On a freezing cold March evening at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Spurs were knocked out of the Champions League by an average, but well-drilled AC Milan side. Unable to look likely to score a goal against the reigning Italian champions, the game was up when Cristian Romero was sent off for a second bookable offence and although Kane forced a late save from Maignan, even if it had gone in, an extra 30 minutes with ten men might have been too much for Spurs to get another goal.
So, where does the blame lie for the latest Cup exit following a meek surrender to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup and the embarrassing loss at Sheffield United last week ? Even though he was not in the country for the FA Cup tie, Antonio Conte was in touch with his coaching staff by video and phone, but the side produced a lack-lustre (and I’m being generous here) performance in losing to a late goal. There was an improvement in the match against Wolves, but failing to score left us vulnerable to a team who don’t get many goals, but got the one that mattered ten minutes from time. So, the mis-firing side, who looked decent enough against West Ham and Chelsea, scored a blank again and lost out to the early goal scored in Italy back on Valentine’s Day.
There are the obvious absences of Hugo Lloris and Rodrigo Bentancur, who were regulars in the side, notwithstanding the criticism that had been pointed at the Spurs goalkeeper this season. Add to that the injury to Yves Bissouma, who might have been the replacement for Bentancur, but Olly Skipp has done well in his place. But in the three games since Chelsea, the team just don’t seem to be firing. And that is a worry for the remaining matches.
So what are the targets for a season at the club ? Top four is all that is left after failing in Europe ? Well, we have seen with Mourinho in charge that isn’t always the way to put all your eggs in one basket. That was when we ended up in the Europa Conference and while we have no right to play in Europe season after season, we have to work hard to achieve that. Batting well above our average in many of our European campaigns, this one was perhaps a reality check. We are not at the top table of European football, despite being part of all the Super League fiasco. Losing to an AC Milan side that is nothing special should make fans realise where we are in the pecking order. And lets’ face it, we have lost to much lesser opposition in the European competitions in the past.
There are trophies that were winnable in the last couple of years. I’m not saying that we would have won them, but instead of throwing away any chance we might have, we could have done better. The Europa Conference might have been a trophy that we had a chance of until we succumbed to a Dinamo Zagreb side who we should have put away and then the loss at Sheffield United in the FA Cup this season when a lot of big clubs had already been knocked out. Again, I am not supposing that the Cup would have been ours, but let’s get in there with the Man Citys and Man Uniteds. We have seen how even winning the League Cup can be a springboard to further success for other clubs.
There is the issue of squad rotation, which only really happens in cup competitions. Fielding weakened sides that should still be able to progress has blown up in our face over the last few years. League Cup defeats at Colchester and Forest, with losses to Norwich and West Ham when we haven’t put out our strongest side a bit further back. And in the FA Cup going out to Boro and Sheffield United in the last two years, but also Palace and Leicester going into the recent past. It is not something that is done these days when teams shuffle the pack to ensure that players don’t get burnt out, but to win things, you are going to come up against teams who want to beat you and field their best sides. That was what was so disappointing about losing in this season’s FA Cup in Sheffield. Not because they wanted to, but United were without EIGHT players through injury and illness and we still couldn’t beat them.
Something that was levelled at Arsene Wenger when the Gooners turned on him was that he was prioritising a top four finish over winning the title, as they were not content with winning FA Cups. The money involved in the Champions League overshadows anything you can make from winning domestic trophies that the lure blinkers owners to the joy of fans that comes with winning a League Cup or FA Cup. So, where Manchester City can field a second string side and still win umpteen League Cups on the trot because they have the resources to pack their squad with players who might grace other starting XIs, not every club can.
Other than the loss of revenue from the Champions League and the disappearance of another potential piece of silverware (not that we would have got much further) are there more long-reaching ramifications to be felt from losing out to AC Milan ? Kane and Conte leaving the club are hitting the headlines, as the media does its best to get Harry to join Manchester United and push any Tom, Dick or Thomas to manage Tottenham. Suddenly, leaks start appearing from “insiders” about the lack of variation in training methods, players being unhappy about the playing style and not getting enough time on the pitch. It appears that the media knives are out for Antonio Conte, who has had a hard year. He has already suffered when the surgeons knife was out to undertake the gallbladder removal that laid him low and left Cristian Stellini nominally in charge. During this time, it was reported that the players were very happy with the assistant coach and were impressed by Ryan Mason’s involvement in training. There is no doubt that losing his close friend and the club’s fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone hit him hard. One of his reliable backroom staff, who had been with Conte for 25 years, Ventrone was praised for making the team fitter than before. His great friend Gianluca Vialli’s death also affected him greatly and while he was back in Italy, where his wife and daughter still live, for his operation and recovery may have put the thought into his mind that he doesn’t want to be away from them and would prefer to be back in his home country.
