the national side between 2014 and 2016, when he took lemons and made lemonade, will always be an effective rebuttal to those who say he can only be successful with lavish resources. It’s simply not true. That’s why the likelier parallel is with the Azzurri than with Chelsea or Inter, both in terms of resources and starting point.
Chelsea may have finished midtable in 2015-16 — the year of the Mourinho meltdown — but they were a season removed from winning the league and signed N’Golo Kante, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso the summer he arrived. Inter were coming off consecutive top-four finishes and pushed out the boat for Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi, Christian Eriksen and Nicolo Barella.
It’s hard to see that happening here. Instead, you imagine, Conte will do what he did first and foremost at Chelsea and Inter, when he spent hours working individually with players. He’ll try to repair and rehabilitate the likes of Tanguy Ndombele, Ryan Sessegnon, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Giovani Lo Celso, players who — for different reasons — performed better in years past. Then there’s Harry Kane. There’s no question he’s been on the slide over the past six months, possibly as a result of wanting (and then failing to get) his move to Manchester City.
Get Kane and, say, three of the aforementioned five back to a decent level, throw in Son Heung-Min, Lucas Moura, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sergio Reguilon and Hugo Lloris (at least until his contract expires in June), and you have a decent starting point. Add in the guys his old friend Fabio Paratici acquired in the summer (you assume he and Conte are on the same wavelength) and get them to perform — we’re talking Emerson and Cristian Romero more than Bryan Gil, who is still very raw — and with a couple of choice, targeted signings in January and Conte’s tactical savvy, you can achieve something this season, especially if Conte succeeds in introducing a system that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, like he did at most of his previous stops.
It won’t necessarily be the back three either (I’m not sure Spurs have the personnel to do it). He has played a whole range of systems, from the 4-2-4 that got him promoted at Siena to last season’s 3-5-2, to everything in between. When it comes to systems, there are none he’s afraid to play and none he thinks he can’t teach. Find the right set up for the raw material at hand and you’re off.
Antonio Conte explains his footballing philosophy and his ambitions as Tottenham manager.
Finishing in the top four is objectively difficult — it’s not so much the gap, which is five points, but the fact that there are five teams ahead of them — but an improvement on last season’s seventh-place finish, a strong run in a cup competition (maybe even the UEFA Europa Conference League) and, most importantly, a sense that you’re headed in the right direction isn’t unrealistic. And then you take stock in the summer.
Kane is obviously key. You either rehabilitate him to the point that someone is still willing to pay £100m-plus for him and then you’ll have cash to invest or, more realistically, since he’ll be 29, that he’s as happy and prolific as he’s ever been.
Is it a gamble? Sure, it’s a massive gamble, but Conte feels he’s gambling on himself. And he’s the sort of person who is convinced that if he’s intense enough and works hard enough, he can get where he wants to be. If he gets it right, in a year or so he’ll have enhanced his reputation even further and be in a position to either demand serious investment from Spurs or, without the burden of a long-term contract, be free to throw his hat in the ring for a possible A-list vacancy (Paris Saint-Germain? Manchester United? Real Madrid? Who knows?).
If he gets it wrong? Well, Conte likely isn’t contemplating that scenario, but he’ll still be the guy who, since 2011, has won more major league titles (five) than anybody not named Pep Guardiola. And that’s not a bad place to be.