Spurs have certainly acted quickly in replacing Nuno Espirito Santo with Antonio Conte, but the hard work will only just be starting for some at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Life, as they say, comes at you fast. When the full-time whistle blew at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of Spurs’ latest Premier League misadventure against Manchester United, the juxtaposition of the dysfunction of the club and the grandness of their surroundings could not have been more striking. Spurs had become the football club who’d forgotten how to be a football club, as well as an embodiment of how mistakes made at the highest level of a club’s management structure can effect decline at an almost spectacular rate.
It didn’t even take 72 hours for a new broom to be brought into the club. Nuno Espirito Santo, a manager surely destined to become the answer to many quiz questions in years to come, was hurriedly shuffled towards the exit, and now Antonio Conte has arrived. It’s the sort of appointment that requires a double-take. Conte is one of the most accomplished coaches in world football, and his appointment has already breathed some life into a club that has looked increasingly moribund over the last couple of years.
The decision to hire Conte feels as though it was taken by a chairman who was backed into a corner. Santo had come to be seen almost as a symptom of the club’s ills rather than the cause, and the booing during and after the Manchester United game was directed as much at Daniel Levy as at the hapless manager. Levy is the common link between the Spurs of three or four years ago, when becoming the champions of England started to feel if not likely then at least plausible for the first time in more than a generation. His self-preservation instincts seem to have kicked in when the jeering became too loud to ignore anymore.
Sometimes when a football club goes into decline, it can feel as though what is happening is cyclical, a near-inevitability in a league in which most clubs are trying to keep pace with a tiny number for whom, realistically, money is no object. Players and managers come and go in an endless cycle of throwing good money after bad, and there may even be some points at which there is a degree of success, but eventually things usually return to the mean.
But at Spurs, it was different. There was a clear time-line of failure, from the club’s inertia in the transfer market at a point when it was clear that the playing squad needed refreshing, through the decision to fire the coach who’d taken the club to places that most supporters had forgotten even existed, to the decision to replace him with a caricature of Jose Mourinho played by the man himself, and firing him shortly before a cup final, as well as the catalogue of calamities that followed.
And because this was Spurs, of course, every rake they stood on was devoured eagerly by a public who were just grateful to have Spurs doing Spurs things again after a handful of seasons when it looked worryingly like they were showing signs of competence. Just as the new stadium went up, the team went down. It is, we were reliably informed, The Tottenham Way. Self-inflicted injury with a laughter soundtrack.
The question of what happens next is on everybody’s lips at the moment, but no-one really knows the answer. Conte requires financial backing in order to make his vision come good, and Spurs have managed to simultaneously spend too much money while not spending enough. But if Daniel Levy was backed into a corner by the appointment of Nuno Espirito Santo, there’s every chance that he will have had to cave in to Conte over financial demands that might otherwise have brought him out in a rash. Already, shopping lists and wish lists are starting to appear on social media, but these are best treated with caution, and it’s hardly as though the club can move to sign anybody right now.
And this, ironically, is where things do start to get really interesting. It’s not as though Spurs don’t have talented players in their squad, and there may be no better coach in the world to get the best out of them than Conte. A badly-fitting manager can mask all sorts of other issues at a football club, and this includes players who may not have been giving as much as they should for the money they’re earning. If players were coasting during Santo’s period in charge, then they could be in for a very rude awakening, and very soon.
Nor is Daniel Levy off the hook as a result of this decision. Conte is already at the epicentre of a huge groundswell of support from fans, and Levy will have to come good on whatever financial promises he’s made to persuade him to sign in the first place. With Conte’s contract only being 18 months long, it seems as likely as not that this could be little more than a marriage of convenience, but even that could work to the benefit of all concerned. Eighteen months buys breathing space, and an opportunity to put a longer-term plan in place.
The challenges ahead are huge. The January transfer window is not an ideal time to be trying to strengthen a playing squad, and with Newcastle United having shown no signs of improvement on the pitch since the Saudi takeover but being awash with money, it’s hardly as though there won’t be competition in the market. But there is still talent among the players they already have, and now they have a coach who we already know is capable of bringing it out of them. It’s all a very long way from the scenes witnessed both during and after their last witless capitulation. We may be about to find out whether ‘Spursiness’ is indeed a part of Tottenham’s DNA.