He hasn’t always been the manager with the twinkle in his eye during his time at Tottenham. Perhaps not realising the nature of the project he was taking on, with Spurs not being a Chelsea or Juventus, who throw money at it to ensure success. It is a very different model and relies on managers managing to get the best out of what they have at the club and to use the Academy to bring players through. And it is that part of the plan that has hit the buffers in the last couple of years. Harry Winks’ departure under Conte signals the latest home-grown player to be eased out, while Oliver Skipp has come into Conte’s side in the absence of Bentancur and Bissouma. Other than a few younger players getting time on the bench, there has been little impetus to blood any of our Academy products.
The return of Mauricio Pochettino would be popular with a large section of the Spurs support and would be at no cost as he has been out of work since leaving Paris Saint Germain at the end of last season. There are benefits to his engagement in that he knows the club well and it is reported that he still has a good relationship with Daniel Levy. Additionally, should he come back to N17, it might be a factor in keeping Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son at the club, as they thrived under his management. Spurs have had more progression with Poch than with other managers, but the club still failed to win anything. He got us close, but no trophy. His brand of football suited “the Tottenham Way” and it would be interesting to see how his experience at his former club in Paris has changed his outlook, but he did win the Ligue 1 title during his 18 months in the French capital.
There would be some irony if Poch returned to Tottenham this summer, as his last contract with the club was due to end in June 2023.
Current Burnley manager Vincent Kompany is a name being bandied around as a possibility to come in and although he is doing well in his first season at the Turf Moor club, leading the Championship, he would be thought of as an outsider. At 36, he has only been managing for two and a half years, with his time at Anderlecht not particularly outstanding. Playing at Manchester City for a long time might mean he has a pleasing style and Burnley are certainly a side that are very different now to the one that Sean Dyche managed, but it would be a big risk that the board might not be willing to take just yet.
With Spurs having showed a response to the Cup exits with a 3-1 victory over a terrible Nottingham Forest side, it is difficult to see their manager Steve Cooper being an option for replacing Conte. He undoubtedly did very well to take Forest from the relegation zone in the Championship to achieving promotion via the play-off final, but they have struggled in the top flight having spent a bundle of cash on more than 22 new players. His tactics are questionable as their away record is atrocious, but he was successful with the junior England sides, winning the U17 World Cup in 2017. He would need to have more experience of managing at the top level if Spurs were to consider him seriously and would need to prove himself, as Forest look as if they could go down at the end of the season.
Luis Enrique is an interesting proposition, with a tactical formation of 4-3-3 that sometimes changes to a 3-4-3 with wingers tucking in and an onus on playing on the break that was successful for him at Barcelona. With the pace in the Spurs side often looking the most potent when in quick transition from defence into attack, it could prove a style that suits Spurs. However, he didn’t have as much success at intentional level with Spain, exiting the Euro 2020 and World Cup 2022 on penalties at the semi-final and round of 16 stages respectively. Not a manager to suffer star players playing the prima donna, he has had run-ins with Francesco Totti at Roma and Messi at Barcelona as he is straight-talking and not one to tolerate interference, so that may be an issue at THFC.
Although Thomas Tuchel claims to have liked the name Tottenham Hotspur when he was young, I don’t feel that a) he will take the job and b) I wouldn’t want him to as another ex-Chelsea boss would be hard to accept. His character is not one that I see working alongside Daniel Levy and he has already come out and said he would only want to manage a club that he can win things at. Seemingly one who spends a lot of money and is in line to challenge for things anyway. Why is it that so many managers are unwilling or unable to put their skills to the test and the old question of “Could Guardiola be successful at Doncaster Rovers ?” can equally be applied to numerous other coaches. His attitude is likely to be a problem, with him falling out with the owners of clubs he has worked out resulting in him not staying long. The fact that he got the sack from Chelsea, who admittedly are a bit of a mess at the moment, speaks volumes. Having won the Champions League, you would expect it to be the start of a run of success, but even with a squad full of internationals, they went downhill quickly.
One of the other interesting names being thrown into the hat is that of the Brighton Head Coach Roberto De Zerbi. Earning a growing reputation in England after taking over from Graham Potter with some good results against top sides, his brand of football has been praised for its attacking focus, but his coaching career got off to a bad start, getting Palermo relegated from Serie A, but then, at Sassuolo, his style was taken on board by the players and they finished eighth in the league twice before he de-camped to Shakhtar Donetsk, only to have to leave when the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened. He seems to be in a similar mould to Pochettino and could be a good fit, but again, he has little experience in the Premier League and at Brighton the pressure on him would not be as great as it might be at Spurs.
