Antonio Conte the latest victim of Tottenham Hotspur’s philosophy as a club

Antonio Conte the latest victim of Tottenham Hotspur’s philosophy as a club
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte encourages Oliver Skipp during a Premier League match against Southampton at Friends Provident St Mary's Stadium in Southampton on 18 March 2023. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

As Italian soccer manager Antonio Conte said before his supposedly amicable divorce from Tottenham Hotspur, not much will change unless there is introspection from top to bottom at the club.

Antonio Conte has become the third manager to leave English Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur since 2019 – joining super manager José Mourinho and Portugal’s Nuno Espírito Santo in exiting the club after high hopes upon arrival.

A week ago, Conte laid into the culture of timidness and mediocrity that reigns supreme at the London team before Spurs released a statement on Monday, 28 March, confirming that the two parties had parted ways “by mutual agreement”.

The respected Italian manager – who has coached the likes of Juventus, Inter Milan and Chelsea to domestic league success – had been on edge for large parts of the current season, dissatisfied with his team’s inconsistent displays.

The 53-year-old finally lost all restraint after his team squandered a 3-1 lead with less than 15 minutes left to play against bottom-of-the-league-table Southampton.

“We are 11 players that go onto the pitch [and not a team]. I see selfish players. I see players that don’t want to help each other and don’t put their heart… I am not used to this position. I am really upset and everyone has to take their responsibility,” said Conte during a 10-minute verbal salvo.

Spurs’ Harry Kane rues a missed chance against Southampton on 18 March 2023. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

Success in the Southampton match would have seen Spurs strengthen their push to qualify for the Uefa Champions League for the second season in a row, after having missed out in the two seasons preceding Conte’s instalment.

As it stands, they remain fourth on the table. However, fifth-placed Newcastle United have the minor advantage of two games in hand. As do Liverpool in sixth.

Hence that disastrous collapse at Southampton before the international break left Conte seething.    

“There are 10 games to go and some people think we can fight. Fight for what with this spirit, this attitude, this commitment? What? For seventh, eighth, 10th place?” shared Conte.

“If they want to continue in this way, they can change the manager, a lot of managers, but the situation cannot change. Believe me,” he continued.

Pedro Porro of Tottenham Hotspur in action against Southampton. (Photo: Michael Steele / Getty Images)

“Because they are used to it here, they are used to it. They don’t play for something important here. They don’t want to play under pressure, they don’t want to play under stress.”

Managerial merry-go-round 

The Lilywhites have won just one trophy with the current ownership group, chaired by Daniel Levy, since it took over the club in 2001. They won the League Cup in 2008, under the guidance of Spaniard Juande Ramos.

They have had seven different permanent managers since that success, including three since the 2019 departure of Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino, who took them to the Champions League final before being sacked six months later.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Manchester United’s owners see lucrative escape hatch in soccer club deal boom

Heading into that fateful draw in their last outing, Spurs were already out of all cup competitions this season. Second-tier outfit Sheffield United knocked them out of the FA Cup before AC Milan dumped them out of the Champions League.

The Italian shared that he felt his team had regressed since pipping city rivals Arsenal to the last available spot in the elite European club competition last season. By contrast, the Gunners had done some introspection and are currently leading the race for this season’s Premier League title.

Spurs manager Antonio Conte. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

Mourinho also spoke of the same selfish culture that prevails in the Spurs dressing room during his 17-month tenure in London, telling Sky Sports:

“The selfishness is around, the individual interests are around, the agents are around, the connections between agents and press are around. Instead of developing a feeling of a team, empathy, ‘I do for you, you do for me’, ‘I win if I play 90 minutes, I win if I am in the stands’… This is something that you need time to develop in a group.”

He never received that time. Outspoken like Conte, he led the team to the League Cup final in 2020/21. But he was axed just six days before the match was played, in another bizarre decision by the club’s hierarchy.

The other had seen the longest-serving manager in the Levy era, Argentina’s Pochettino, shown the door after leading the team to its first European final to date.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles of Southampton is fouled, resulting in a penalty, during their Premier League match against Tottenham Hotspur. (Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

A dejected Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg of Tottenham Hotspur after the 4-2 defeat to Manchester City at Etihad Stadium in Manchester on 19 January 2023. (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images)

It left Spurs fans scratching their heads. They appreciated what Pochettino had done for the team during his five-year stay, with limited resources under the frugal Levy.  

Pochettino is now being linked with a possible return to the club. German manager Julian Nagelsmann – who was recently ruthlessly fired by Bayern Munich – is also reported to be an option for the job.

Peas in a pod

The successful business vs football approach that Spurs have generally employed over the past two decades under Levy’s leadership is likely why South African Tourism pinpointed the London club for its audacious attempt at “sponsoring” an international football team.

Other teams in the Premier League – such as the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and London’s Chelsea – would have commanded much more than the R900-million fee which SA Tourism was set to fork out to the Lilywhites over three years.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Football makes such diabolical fools of men, perhaps we should ban it

Arsenal was automatically ruled out because it is already in bed with Rwanda in a similar deal.      

In fact, under a microscope, Spurs and South Africa are not too dissimilar. Levy and company’s ascension to owners of the club brought hope of a new broom sweeping better for the die-hard fans of the London club. The euphoria was similar when the ANC ascended to power in post-apartheid South Africa.

However, in both cases, the believing masses have suffered the most – without much tangible change to reward their loyalty.

As Conte said, without the elephant in the room being addressed, the situation will remain the same perpetually. In both cases. DM


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