Spurs return to Premier League in familiarly uncertain condition amid The Antonio Conte Situation

Ian King
Spurs manager Antonio Conte

Spurs return to the league in fourth place and the last 16 of the Champions League, so why does the mood around the club still feel so uncertain?


As the Premier League regroups again after the World Cup, the real Tottenham Hotspur still haven’t quite yet stood up. In truth, Spurs have had two separate seasons running side by side since the start of August. In one, they’re in fourth place in the Premier League, still with a little bit of a buffer over Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, and in the last 16 of the Champions League with a favourable draw.

But on the other, there remains a sense of insecurity surrounding their season. They may have signed off before the Christmas break with a knockabout 4-3 win against Leeds United, but Spurs lost four of their last eight Premier League games before the break and these defeats all came against teams surrounding them in the table – Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle United and Liverpool.

It may be early days to be calling them ‘flat-track bullies’, but Spurs really need to start picking up some points against the other teams in the top eight if they intend to hold on to that fourth Champions League place for the remainder of this season. In the middle of January they play Arsenal and Manchester City in the space of five days, and then have their return match against City at the start of February. Lose all three of those games and their chances of matching last season start to look somewhat remote.

And all of this plays out against the background of The Antonio Conte Situation. Conte signed his 18-month contract in November 2021 and that’s due for renewal come the end of June. But the certainty of him signing that new contract has undulated over the course of the first half of this season and it remains far from certain that he will extend.

It has been reported that Conte wants further reinforcements in the January transfer window, but even this is laced with some degree of uncertainty. It can hardly be argued that the manager hasn’t been backed in the transfer market, but Conte has been reluctant to use some of the lavish trinkets that were bestowed upon him during the summer.

Djed Spence cost the club £20m but has hardly featured, making just three brief cameo appearances from the substitutes’ bench. Meanwhile, Emerson Royal continues to labour in the wing-back position into which Spence might have hoped to slot. Richarlison cost three times as much as Spence, but has yet to score for Spurs in the Premier League and hasn’t quite found the role he needs in the starting XI.

The risk for Spurs over spending in the January transfer window is obvious, should Conte not sign that contract extension. The worst of all worlds would be for them to pack the squad with more filler demanded by the manager, only for him to leave for somewhere else come the end of the season and leave someone else having to assemble those parts in their own image.

For a lot of Spurs supporters, there remains a Mauricio Pochettino-shaped shadow on the horizon. The appeal of rolling back those years is obvious. Pochettino took them to second place in the Premier League in 2017 and the Champions League final two years later. The bond between this particular manager and these supporters remains as strong as ever.

But betting the emotional house on this seamlessly coming to pass is a considerable gamble. Pochettino remains connected to just about every available managerial vacancy that comes up – there are absolutely no guarantees that he would still be available by the end of June – while football is littered with the bodies of managers who believed that going home again would restore former glories, only to find that things can be somewhat more complicated.

All of this raises a familiar question: what do Spurs actually want to be? We all know the corporate answer to this. They want to be playing regular Champions League football while hosting a plethora of other events at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. But it will soon have been 15 years since they last lifted a trophy, this year’s ‘attempt’ at the Carabao Cup ended at the first hurdle against Nottingham Forest, and their record against the other teams near the top of the Premier League table hardly fills you with confidence that they’d be up for a lengthy run in the FA Cup, either.

None of this spells anything like a disaster. ‘We haven’t won a trophy in 15 years’ remains something of a first world problem, while the international break has at least offered a bit of a breather following an inconsistent run. And significantly, the one player who had been the spark that has ignited Spurs this season (and who was absent through that inconsistent run), Dejan Kulusevski, is now back from injury. His return alone could make a significant difference to their fortunes.

It all starts to feel a little like a stuck record. A transfer window is coming, so the manager starts making demands for new players. The club makes noises that there might not be as much money as the manager might hope. The tension continues to hang heavy in the air, with no-one quite knowing for certain whether the manager will even be with the club by the middle of next summer.

But there’s a twist. The club may be in a position that looks pretty healthy from an accounting point of view, but the football itself hasn’t exactly been sparkling to watch, consistency has proved as elusive as ever, and this perpetual pas de deux between the manager and the ownership of the club is all starting to feel a little repetitive.

Some of the other clubs in that top third of the Premier League table either are or have been undergoing seismic change in 2022. Manchester United and Liverpool are up for sale; Chelsea underwent the replacement of Roman Abramovich; Newcastle United are under new ownership. We might reasonably suggest that these three clubs are all capable of further improvement.

On top of that, Arsenal are in a happier place than they’ve been for years, while Erling Haaland’s arrival at Manchester City has only further improved their goalscoring options. The terrain out there is only going to become more testing, and the sort of sloppiness that Spurs displayed too frequently in the first four months of this season is only likely to be more severely punished throughout the second half of the season.

And there remains this feeling that Spurs may be stuck in these 18-month cycles in which something more substantial appears on the horizon before disappearing from view again.

Antonio Conte’s arrival at the club in November 2021 might have been a new dawn, and there have been points over the intervening 13 months when it felt almost like that promise could be realised. But the truth remains that the club remains in a strangely uncertain position, with little visible evidence of a long-term plan. The post-World Cup return offers a chance of a fresh start of sorts, but Spurs supporters know all to well that these bright new dawns can very quickly and easily start to feel a little underwhelming.