Nuno Espirito Santo is back in management. It’s been a wild 370 days since he took the Spurs job…
Nuno Espirito Santo has been named the new manager of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad to finally bring down the curtain on a bizarre year in the life of the Portuguese manager and the club that appointed him as manager 370 days ago.
While Nuno sets about rebuilding his career at a club that just missed out on the title on the final day of last season, his former club have bounced back in astonishing style. Rarely can any football club have pulled more of a Homer than Spurs over this perplexing and confusing 12 months.
It was June 30 last year when a shambling and confused search for a manager – that had begun with the righteous if unusually timed dismissal of Jose Mourinho the week of the Carabao Cup final and lurched from there to Potter to Pochettino to Conte to Gattuso to Fonseca and others too numerous to list that we’ve forgotten about and simply cannot be bothered to look up now – came to an end. Daniel Levy and Fabio Paratici’s hunt ended in forlorn desperation with a manager who had just been given the boot by Wolves after failing to kick on from a couple of seventh-placed finishes.
At that time Spurs had appointed a deeply underwhelming new manager and had a star striker still trying to engineer a move away from the club via the it-turns-out-flawed route of a halfwit agent and front-page Sun exclusives written by entertainment correspondents.
A seemingly haphazard recruitment drive left the squad looking a mess. Urgently required starting upgrades didn’t really materialise, while a cash-strapped Barcelona could hardly believe their luck when Paratici turned up with £25m for Emerson Royal.
Somehow – and football scholars will study this for the rest of time and come up with no answers – Spurs won their first three Premier League games of the season under Nuno and he won the August manager of the month award. All three were 1-0 wins. The first, against Manchester City, was a genuinely impressive tactical rearguard for a Kane-less team with something to prove. The subsequent wins, with Kane back in the ranks, were rather sketchier affairs against Wolves and Watford.
It felt unsustainable. It was unsustainable. Spurs lost five of their next seven, culminating in a 3-0 whomping off Manchester United that cost Nuno his job. There was at the time a decent argument it should also cost those higher up the food chain.
Paratici’s much-vaunted contacts book had secured an inadequate manager and a couple of dodgy signings from Spain and one from Italy (Cristian Romero) who was hardly unknown. The team was a mess, languishing in mid-table, and the club appeared to be losing its always-fragile grip on its place among the elite. Spurs, it is easy to forget at times, had always been punching just to make it a ‘Big Six’.
And Paratici’s failings were Levy’s failings too. After all this time, here was a man Levy was prepared to entrust with The Football Side of the Business, and it appeared he was a fraud. Sure, he could rustle up some signings for a club like Juventus, but he wasn’t finding it quite so easy to entice players to the anaemic side of north London.
But this is where the pair lucked out. It would be wrong to attribute Antonio Conte’s availability and more importantly (and bafflingly) willingness to pure dumb luck on the part of Levy and Paratici, but it really wasn’t far off. After the mess that had been made of the summer, they really didn’t deserve this kind of break.
In Levy’s case, it was just the latest in a series of errors that really should have taken several years to put right. It freaks my nut out that here we are, barely a year from Nuno’s inexplicable appointment and eight months from his inevitable dismissal and Spurs are right back to where they were under Mauricio Pochettino. And pretty near the peak of that side.
It has not always been plain sailing under Conte, but then it never will. More than once he has appeared right on the edge of f***ing all this for a game of soldiers. It’s increasingly clear that qualifying for the Champions League – a distant dream when he took over and still odds-against three weeks from the end of the season – wasn’t just a cherry on top but a fundamental base requirement for Conte to continue in the job. He was instantly looking higher, and while the current top two make much further upward mobility hard there is at least now a return to the ‘better to fail aiming high than succeed aiming low’ philosophy that once underpinned this occasionally great and oft-shambolic football club.
Where Paratici and especially Levy do deserve credit is they didn’t look the gift horse in the mouth. Having had Conte fall into their lap and the added bonus of Manchester United having a full-scale meltdown, Spurs made decisive moves in January for Juventus pair Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski.
Champions League football would not have been achieved without them, and that opportunity has again been exploited in a series of exciting yet eminently sensible summer signings with the prospect of more to come. ENIC’s decision to make £150m of extra money available this summer may have more to do with a cold-eyed look at the club’s resale value than a sudden decision to be fun-loving big spenders, but the outcome is the same. Spurs are suddenly serious players again.
Really, we’re only writing this all down because it doesn’t really make any sense. None of this should have happened. A year ago any of this would have been inconceivable. Even Harry Kane seems reasonably happy now.
It will probably all go wrong soon enough – Conte is rarely too far from huffing off into the sunset no matter who he’s managing – but it does represent a truly extraordinary turnaround.
Which I guess means good things on the horizon for Al-Ittihad, but there might be a dodgy few months first.