Tottenham has gotten its man, 10 games too late. It was no secret that Antonio Conte was Spurs chairman Daniel Levy’s dream hire over the summer as the team sought a solution to its manager quandary, and yet the infamously stubborn chairman failed to convince the infamously stubborn Italian to sign on the dotted line. In came Nuno Espírito Santo, a manager whose brief stint at the club played out pretty much as everyone expected.
And so, out went Nuno after a rough-and-tumble opening 10 games, his final one being a 3–0 loss to Manchester United in the He’s Getting Sacked In The Morning Derby. At last, in comes Conte.
This is a major coup for Spurs—or at least it should be. Conte is one of a handful of managers who completely change the outlook of a club, and definitely the only one of those rare managers who was available at the moment. Whatever his flaws, Conte is a master tactician in a very Italian mold, transforming whatever team he is at the helm of into a disciplined and deadly outfit. His tried and true 3-5-2 formation frees up his strikers to do what they do best, and boy does Tottenham need that.
While the club has talented players at every area of the field, Tottenham’s very best players are the attacking duo of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Conte should be able to maximize their abilities pretty much immediately. Son has been good this season, though not quite at his usual level of excellence, playing evenly between the left wing and center forward. Under Conte, the South Korean will almost certainly thrive in a second striker role that will grant him the freedom to roam wherever he thinks his pace, intelligent runs, and finishing will make him most dangerous. Son has been nominated for a Ballon d’Or, and yet he could still hit a higher level with Conte at the wheel.
Kane stands to be an even bigger beneficiary of the managerial change. Be it a matter of age, injuries, or his prolonged transfer saga this summer, the England captain has been horrid to start the season. In Nuno’s system, Kane was doing some misguided false nine cosplay that saw him regularly drop way too deep into the Tottenham midfield and away from the penalty box, where he is most deadly. That should stop now. Conte has a history of getting the best out of large strikers, with his wide formation allowing for outside-in gameplay that should tee up Kane with loads of chances in the box. Just look at how Conte revitalized Romelu Lukaku’s career for proof of concept. Kane might not be the same player he was when he put up 30 goals in the 2017–18 season, but he’s still great at putting the ball in the net. He just needs the right strategy to get him in position.
The rest of Tottenham’s gifted, if uneven, squad should also benefit from the addition of a manager who actually knows how to get the best out of limited players. The wingback duo of Sergio Reguilón and Emerson Royal will likely flourish in the 3-5-2, where their excellent work-rates will have them constantly shuttling up and down the sidelines. In the center of the park, Tottenham has the promising midfield trio of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Giovani Lo Celso, and Tanguy Ndombele. The club has struggled to figure out how to play Ndombele and Lo Celso at the same time, since both are primarily creative types who aren’t too strong defensively. With protection from Hojbjerg and three center backs, though, the pair should finally get to combine their considerable attacking talents without leaving the team too vulnerable at the back. Plus, Tottenham’s underwhelming center back corps will likely be strengthened in a back three, with an extra player to cover for whatever individual deficiencies pop up.
Now, all of those are reasons why the Conte era at Tottenham could be a hit right away. But there is also a perfectly plausible chance that the Conte era will be a disaster. Should that prove the case, it will likely be the result of a power struggle between the manager and the chairman.
Conte is well known for his forceful, demanding personality that requires full buy-in from a club in order to succeed. This doesn’t just mean tactically, where no one should really doubt his credentials. The transfer market has always been Conte’s biggest bugaboo, and it’s not because he’s particularly bad at picking the right players to buy. Instead, he simply wants all of the players, all of the time. His recent spell at Inter came to end because he felt he was not given enough backing in the form of new signings, and he had no problem up and quitting rather than navigating a reduced budget. A similar sense of him not feeling fully empowered, including financially, contributed to the sour ending to his time at Chelsea. Conte knows exactly what he wants, and if he doesn’t get it, then he will not hesitate to make life miserable for those who deny him.
If you know anything about Daniel Levy, you will see right away why he and Conte might be the worst possible fit. Tottenham has, in recent memory, been an exceedingly difficult club to negotiate with, thanks to Levy’s stubbornness and desire to always hold out for the best possible deal. It’s safe to say that Levy alone is the reason Kane did not go to Manchester City this summer, despite reports eye-popping nine-figure offers. It’s rare that a club can hang on to a star player that wants to go to a richer club that is willing to pay full price, but that’s how Levy is, and he works this way when purchasing players as well. At Tottenham, Levy is the all-powerful one. It’s not clear how he’ll take to a manager who himself demands something close to omnipotence.
This is where Tottenham’s joy might end up short-lived. Reports over the summer claimed that what ultimately prevented Conte from going to Tottenham was he and Levy’s inability to come to an agreement on the club’s transfer outlook. Reports now say that this time Levy has caved and promised Conte over €100 million to play with. That is a promise Levy will have to keep if he hopes to placate his new gem of a manager, and it is, more than anything that might happen on the field, the source of the uncertainty that will dictate whether this is a fruitful partnership that pushes Tottenham back into the upper echelons of English soccer or whether it’s doomed before it began.
Regardless of the long-term prospects of the Conte-Spurs marriage, fans of the club would be right to be ecstatic about the hire. The team now has a manager who the players can fully buy into, who will put out the best possible side for every match, and who can think on the fly as needed. Conte gives Spurs one of the best managers in the world at a point when the team is at risk of falling further behind the troika of Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City.
Even accepting that the whole thing could blow up in under a year, it’s still worth the risk. Conte has won everywhere he’s gone, and has done so in this very same vaunted Premier League. No one Tottenham could have brought in has the resume or tactical ability that this man has. With one move, Tottenham went from the doldrums of the upper mid-table to one of the most intriguing sides in the Premier League. The question of how long this marriage can possibly last will hang over everything the club does, but the payoff should be worth it for as long as the whole thing holds.