EPL TALK: Tottenham are in a mess of their own making

No manager, sporting director and long-term philosophy, Spurs are worlds away from their next trophy

Tottenham Hotspur stars Harry Kane (left) and Son Heung-min struggle to lift the club out of their off-pitch woes this season. (PHOTOS: Getty Images)
Tottenham Hotspur stars Harry Kane (left) and Son Heung-min struggle to lift the club out of their off-pitch woes this season. (PHOTOS: Getty Images)

BEING in Dubai, it’s easy to understand the power battle in North London. There isn’t one. Arsenal are everywhere, for obvious reasons. Emirates Airlines are everywhere. From the inflight entertainment to billboards covering steely behemoths in the desert, there are enough documentaries and beaming superstars to showcase the Gunners’ strength.

Tottenham Hotspur are nowhere, in every sense. An Ethiopian taxi driver – and an Arsenal fan, incidentally – summarised the current state of affairs. “Spurs think they are a good team,” he said, swerving his way towards Jumeirah Beach. “But they are not.”

Antonio Conte echoed the taxi driver’s sentiments when he was initially offered the Spurs job, when he surveyed the squad’s potential and rejected the gig. Spurs thought they were a good team, but they were not. They were in denial, then and now. The Tottenham way.

Every club likes to think they have a unique “way”, sounding like The Mandalorian after too many pints in the pub outside the stadium.

There’s the Manchester United way, a healthy mix of academy graduates, dazzling wing play and trophy hauls. There’s the West Ham United way, a healthy mix of academy graduates and relegation dogfights. And there's the Tottenham way, which is to behave like an entitled, faded actor, living off a solitary Oscar win 50 years ago and still adamant that another golden statue is just a decent script and a solid director away.

Conte recognised the club’s inherent delusions of grandeur immediately, insisting that a squad overhaul and a mental makeover was needed. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy disagreed and went with Nuno Espirito Santo instead.

Four months, 17 games and one Santo sacking later, Levy acknowledged that Conte was probably right, but maintained the faded actor routine anyway. Greatness was still just one good role away. Conte alone could take care of the trophies, at a club without a league title since 1961.

But the experiment was never going to work within such a dysfunctional framework. First, there were the fans to consider. While Tottenham’s support base do not consider silverware a formality – there hasn’t been any since the 2008 Carling Cup win – they do cling to a whimsical ideal of a kind of fantasy football, nurtured by the likes of Hoddle, Waddle and Gazza, which may be an unrealistic ambition in today’s lopsided league.

Conte’s drab fare was tolerated initially, but not when his defensive approach didn’t improve either the spectacle or the trophy chances. The numbers didn’t add up.

And second, there were the owners. Even if Spurs supporters’ aspirations are justified, they are not going to be realised at a club that has never managed to replicate its long-term economic vision with something similar in the dressing room. Had Levy maintained the level of consistent thinking that had built Tottenham's stadium in his managerial appointments, then the 2008 Carling Cup might now sit in more esteemed company.

Former Tottenham manager Antonio Conte (right) and suspended managing director of football Fabio Paratici.
Former Tottenham manager Antonio Conte (right) and banned managing director of football Fabio Paratici. (PHOTO: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Lost manager and director of football in 1 week

Ironically, Levy’s hiring approach is not too dissimilar to Conte's approach with a tactics board. Focus only on the present. Quick fixes are fine. Sign a few. Sell a few. Keep throwing stuff at the wall in the hope that something sticks. Conte pulled this off last season, through the force of his personality. He was a serial winner. His players were not. They were overawed.

The Conte cult inspired 10 wins in Spurs’ final 14 games in the English Premier League to finish fourth. But then what? His players were not equipped to push on. Suddenly, they were overwhelmed. The owners underspent, comparatively speaking, and the Conte cult followed the same trajectory. Just quicker.

At Inter Milan, Chelsea and Juventus, he took over squads with superior bases. His devotion to drilling was enough to take them over the edge, before the inevitable dressing room collapses. With Conte's relentless intensity, the clock is always ticking.

And that’s the third key point in the Tottenham mess: the coaching set-up. Conte is not immune to criticism. On the contrary, his manipulation of press conferences is well known in Italy. He savaged his players after the 3-3 draw at Southampton to engineer an early exit. Spurs required a Plan B and Conte has never had one.

But Levy knew this when the Tottenham chairman appointed Conte in November 2021 after another farcical managerial merry-go-round. The wily operative in the transfer market appears to conduct his coaching selections in a similar fashion, behaving like a purse-clutching auntie on the final day of a department store fire sale. Always hang on until the very end for the best deal.

Before Conte, Levy had gone after Hansi Flick, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso. He’s at it again now, spinning Julian Nagelsmann and Mauricio Pochettino like names in a gun chamber, playing Russian roulette with Tottenham’s immediate future once more.

And then, he’ll take a spin on another director of football, if Fabio Paratici’s extended global ban is upheld. Fifa had previously suspended Paratici from all football activities in Italy, after his former club Juventus were found guilty of false accounting. But the latest worldwide ban means the current managing director of football at Tottenham must step down for 30 months.

Tottenham are seeking clarification, but Levy has effectively lost his manager and his technical director, in embarrassing circumstances, in the same week; a further indictment of a meandering club suddenly bereft of focus and direction.

Son Heung-min has apologised for his peripheral role in Conte’s downfall – a filial son to the end – but the wayward form of the South Korean forward hardly explains the entrenched malaise at a club still incapable of matching its economic stability on the pitch.

Tottenham hired the wrong manager for a squad of limited means. Paratici was expected to find Conte’s replacement, but the Italian’s ban prohibits him from talking to agents or negotiating possible transfers. An erratic spending policy brought in the likes of Richarlison, Cristian Romero, Yves Bissouma, Destiny Udogie and Will Lankshear, but Spurs are no closer to a discernible playing style. They are a manager, a sporting director, a long-term philosophy and a decent squad away from their next trophy. It’s a mess.

Indeed, there are only two certainties at Tottenham: Harry Kane’s goals and sustained chaos. And one no longer deserves the other.

There are only two certainties at Tottenham: Harry Kane’s goals and sustained chaos. And one no longer deserves the other.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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