The Tragic Inevitability of Antonio Conte’s Reign

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When Antonio Conte was hired as Tottenham manager, many considered it the last chance saloon for Daniel Levy, the club’s perennially embattled chairman. Forget the fact that after failing Pochettino, Mourinho was supposed to be his last throw of the dice, here was a final reprieve, with Levy somehow managing to recruit one of the world’s most accomplished, and in-demand coaches. If the man who’d won five titles in seven years — including the most recent Scudetto — couldn’t win under his chairmanship, who could?

And yet here we are. Barely eighteen months later, with the club, once again imploding on itself, becoming a running joke amongst rival fans and media alike, and Spurs once more reduced to a banter club. 

So how exactly did things unravel so quickly? Let’s take a look at the actual timeline of Conte’s reign.

November 2021

Antonio Conte is appointed Tottenham manager. The decision raises eyebrows across the footballing world. Conte is the antithesis of a typical Levy manager; brash, outspoken, and volatile. More pertinently, he is a serial winner, who demands his ambitions shared and met by all those around him. There are likely few more diametrically opposed individuals anywhere in European football. And yet, after the disastrous appointment of Nuno Espírito Santo, Levy was backed into a corner, and effectively had no choice but to appoint his nightmare manager. Conte and Levy are, on paper, a massive mismatch in terms of philosophies; one wants to win titles at all cost, the other knows only profit. 

Despite the inherent incompatibility, the Conte era, like so many before him, begins with great promise. His uncompromising coaching methods and punishing training sessions whips Tottenham’s chronic underachievers into something resembling a coherent football team.

January 2022

Conte’s first transfer window at the club. Fabio Paratici, Tottenham’s recently appointed director of football, pulls a rabbit out the hat with two unwanted Juventus players. Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski buck the trend of recent (and subsequent) Tottenham signings by having an instant impact and actually improving the first XI. 

May 2022

Despite patchy form and a proclivity for defensive collapses, Conte’s Spurs pip bitter rivals Arsenal to fourth, and achieve a coveted spot in the Champions League. Of the two North London clubs, it is Spurs who seem primed for success, back in Europe’s top competition for the first time in years, and able to tap into its considerable riches. The club is galvanized, the ship is steadied, and the team appears well set for future growth. Memories of Nuno seem a distant past. All eyes turn to Levy and the board for the upcoming transfer window. The challenge, as Conte himself pointed out on numerous occasions, was to build a squad genuinely capable of challenging the elite, and competing for titles.

July 2022

The summer window opens in promising fashion. Spurs, for once, do business early. Fans are wondering if the penny has finally dropped for Daniel Levy to stop taking shortcuts, and cease his annual hunt for cheaper options. Moreover, fans are hoping that the chairman signs players that the manager actually wants — and that the team needs — not just capitalizing on opportunities that arise across the market. However, while Perisic, Forster, Bissouma and Richarlison arrive in early July, by mid-August, familiar alarm bells begin to ring.

Despite losing both Vertonghen and Alderweireld, the club’s long time defensive stalwarts, and needing new CBs since the Pochettino era, Tottenham again appear to be baulking at another manager’s request for world class defensive reinforcements. The Italian identifies Allesandro Bastoni and Joško Gvardiol as his preferred targets. He ends up with Clement Lenglet on loan. Thus, despite the initial optimism that Spurs have finally changed, we see almost a carbon copy of the Mourinho era, where the Portuguese had identified Milan Škriniar and Rúben Dias, only to end up with Joe Rodon from the Championship.

Another glaring need — again present since the Pochettino era some four years ago — is an attacking midfielder to finally replace Christian Eriksen, ironically enough a player Conte managed at Inter. Conte is not a fan of Tanguy Ndomble or Gio Lo Celso, and ships them off to Napoli and Villarreal respectively. Shockingly, no new attacking midfielders are brought in, and the squad is once again bereft of creativity — something that will plague the team as the season progresses. 

The usual Levy punts arrive in the form of Djed Spence and Destiny Udogie, the latter of which won’t even join the club until the following season. Conte’s plea for a world class RWB ends with yet another kid from the Championship.

Unfortunately for Conte, the overachievement in the previous season was ultimately to his detriment. Levy was, once again, able to delude himself with the narrative that this was, in fact, a richly talented squad that just needed the right manager to get the best out of them. And while the rest of the world could see that Conte, like Pochettino before him, had effectively turned water into wine, and papered over innumerable cracks, Levy was preparing for yet more stasis in the transfer market, making room to focus on new real estate and infrastructure projects — the true bread and butter of the ENIC regime. 

