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Antonio Conte, welcome to Tottenham Hotspur
The man, the myth, the legend explored.
Now, I had initially planned to write about Xavi returning to Barcelona here, but that deal just won’t go through yet. If it happens soon, I’ll write about it as my next article for paid subscribers. But for now, you can read about Antonio Conte instead. Happy Diwali to all who celebrate, and I hope you enjoy the article.
What are Tottenham supposed to be at this point?
Readers of a certain age probably remember their cup runs and think of Spurs as a team that should be winning a lot more than they have. For me, Tottenham were a midtable club in my childhood, and it feels like they’re punching above their weight in doing what they’ve done. If you only started watching football recently, perhaps they appear as a big club in the middle of hard times.
Different contexts make it hard to really sense what success looks like. To me, at least, Mauricio Pochettino’s reign was a golden era for Spurs, pushing for the title and going all the way to the Champions League final. For others, it’s been a huge failure that Tottenham haven’t lifted a trophy since 2008. The thing is, at the time, everyone felt as though they had upset the odds by winning the League Cup, as a side outside the “big four”. Most neutrals viewed them as plucky underdogs against the might of Chelsea. This was Spurs’ first trophy in nine years, but I don’t remember hearing anything about a “drought” at the time.
5000 days later, it’s considered a huge failure that they haven’t won anything. That, I suggest, is a backhanded compliment.
Chairman Daniel Levy has done it without any sort of underlying philosophy to speak of. He’s hired British managers and foreign managers, those who play attacking football and others who grind out results, sporting directors and manager-led recruitment, data analysis and old fashioned gut instinct. He’s tried everything. The only consistent thing is how frequently he changes strategy.
As much as it was the plan, the Pochettino approach was thus never going to permanently become part of the club’s DNA. Yes, Pochettino taught his players everything about his brand of press-and-possess football. Yes, in a better world, Spurs would have maintained this approach beyond his time in charge and had a much easier time swapping out managers. But it was never going to happen. The problem is the Pochettino era was never really replaced by anything.
Jose Mourinho was supposed to add a winning mentality to all the good football this team could play, but he didn’t add anything in terms of the approach in possession. As The Athletic reported, “there was nothing to replace the playing identity Pochettino had worked on for so long. The players found themselves relying on the same attacking moves he had taught them, long after he’d left the club”. Nuno Espirito Santo, from all we can see on the outside, was more of the same. Those patterns of play in possession had grown stale even by the time Pochettino was sacked. They since haven’t been updated in two years.
That will all change now. Conte will be very clear on exactly what he wants from his players, both with and without the ball. This is not a manager who will avoid hard tactical work in training just because the players might get bored. We know this because this isn’t the first time Conte replaced Mourinho after a brief interlude of another manager who wasn’t up to it. After Conte took charge of Chelsea in 2016/17, Eden Hazard was clear on his strengths over Mourinho. “We do more [tactical training] with Conte”, the Belgian explained1. “We know exactly what to do on the pitch, where I have to go, the defenders [know] where they have to go. With Mourinho it was just he put the system [in place], but we didn’t work a lot [on it]. We know what to do because we play football, but maybe the automatism was a little bit different.”
This, then, represents the true end of the Pochettino era in some ways. Conte is a better manager than that, but it reminds me a little of Liverpool hiring Brendan Rodgers in 2012. Two years after he departed, Rafa Benitez still cast a long shadow over Anfield. Much of what worked came from his methods, and the side had not really tactically evolved since his departure. Rodgers did plenty right and wrong at Liverpool, but all of it was different and fresh compared to the leftover remnants of Benitezism. Spurs have been trapped in a culture war of Pochettino-esque process driven football against Mourinho-esque results-driven football. Conte will not care about any of this. He’ll do his own thing, and if anyone doesn’t like it, tough. The new sporting director, Fabio Paratici, will be right with him on that. Conte isn’t famous for getting on with senior management, so I can’t promise this will be a close relationship. But the two will be committed to moving past the Pochettino/Mourinho divide and building something completely new.
Conte is a defensive manager, yes. But his teams do look to dominate the ball with a clear structure in possession. The world wants to divide every manager into proactive and reactive, attacking and defensive, route one or tiki-taka. But Conte has elements of both. “Conte plays positional football too”, claims a certain Pep Guardiola. “It’s very different from my own but it’s a game of position and he does it very, very well”. He’s a pioneer of what I consider a kind of “direct positional play”, using the same structural ideas as Guardiola but with more physicality and long balls. As I wrote previously about his Chelsea team:
“This was a much more complete Chelsea side. When I say that Conte’s team had a plan in possession, I’m not talking about intricate tiki-taka. Their football was direct and rugged. But there was a clear structure to how they moved the ball, switching it long to the wing backs or to Costa for his excellent hold-up play. It’s a little old school at times, but there were evident ways Chelsea had specifically to crack those low blocks and open up space beyond just “give it to Eden”. They often became very dull once they got to 1-0, but this side were so effective at exactly the things they needed to be good at. You can be a good possession side by playing long balls.”
Everyone knows his teams use a back three. But what everyone doesn’t know is that he wasn’t always like this. In his early days managing Bari, Atalanta and Siena, Conte was famous for the “4-2-4” shape. That probably sounds wildly attacking but, by Conte’s own admission, “in actuality it [was] a 4-4-2” of the kind that “in England most teams [are playing]”. The reason he favoured it was, like the old school English approach, it “enables you to cover the playing field in the best possible way”. It’s the same logic that governs Guardiola’s positional play expressed through different means.
He intended to continue in that vein once arriving at Juventus, but the personnel made him adapt. He had three excellent centre backs and three very good central midfielders. What was he supposed to do, leave players out just to fit his ideal model? Conte is more adaptable than that, so he switched to a 3-5-2 shape that dominated Serie A for three seasons. Those three centre backs were all Italian, so it made perfect sense for him to subsequently build the national team around that base. At Chelsea, he really did look at a lot of different formations and started the season in a 4-3-3 shape, before much improved results led him to double down on a 3-4-3. At Inter it was a back three again, but he made a big stink about moving into a 4-2-4 when the side was in possession.
In other words, he probably will play a back three, but don’t expect him to be dogmatic about it. The aim of exploiting the entire width of the pitch will be central regardless of formation.
You wouldn’t bet on this being a lasting love. You wouldn’t bet on him getting on with Levy forever. And you wouldn’t bet on him keeping everyone happy by starting all the players the fans love. He will be him. It will be the Conte way or nothing else. It’ll be a whirlwind of a ride, and it could crash and burn. But I can’t imagine anyone more capable of making something out of this Spurs squad.
Wilson, Jonathan (2018). The Barcelona Legacy. London: Blink Publishing.