Tottenham have reached that familiar point in the season. Out of Europe, out of all domestic cups, and hopes of a top four finish hanging by a thread. The early renaissance of Conte’s reign has proved short lived, with the new manager increasingly embattled and frustrated. In a wider context, the club is flailing amidst an endless cycle of false hope and mediocrity, toying with the idea of ambition, but never fully committing. Yet, as another season draws to a premature, predictable close, and fans look already towards the summer, there is one, big, glaring difference this time around.
As Tottenham’s beleaguered players trudged off the field at Old Trafford Saturday, having succumbed to their sixth defeat in nine games, the inevitable questions arose. What’s the plan? Where was the fight? Why is this team so woefully inconsistent? Perhaps most pressing among all of the questions: is it the manager, or the players?
It’s telling that this is a familiar theme around N17 — an almost semi-annual occurrence, in fact, where the shit hits the proverbial fan, and fingers are pointed in every direction. The answer as to who is truly to blame, if you’ve been paying any attention over the past few years, is obvious. Many of these players have been here since the Pochettino era — a full four managerial appointments ago. Ben Davies, Harry Winks, and Eric Dier have been here since 2015. Sanchez since 2017, Moura since 2018; the deadwood is everywhere. The problem with Tottenham’s extraordinary ineptitude in the transfer market, is that while they hold on to deadwood years past their sell-by date, they are simultaneously adding more junk to their stockpile. Thus year after year, the number of quality players decreases, and the pile of deadwood rapidly expands.
The barometer of an ostensibly aspirational club like Tottenham is clear: how many of the current squad would get into the Chelsea, City, or Liverpool teams? The answer, as it has been for years now, is — at the very most — two. Son and Kane are the only players in Tottenham’s squad that would even come close to being on their level. On current form, even Sonny would struggle to find a place. It is a sad, damning indictment of the club’s recruitment over the past few years that a squad once brimming with top, young talent, is now a junkyard for poor, substandard dross.
Thus, for anyone with their head not mired in the sand, the answer is simple: it’s the players. Yet what is perhaps most troubling — and most frustrating — is that it’s not really the players fault at all. They can’t help that they’re not at the required level; that their performances over a sustained period of time are never consistent. We’ve watched many of them fail for years, we know their limitations all too well. So why are they still here?
In short, because it’s simply much, much easier to hold into a failing asset, with zero pressure from above, than find a seller, negotiate a price, and — this is the key part here — actually venture out and find a quality replacement. Of course, at other clubs, this is also known as football. It’s the very nature of the sport — of any sport, in truth. Club’s across the world are constantly evolving, constantly striving to improve themselves. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in England, in the Premier League, where clubs are now locked in a ceaseless arms race for superiority. And it’s not just the big clubs, anymore. Teams like Leicester, Villa, Palace, West Ham, and even Burnley are flexing their newfound financial muscle, and venturing into markets they could only dream of before.
And then there’s Tottenham. Still content to stand still indefinitely. Still more interested in profit and auxiliary revenue streams than actual football. Still churning out excuse after excuse as to why they can’t improve the team or compete with the elite. Still ending windows with a positive net spend. Still being penny wise and pound foolish. Still deflecting and moving the goalposts to some distant, indeterminate time. Still finding ways to surprise and disappoint in equal measure.
This is the Levy tactic: run a team into the ground, refuse to provide the necessary investment, and watch like a vulture from above, waiting for the squad he’s put together to inevitably fall apart and decay. And then, once the rot has become irreparable… he will simply swoop in and terminate his manager. The reset button is hit, the cycle can begin all over again, and Levy can buy himself — and his investment firm — another few years of chaos, unpredictability, and ultimately, failure.
In the past, this has worked with the likes of Jol, Harry, AVB, Poch, and even Mourinho — who many believed might prove a worthy adversary. Antonio Conte, however, is different. The fiery Italian has walked away even from teams who have won Championships. More than once, in fact. While Conte clearly has a broader strategy in giving press interviews, one common theme has been a demand for greater ambition and proficiency in the transfer market. Speaking to Sky Italia in February, Conte admitted:
What happened in January was not easy. We lost four players in January. Four important players for Tottenham, and we brought in only two.
So even in terms of numbers, rather than reinforce the squad, we on paper weakened it.Antonio Conte
Nothing he’s said here is debatable. He’s merely stating the facts. It is almost unthinkable that a club of Tottenham’s stature and purported ambitions would allow their only three attacking midfielders to depart, without bringing in at least two of the highest quality to replace them. But this is how Tottenham operate. Always the bare minimum, always with the “it’ll do” attitude.
Discussing Tottenham’s policy of signing prospects over experienced talent, Conte explained:
That is the issue. That is the vision and philosophy of the club. It is inevitable that if you want to grow quicker, and you want to be competitive more rapidly, you need players with a lot of experience, because they also raise the experience level of the overall team.