While some decent business was done, and it certainly wasn’t the worst window in the ENIC era, the overriding feeling is that Conte was left short. Major, glaring holes in the squad were not addressed, and incredibly, Conte is going into the new season armed again with reserves from the Pochettino era as his starting CBs. It’s a remarkable act of negligence by the Tottenham board, yet sadly not surprising. Conte is not the first manager to be left short in the transfer market, and won’t be the last. 

Thus, a summer that began with uncharacteristic promise, becomes the beginning of the end for the Antonio Conte era.

November 2022

While Spurs start the season well, the warning signs that performance levels are unsustainable are evident. Spurs are still not able to win a game against a single top 6 rival, losing to Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal, while drawing to Chelsea. It’s a familiar problem for Tottenham, highlighting the deficiencies in the overall quality in the squad. It goes without saying that — much like for Mourinho — this was never an issue for Conte at any of his former clubs, where his teams could always go toe to toe with their biggest rivals.

The first genuine debacle arrives in the EFL Cup, where Spurs are dumped out by 10 men Nottingham Forest, conceding two and unable to score a single goal. Not for the first time, a Spurs calamity features Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez in the heart of defense.

In the Champions League, Spurs enter the final day with qualification uncertain, but beat Marseille 2-1 in the last minute to secure progress into the knockout rounds as group winners.

The World Cup arrives with Spurs in decent form in the Premier League, and through to the last 16 of the Champions League.

January 2023

Performances begin to stutter, and the team’s challenge at the top begins to unravel. After defeat against Aston Villa at home, fans voice their discontent, and anti-ENIC chants become clearly audible.  

The anti-ENIC voices continue to be heard both at Selhurst Park and and Craven Cottage, but strangely, after one of the most abject, listless performances in North London Derby history, chants against the ownership disappear, and fans appear once more numbed into silence. Defeat at the hands of bitter rivals, who assert their eminent dominance, and strengthen their position at the top of the table, is observed with a meek acceptance of inevitability.

The January transfer window sees another opportunity to strengthen the squad, rectify mistakes of the past, and address the glaring issues that continue to afflict manager after manager. Yet instead of a proactive, ambitious targeting of key players, we see another long, unnecessarily protracted transfer saga for Pedro Porro, and a random, pointless punt on a loan player who Conte patently didn’t want in Arnaut Danjuma.

The window is yet another opportunity frittered away, another half arsed, half baked transfer foray, which left Conte short, and the team still struggling for quality in key areas. The Spurs squad, which was threadbare and hanging on by a shoestring, begins to slowly, but inevitably, unravel.

March 2023

Conte is suffering from health issues after having his gallbladder removed, and returns to Italy for treatment. A calamitous run of form sees Tottenham dumped out of both the FA Cup and Champions League within a week. Despite clear issues with the squad, especially with regards to defensive solidity, creativity, and overall depth, fans now turn their ire on the manager.

At St Mary’s a week later, Spurs are leading Southampton 3-1 in the 78th minute, and somehow contrive to draw the game. It’s not hard to draw a line between the failure of Levy and the board to sign adequate defensive reinforcements in the summer (again) and the dismal nature of this capitulation. Yet it is Conte’s tactics, and his management skills that draws the greatest scrutiny. 

A relegation standard defense was never going to work out in the long term — especially for a manager of the caliber of Antonio Conte — and this performance tips the fiery Italian past breaking point. With no faith in anything changing any time soon, and fed up with the chronic, systemic lack of ambition from above, Conte goes rogue. The world watches in amazement as he takes Tottenham, the board, the squad, the fans — everything — down with him in an extraordinary tirade. His brutal assessment of the club is seen as a much needed wake up call by many.

They’re used to it here. Don’t play for something important. They don’t want to play under pressure. They don’t want to play under stress.

Tottenham’s story is this. 20 years they have this owner, and they never won something. Why?

Until now I try to hide the situation, but people think we can fight. Fight for what? For seventh? Eight place?

If they want to continue in this way, they can change the manager, a lot of managers, but the situation cannot change. Believe me.

Antonio Conte

Conte had hinted at the issues behind the scenes before, but had never been as directly critical of his employees. It was, in effect, his parting shot, his final plea for the club to change their ways, and alter the paradigm of mediocrity that had gripped them for so long. His quotes were an explosive dismantling of the entire culture of the club, one which points the finger squarely at the Tottenham board. Inevitably, it didn’t go down well. But while some may take offense, no one of sane, rational mind can argue with the actual substance of what was said. 

