The gloom over Spurs has returned – and Conte is no quick cure

Date published: Monday 14th February 2022 9:00 - Ian King

Spurs concede their second goal at home against Wolves.

Spurs have lost twice at home in four days – and the gloom over The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium isn’t limited to just the players or fans.

 

It was a familiar feeling of gloom that descended upon The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium when the final whistle blew on Spurs’ 2-0 home defeat by Wolves. This was a picture with which the home supporters have become all too familiar over the last couple of years: a portmanteau of dejected looking players, a murmur of booing bouncing around a rapidly-emptying stadium, and a manager whose fabled powers of renovation seem to have run into a brick wall.

Against a background like this, the question of who is to blame for the club turning sour yet again will be met by increasing squabbling. Is it the owners, who’ve contrived to find a way to make playing home matches for a place in next season’s Champions League in a brand new, 60,000-capacity stadium which may be the best in the league so unattractive? Is it the manager, whose weekly updates on how the players aren’t as good as he’s used to are starting to sound a little tiresome? Or is it the players, who range from the deeply unmotivated to the frankly not good enough?

Or is it all of the above?

It took fewer than 20 minutes for Wolves to wrap up a win that likely came easier to them than they were expecting. Early goals from Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker put the result beyond any reasonable doubt, Jimenez’s coming after a brief and impromptu game of volleyball with Hugo Lloris inside the Spurs penalty area, the second after a passage of defensive play as directed by The Keystone Kops. From there on, it was a languid and torpid game, played as though they just wanted to run down the clock and be anywhere else.

Casting an eye across the current Spurs team reveals a mixture of players who are doing what they can, players who aren’t doing what they can’t and those who sit somewhere in between. But if this group players isn’t good enough, whose responsibility is that? Is it, say, Davinson Sanchez’s fault that he is Davinson Sanchez, with all the limitations that come with that? Or does the responsibility rest with those who monitored him playing for Ajax in 2017 and thought, ‘Ah yes, he’s the solution to our central defensive issues’?

While it’s easy to pile on the team, the truth of the matter is that few-to-none of them have been performing as even they themselves would expect. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have scored 14 Premier League goals between them this season, but nobody else has scored more than two, while the proliferation of individual mistakes have hinted at a collective loss of both concentration and motivation.

And at this point, attention has to fall upon the manager himself. Antonio Conte’s frustration at the ways things have been failing to progress since he took on this job at the start of November has been obvious, but many of his post-match press conferences have consisted of him making just vague enough complaints about the quality of what he has to work with.

Spurs aren’t Chelsea, Internazionale or Juventus – and he presumably knew that when he took the job. We don’t know what promises were made to entice him to accept it in the first place, but he hasn’t publicly suggested that any have been broken (yet), and if this is the case, it’s probably time for him to buckle down and accept a little more responsibility for a team that he has now been managing for three and a half months. Because the fact of the matter is that whatever it is he is doing at the moment isn’t really working, and has only ever done in fits and starts.

But again, it’s difficult to consider the condition of Spurs without the ancient proverb that a fish rots from the head down. ENIC, the owners of the club, have been overseeing this sort of thing for more than 20 years now, the only constant throughout years of occasional flourishes of promise during years of stagnancy. The continued involvement of Fabio Paratici with the club remains at best a mystery. And the lavish spending on the new stadium coming at the same time as the decline of the team has made the extensive rebuild that many agree Spurs would need to get anywhere near contention for a place among the top three would likely now cost more than they could afford.

There was a time, around three or four years ago, when the squad could have been refreshed under a manager who knew the players and the club. That opportunity was repeatedly squandered through inertia in the transfer market. But the manager who knew the players and the club is long gone now, and the club are on their third coach since, with a squad that is an unbalanced mess of half thought-out plan layered upon half thought-out plan, as reactive – rather than proactive – as ever.

This self-inflicted pain is all the more baffling when we consider just what an opportunity this season is for a club in Spurs’ position. The four clubs directly above them have lost 29 matches so far and it looks as though the points tally required to secure fourth place may be below the usual benchmark figure of 70. Wolves have scored 24 goals. Arsenal haven’t scored more than one in a game since Boxing Day. Manchester United are a deeply unhappy club who can’t stop drawing 1-1. West Ham have won just five of their last 14 Premier League matches.

Even now, Spurs have a chance. Beating Wolves and Southampton would have put them fourth, after all. But while it might well be argued that Spurs don’t deserve to even have that chance, part of what makes truly successful clubs what they are is having the ability to become more than the sum of their parts when they need to and digging out those wins. That’s the “winning mentality” to which Conte refers – rather than having the ability to run through brick walls or anything literal – and ‘deserving’ doesn’t come into it, especially if you’re handed these opportunities and spurn them.

But when the problem is almost everyone and everything and the regeneration cost is too high, how on earth do you even start on rebuilding it? Conte alone could only paper over the cracks and having the fanciest new stadium in England counts for little when the players aren’t performing, apart from it being a very expensive visual reminder of where the club aspires to be. ‘Spursiness’ may be good for cheap laughs among other supporters, and it might even provide a degree of cover for those within the club who so consistently make bad decisions, but it isn’t real and the structural issues that its usage masks are nowhere nearer being resolved than they have been at any point over the last three decades.

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