But I repeat, I have realized now that this is the vision of the club.Antonio Conte
While some of what he was saying may have been lost in translation, it’s not hard to glean the general gist of his sentiment. He is calling out the ownership, specifically the way in which they’ve operated in the transfer market for the past few years. He’s lamenting that only young, raw prospects, predominantly from the continent, who are cheaper, and more easily available than ready made signings, will be targeted by the club. It’s a regressive, negative, and ultimately doomed philosophy — one that has never been replicated with success anywhere in world football. Yet it has somehow formed the ENIC modus operandi for much of the past two decades.
It is also the primary reason why the club has won 1 trophy in 21 years, and has been forced to live in the shadow of their greatest rivals for so long. Simply put: this policy will not win trophies. It is intrinsically designed to fail; great for profit margins, as we’ve seen, but terrible for football. Conte’s quotes illustrate quite clearly that the goals of the football club — its management, its players, and its fans — have been diametrically opposed to those of its owners. Where one group is looking for glory, titles, and success; the other craves only profit.
What he’s saying should come as little surprise to those who have followed the club for any length of time. He’s telling the world that Daniel Levy and his investment firm have had zero interest in ever truly competing. He’s acknowledging that they may well stick to their failed, half-baked policies of the past, and neglect to change their ways, even for a manager of his caliber.
One can speculate on whether Conte was told he’d be backed, or on how much money he’d have to spend, but it’s all irrelevant. Tottenham Hotspur, despite being little more than a circus act in the past few seasons, and declining for six years straight, somehow managed to land one of the biggest names in world football. Failing to back Conte would almost undoubtedly represent Levy’s single biggest failure. In a tenure littered with mistakes, oversights, and neglect, the failure to back Antonio Conte would stand alone as a singularly destructive, and catastrophic act. It would, in effect, be an act of sabotage.
The truth, is that it wouldn’t be the first time. Yet where with other coaches, there had always been the benefit of the doubt; that perhaps the seeming preclusion of success from above was unintentional (despite the same mistakes, the same failed policies being deployed time after time), he will surely not receive this luxury this time around. Having now overseen the failed promise of 15 different eras, and the implosion of multiple talented teams, there can be no mistaking the intent and motivations of Levy this time around. It would be a conclusive, emphatic statement about his 21 year association with the club. That he truly is only interested in money, that the football is little more than a nuisance — and that Spurs will be mired in purgatory for as long as he is in charge.
Antonio Conte will not wait to be sacked, unlike his predecessors. He will go out on his own terms, likely in a blaze of glory. It’s why many doubt that he’ll actually last til the end of his contract. How telling that a manager who has almost unanimous approval of his fanbase, who’s won titles everywhere he’s gone — and who’s worked wonders already with an extremely limited squad — may well be forced out by the sheer greed and apathy of those who employ him.
The only silver lining in all this, is that Levy’s air of invincibility will be shattered. The penny has long started to drop, and after Conte’s departure, would be in free-fall. It would take someone spectacularly uninformed and naive to not realize what the real cause of this dissolution was. Even with Pochettino, with all he had achieved, there was a sentiment among the fanbase that perhaps he did contribute to his own downfall. Perhaps he was tactically still a bit raw and naive; perhaps it was he who was stubborn in the transfer market, contributing to the sort of recruitment malaise never before seen in a top-flight club. Of course, he wasn’t, but this was the myth that was allowed to be perpetuated — much to Levy’s delight.
With Mourinho, despite his impressive pedigree and trophy record, there was the slight against him that he had recently lost his touch. That his methods were outdated, and that he simply wasn’t compatible with modern day football. This was not the main reason the club failed under his leadership, but again, it was a narrative that Daniel Levy, and fans of Daniel Levy welcomed.
With Antonio Conte, however, no such grey area exists. The man is fresh from winning the Serie A with Inter, a serial winner with Juventus and Chelsea.
“My ambition is to be competitive and to fight to win. I want this and I know my heart, my soul, my mind wants these things. I hope myself and the club match each other in this situation.
…For sure, you need in the future to have other important steps, and to have ambition.
And it needs to be ambition with facts, and not only with words to become stronger.”Antonio Conte
Conte wants his ambition to be matched. It’s a simple request, one that would be implicitly understood at any other club. At Spurs, we will have to wait with bated breath to see whether Levy, Lewis et al. — for the first time in 21 years — can work up the appetite and ambition to genuinely compete at the top level; the level at which Conte is used to operating.
Even Harry Kane, Tottenham’s talisman, sounded his own warning this week, discussing how the club’s levels had dropped in recent years, and how it’s now up to the club to back Conte.
The ball, more than ever, is firmly in the court of those at the top of Tottenham Hotspur. If the club fail again, there will be nowhere left to hide.