Conte is likely to be fired, or leave by “mutual consent” — or whatever jargon the club want to use — and Levy will begin his search for his 15th manager in 22 years. Yet another promising reign, which begun with widespread optimism, and had the Spurs faithful serenading the manager from all corners, ends in turmoil and acrimony, with fans and players more disillusioned and divided than ever before. 

This, ultimately, is the ENIC way. It’s been happening for decades. Hire a manager, fail to back them, watch as the team slowly unravels, fire manager…rinse, wash, repeat to fade… 

The issues to fix at the end of Pochettino era — when he famously called for “furniture” to be added to the house they’d built, and spoke of a “painful rebuild” were clear and obvious. Firstly, crafting a team not so over-reliant on Harry Kane was a priority. A replacement for Christian Eriksen, for so long the heartbeat of Tottenham’s creativity. And perhaps most importantly, two top class CBs to replace Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Four years after the Argentine was sacked for not being able to overcome these deficiencies, each of these issues are still here. It’s an extraordinary act of gaslighting and manipulation by Levy to continue to fool the masses into thinking that the problems lie with the managers, but surely with every new failed appointment the deception is wearing thin? Making insubordinates carry the can for failures that occur far above their heads is the kind of thing we’d expect from a totalitarian despot, not a chairman of one of the world’s most visible football clubs.

One would hope that finally the buck would stop here, that Levy and his gang of nodding dogs had nowhere left to hide. But history tells us that they will somehow, some way, emerge unscathed. All the furore over Conte’s playing style, his tactics, and his comments, serves only to deflect from the actual architects of all this chaos. Fans play a role in enabling them, as do the media. 

It was no surprise to see the same outlets churning out club propaganda in the wake of the interview, placing the onus on Conte, waxing poetic about Ryan Mason’s tactical acumen, and ignoring the fact that these issues precede Antonio Conte by decades. The usual tales about a manager having lost the dressing room, players not liking his training methods, his tone, his hairstyle, etc, were churned out faithfully, and the attempt to rewrite history was in full effect. 

The reality is that same players who failed Pochettino, who cost Mourinho and Nuno their jobs — who’ve tormented the place for the best part of a decade — have now seen off yet another world class manager. It’s an astonishing act of self-preservation by football’s most shameless CEO, who consistently prefers to side with underperforming players over managers, in a craven attempt to save money for his investment firm. Years ago, Levy figured out that it was far cheaper to hire and fire managers than it was to invest in a fully functional squad of footballers. This has now become his modus operandi. It’s worked before — many times in fact — so why change?

Levy’s squads are at best a hodgepodge of random pieces thrown together with little thought or logic as to how everything will translate into on pitch success. At worse they are a facade, a mere illusion of effort, a holder for the club’s true purpose of real estate development. 

Much like with Jose Mourinho, fans are left wondering what Antonio Conte might have been able to achieve with a competent defence. Stats for the season prove that Tottenham’s deficiencies were all in the defensive part of the pitch. Indeed, while Tottenham’s attacking numbers rank among the league’s best (primarily due to Harry Kane, on whom they are still woefully over-reliant), their defensive stats place them squarely amongst bottom half clubs. 

Since Antonio Conte took over, Spurs rank 4th for points and expected goals, and 3rd for actual goals scored. It’s painfully obvious that the real problems are at the other end of the pitch, where the club has consistently neglected to sign quality CBs, and preferred instead to continue with players who genuinely wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship. Tottenham rank 11th for expected goals conceded, and 12th for actual goals conceded. It’s this inherent discrepancy which has now undermined every manager since Pochettino. And it’s even more inexcusable considering that the last three managers hired by Levy have all been defensive coaches, who build their teams around a solid defense.

One can only wonder where this team would have been, what it might have been able to achieve, with a couple of truly top quality center backs. We will never know. What we do know, is that no chairman in world football is more adept, more clinically proficient, at breaking a manager’s spirit than Daniel Levy. We’ve seen it with Jol, Redknapp, AVB, Pochettino, and Mourinho, and now we’re watching it unfold with Conte. Once vibrant, happy, bullish managers gradually reduced to husks of their former selves, roaming the halls of Hotspur way like the walking dead, shorn of life and spirit. No force in football is as uniquely draining as Daniel Levy. Once the rot sets in, there’s no coming back.

So what now? Where does the club even go from here? Tuchel, Poch, Frank, Gallardo, does it even matter? Spurs have tried young managers, old managers, English managers, foreign managers, project managers, serial winners — all have failed under this insidious ownership. Reports suggest that several prospective hires are understandably wary about the underlying tumult at the club, and concerned about the club’s true ambitions. In truth, anyone who takes the job will be a dead man walking; a temporary salve just warming the seat for the next lame duck on the conveyer belt. 

