Will Tottenham learn from Mourinho and Conte to avoid old Messiahs?

John Nicholson
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Everything Antonio Conte said in his already infamous post-match ‘please sack me, I hate you all’ press conference was accurate enough about the club and the players, but the ghost in the machine was his failure to mention that his methods have not worked at all and he’s been a very expensive failure.

Spurs are not noticeably better now than when he took over, except they seem to have developed the annoying habit of not bothering to turn up for the first half of games; quite how he’s made them do this with such consistency is a talent all on its own. Without Harry Kane they would surely be a mid-table side.

There is no doubting Conte’s pedigree. He was one of the elite managers. He’s won almost everything, though perhaps significantly, he hasn’t won a European trophy and hasn’t even got to a Champions League final. But the fact is football moves fast and yesterday’s hero quickly becomes today’s zero. You only get so long at the very top. If you can’t keep changing, you can’t keep being the best. And once you slip from your pedestal, what was once the behaviour of an eccentric winner becomes the ludicrous behaviour of a loser.

Taking the Spurs job in the first place was possibly a sign of waning powers in and of itself.

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We saw this with Jose Mourinho who went from being atop the snowiest of managerial peaks to taking a step down and looking ordinary at Spurs, angry that his methods no longer worked as well as they once did, but unable to change radically to embrace new ways, not willing to commit to the time it’d take do the job.

The rot had set in during his second tenure at Chelsea, spluttered at Manchester United and finally burnt out at Tottenham. Now he’s working at Roma, 24 points behind Napoli,doing quite well, but the gloss that was once taken for granted has totally worn off.

This has nothing to do with age, Conte is just 53, but it is to do with flexibility, willingness and ability to adapt. When you’ve been successful with your team playing a certain way, you must think that you’ve discovered the motherlode and will apply these methods to a new club in the sure belief that it worked before so it’ll work again. You set about acquiring players who are imitations of the players that did so well for you previously, or you buy the exact same players, but it doesn’t work quite as well because the football hurdy-gurdy turns and things change.

Players’ mentalities also change or are different from club to club. Teams suss how you’re going to set up and begin to find ways around it. Pep Guardiola is, so far, the exception to this. He has realised he has to keep evolving and so changed how Manchester City play, this season largely abandoning the once-so-fashionable False Nine and sticking a big man up top.

At times it looks like wilfully changing a winning formula just for the sake of it, but it stops the team atrophying into playing a system that works a little less well each season. Whether it will work this season remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t, you wouldn’t bet against it working next season.

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At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp seems to have belatedly realised this need to update, but too late into the season and has had to rebuild as the campaign has progressed, simply because how they had once successfully played was no longer working as well. It happens to all sides.

Mikel Arteta has taken a couple of seasons to assemble a team of players that play the sort of football that has put them as title favourites and it’ll work for one or two, maybe three seasons, but it will need refreshing sooner or later. That’s the test of a truly great manager. Can you change and keep winning? Not many can.

Even Carlo Ancelotti, the most successful manager of all time, was failing at Everton, his methods having little impact. It still feels like a cheese dream that he was ever at Goodison. But the same thing will eventually happen to him in Spain. You can’t keep on being successful doing the same thing ad infinitum.

We see it at a different, though obviously much lower level, with David Moyes. People talk about his success at Everton as a big tick in the plus column, but that was 10-20 years ago, which is an absolute lifetime in football. His ‘success’ in the lockdown seasons even seems a long time ago in football’s ever-changing moods.

Everything is different now and that’s why if you’re still trying to hold onto nil and nick a set-piece goal, or putting 10 behind the ball to defend a lead, has put West Ham in danger of relegation. There’s a point at which these methods stop working as well as they once did. Sometimes the decline is gradual, sometimes it’s sudden.

We saw this at Burnley, albeit in a slow burn. Sean Dyche’s methods had got them to seventh in 2017/18, then slowly but surely stopped working as well and they headed for relegation. But now, under Vincent Kompany playing an entirely different sort of football, they are reborn and taking the Championship by storm, while Dyche tries to re-apply his old ways to Everton to some but limited success.

Managers who can’t change their methods are destined for decline. Conte, having climbed to the top of the ladder, is now heading downwards. That’s twice Daniel Levy has fallen for the Big Name trick because both times he bought them on their way down. He should have known that if they weren’t on their way down, they wouldn’t be interested in managing Spurs. The lesson Levy must learn is don’t believe in old Messiahs, look for a new one.