Tottenham’s Marriage To Antonio Conte Has Reached Its Logical End
11:11 AM EST on March 9, 2023
What is the purpose of Tottenham Hotspur? As a soccer club, Tottenham is, in theory, oriented around winning soccer matches. In practice, though, Tottenham appears to be a decades-long experiment on administering self-inflicted pain, and then reaching for the cure to that pain 10 minutes after the body has passed away.
Case in point: Antonio Conte is still the Tottenham Hotspur manager on Thursday, Mar. 9, despite everyone involved knowing that he will not be the manager by the end of the season. In reality, this was pretty obvious before Tottenham went out with a limp 1-0 aggregate defeat in the round-of-16 of this season's Champions League, to an AC Milan team that is miles off of its Serie A-winning ways of last year.
Across 180 minutes of play in this tie, both in Milan and in North London, Tottenham put on a beautiful presentation of everything that has soured at the club. This wasn't a bottling, the kind that once made Giorgio Chiellini remark on "the history of the Tottenham" after Spurs threw away a Champions League tie to Juventus. Instead, Tottenham just dipped to its lowest level and invited Milan to join in hopes of squeaking by to live another day. Credit to Milan for not doing that, and instead just letting Tottenham control both games with absolutely no end product to show for it.
If there is one moment to focus on from Wednesday's 0-0 draw at the eponymous Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, it is not one of attacking prowess or of defensive rigidity. Rather, it is a substitution. Cristian Romero was one of Argentina's best players en route to the World Cup trophy in Qatar, and he is one of Tottenham's better players in defense. He is also a bit of a dingus, and he proved himself to be just that once again on Wednesday, dropping an unnecessary slide tackle on Theo Hernández about 60 yards away from goal. This earned Romero his second yellow and a sending off in the 77th minute, with Tottenham desperately needing a goal to extend the tie into extra time. (Romero also hurt himself in the process, leading to an awkward wait by the referee to send him off while the defender got medical treatment. It was pretty funny.)
What did Conte do in response to going down to 10 men? Well, he took off one of his most logical routes to a goal in Dejan Kulusevski and replaced him with center back Davinson Sánchez. It must be repeated that Tottenham needed to score or it would be out of the competition, and yet Conte was seemingly alright with just seeing out a 0-0 tie or, at best, seeing his players create a miracle out of a tactical mess. To his credit, Harry Kane almost did in the 93rd minute; his header, aimed low at the ground, was barely saved by Milan keeper Mike Maignan. This was Tottenham's only real chance on Wednesday.
The players did not pull out the miracle in the end, however, and Conte seemed almost content with his incoming firing, whether it happens this week or in two months:
Similarly, Richarlison, who came into the side for nearly €70 million in the summer, voiced his frustrations with the club's management, barely masking that Conte has lost at least parts of the locker room:
This is what Conte does, for better or worse. He's a rigid tactician and a forceful personality, and when things are working, there's no manager on Earth more suited to dragging a side beyond its capabilities. When it's not working, and it often stops working a couple of years into the attempt, then Conte becomes a ticking time bomb, complaining about transfers and waiting by the exit door.
He came to Tottenham in November of 2021, and he did turn around that season for a club that had badly mishandled its post-Mauricio Pochettino transition. Tottenham rose up to fourth in the table, nipping North London rivals Arsenal for the last Champions League spot. That Champions League spot only led to the embarrassment by a merely fine Milan side, but the money that comes from playing in the tournament at all is more important than any particular results.
Less excusable, though, was Tottenham's FA Cup exit against Sheffield United on March 1. Conte was, in part, brought into the side to win trophies, and while the Champions League and the Premier League both feel like pie-in-the-sky dreams, the domestic cups are much more attainable as the club seeks to win silverware for the first time since 2008. With that in mind, it was either arrogance or self-sabotage that led Conte to play a weakened side against a very game second division team, and the 1-0 loss, courtesy of a late Iliman Ndiaye goal, probably sealed Conte's fate in the long run.
The Athletic has reported that there are no ongoing negotiations for a potential contract extension for Conte, whose deal ends in June of this year, and that the club is already lining up replacements. For all intents and purposes, this is a man who knows he is done, but won't be put out of his misery just yet. It's understandable from Tottenham's point of view, if only to avoid yet another embarrassing summer like the one in 2021. By waiting until they have someone lined up to replace Conte before releasing him from duty, the club would ensure a smooth transition to a new era. Whether that someone is former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, a returning Pochettino, or someone else, Tottenham brass, led by chairman Daniel Levy and director of football Fabio Paratici (who is embroiled in a scandal from his time at Juventus), want to be assured of the club's future.
However, by keeping Conte as a lame duck, the club is also risking its Champions League spot for next season; currently, Spurs sit three points ahead of a charging Liverpool, with the Pool Boys having an extra game to play. It's possible, if not likely, that Spurs will be overtaken not just by Liverpool but also by Newcastle in the Premier League table. The way Spurs have played in two win-or-go-home cup competitions recently instills no confidence, and even its Premier League form, which includes a win over Manchester City and one over Chelsea over the last month, has fallen off, culminating in a limp 1-0 defeat at the hands of Wolverhampton on March 4. Under Conte, Tottenham has faltered at exactly the wrong time.
Could he still rouse the players into top four survival? Sure, he did it last year. That was still in the honeymoon period, though, when Tottenham could hardly be believed to employ a man of Conte's stature. Some 16 months after his appointment, things have already devolved so far that he's essentially begging to be fired after a loss in a competition where he personally has not won a knockout match since 2013. Tottenham has become a slog to watch, and the results aren't there. For years, Tottenham has been a fun disaster, one that puts itself into positions to bottle through sheer individual talent and a nose for goal. Sure, the club would inevitably falter at the end—who can forget that Tottenham finished third in a two-team race back in Leicester's Premier League-winning campaign of 2016—but it was fun to watch as a neutral.
With Conte at the helm, though, even a neutral can see that this club has stagnated once again, and there's no fun to be had in watching these players just bash their heads into a wall, only to fail to score against Milan over two legs. It's time for this particular marriage to end the way it was always going to; now it's just a matter of seeing how much damage Conte will cause on his way out.