With the imminent departure of Antonio Conte, Levy has found a way to plumb new depths of ineptitude. Tottenham will not have had a manager in charge of a full season since 2018 — a damning indictment of the way in which the club is run, and the extent to which ENIC continue to neglect their footballing operations. How a chairman is able to get away with such extraordinary levels of failure — over such a period of time — is perhaps one of sport’s most enduring questions. But the underlying reason for the perpetual mess the club finds itself in is becoming more and more obvious with every failed appointment, every botched transfer, and every new crisis. 

Tottenham are no longer a football club. They are an entertainment and leisure company, operating primarily as a front for a thriving real estate portfolio. This is why, instead of facing questions about his job and being placed under increased scrutiny, Levy is constantly rewarded with pay rises. As far as Joe Lewis and the rest of his investors are concerned, Daniel Levy is doing fantastically. He’s kept costs down to a bare minimum, found ample new revenue streams off which to profit, and margins are healthier than ever. The football isn’t just an afterthought, it’s an irrelevance. 

The new manager — whoever it is — will be walking into a train wreck. Expected to swim against the tide and compete with ambitious, historic football clubs for titles, all while being undermined and hamstrung from above at every turn.

The club, from top to bottom is not built to win. Not in football, anyway. Conte challenged this paradox, and ultimately will pay for it with his job. 

Keith Burkinshaw’s famous words have never rung more true.

4 thoughts on “The Tragic Inevitability of Antonio Conte’s Reign”

  1. This is a very thorough analysis of this club. It is true and sad. If Harry Kane ever wanted to leave, he needs to at the first opportunity. I want to see him claim one trophy at least! I am sorry to see Conte leave, I liked him. His ‘outburst” was needed but so many fans are blaming him. They just refuse to see what this club is all about and it’s not football. I don’t know if they ever will see it. Thank you for this candid and truthful post.

  2. Devastatingly accurate portrayal of a once great football club which, as you so correctly say, is not a FOOTBALL club anymore. However much the fans want to get rid of ENIC I can’t see it happening while Lewis is still alive.and ENIC are making money from all their non-football interests. They will allow the coach to spend just enough to keep the team in the top six or thereabouts and therefore the fans ( 2 legged cashpoint machines ) sufficiently interested to turn up, Until the fans stop renwing season tickets and buying overpriced merchandise nothing will change,

  3. Maurice Burling Maurice Burling

    So true ! Beware the writer of this great piece ! The mr byrite 💰🤑 police will be after you

  4. Todd Strassberg

    I found the article made sense, and there are so many reasons the season went off the rails (injuries concentrated in specific positions; Hugo’s Howlers costing 6-9 points; Conte’s rigidity of mindset (3-4-3 TID), Conte’s physical health and loss of three close friends, etc.).

    But the but thing that sticks in my mind is the turgid football by players who look either physically or mentally spent over the past few months. This year’s squad is in the best physical shape since Poch’s first 3 squads. They started the season ready to run all day and through walls based on a physical transformation overseen by Gian Piero Ventrone (GPV).

    Remember the famous practice session showing different Spurs players collapsed on the ground either gassed from sprinting, or puking under the watchful eye of their taskmaster. Yet, not only did they all get up and finish, they seemed to love GPV as he was putting them through that level of Hell! Then came GPV’s unexpected death in November, 2022.

    After GPV’s passing we heard an amazing outpouring of love and admiration from the lads who, to a man, describing GPV as a mentor who cared, connected with each of them on a personal level, and provided an inordinate amount of life advice. Personally, Son’s tribute comes to mind.

    I think the death of GPV really affected the lads both emotionally and physically far more than you think…if you think about it at all. Getting drilled into exhaustion in practice after practice is bearable under the direction of someone you love and/or admire and connect with, but it quickly becomes mental torture if overseen by someone you don’t hold in the same esteem.

    Few people, much less our traditionally soft Spurs, seethe to win as much as Conte.
    I see the turgid football as being caused, to a great degree, by same physical and/or mental exhaustion I saw from the 13 players Poch regularly rotated his first three seasons. And for season ticket holders subjected to watching it as they paid the highest price in the league, I accept it was too much.

    I always understood the business plan, and felt Levy improved by signing Paratici – who revamped the front office. But his continued meddling – bringing in Spence and Danjuma – players the manager did not want demonstrates the structure of the Club is still lacking and may never improve under his watch..

    I will see what happens with remainder of this season but if we don’t kick on and qualify Top 4, I will stop spending in on Club Store, and for the first time, consider joining the chorus of those chanting “Levy/ENIC out”.

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