Already having been over-looked when Conte was appointed, it would be a surprise if Tottenham re-visited a move for Lille Head Coach Paulo Fonseca, who also failed to get the position at Newcastle United or Aston Villa. He was successful in Ukraine with Shakhtar, but at Roma and Porto, he didn’t maintain the success those clubs had been used to and left after one and two years respectively. Apart from his time in Ukraine, he hasn’t a long list of achievements on his CV and is one of those managers whose name is always mentioned when a job at a big club comes up, but he doesn’t seem one who gets appointed.
Another manager we have considered in the past is Brendan Rodgers of Leicester City, where the natives are getting unsettled with their side down amongst the strugglers, whereas they are now accustomed to winning trophies. His time in the Premier League has seen him win a FA Cup and a Charity Shield with the Foxes, which was dwarfed by his success at Glasgow Celtic, but then a number of managers have found success in Scotland without being able to repeat in in the Premier League. Praised for his style of football at Liverpool, he became their first manager to fail to win a trophy in his first three seasons at the club in sixty years and he was sacked before his move North of the border. Rodgers’ teams play with an attacking focus, which has been a problem when things start to go awry, with Leicester being one of the leakiest defences this season and the lack of tightening up at the back has kept them in the lower reaches of the division. That has made the “Happy Clappers” in the Foxhole more like unhappy bunnies as their home record is very poor. Looked at when he was being bigged up by his former boss Jose Mourinho, who appointed him as Academy manager at Chelsea, his stock has fallen over time and other candidates are more likely to be ahead of him in the queue to take over.
Fulham boss Marco Silva is having a good season back in the Premier League and according to reports, he is highly favoured by Daniel Levy. However, Silva was not a success at Everton and has a track record of not lasting anywhere for very long. Apart from his first managerial appointment at Estoril in Portugal, where he served nearly three years in charge, he has only lasted about a year to 18 months before being dismissed, with his occupation in the Craven Cottage hot seat being the second longest tenure in his career at 20 months. He was even dismissed by Sporting Lisbon for not wearing the club’s official suit to a Cup game, which could have been a motive to engineer his removal from the manager’s post. Fulham have a fairly basic style, using a big centre-forward to lead the line and there is a concentration on getting crosses into the box for Mitrovic to attack. The defensive side of the game has often been a problem for Silva’s teams, with him leaving teams in relegation trouble or having been beaten heavily, apart from Olympiacos, who he left for personal reasons after winning the league.
It is not clear what Levy sees in Silva, other than he has not had much money to spend at the clubs he has managed, but his limited success doesn’t appear to be a factor that would endear his appointment to the Tottenham fans.
A late entry into the race to succeed Conte is Sporting Lisbon Head Coach Ruben Amorim, who Spurs have seen at close quarters in the Champions League this season. An emphasis on a hard press and fast wide men makes his style similar to Pochettino’s, but with dribblers such as former Spurs Marcus Edwards, there are other avenues to attack, causing problems for opposition defences. He likes his players to work hard, so is not that different to Conte, but he appears to have a flexibility in the formations he employs which has brought him success in Portugal, doing the Double in 2020-21.
Amorim would be an appointment at Tottenham much like that of Pochettino, it has been mentioned. Not a serial winner, but someone who might bring a fresh approach and produce football that wins over the fans and hopefully, wins some silverware. But unlike in his home country, it might be much tougher here.
It is not only the appointment of a new manager that is in the spotlight if Conte leaves, but also how the club makes investment in players. Levy has admitted that some failures have occurred recently with big money buys, but look at other clubs and they have their duds too. The club need to do better but if a new manager comes in, will they want their own players ? The turnover of managers means money going out not only in pay-offs to the outgoing manager and the incoming one’s club, it also means a turnover in players with the associated agents fees and salaries that goes with that. It is not about buying the best players all the time, although that would be great if we had the pull and could do that, but it is more about buying the right players … and at the right time.
One of the problems with a regular change in manager is that you don’t just lose money paying them off, but there is also the recruitment of players that they want, which might not suit an incoming coach. It is difficult these days to keep any interest in players under the radar and with it, other teams come into the race to sign them and the price increases. There is also a need to identify targets and get them into the club early. It’s not the way that Spurs have done business, usually waiting until the last minute in the transfer window to squeeze the last penny out of the deal, but that often leaves the season already begun for summer signings, with a late entry leading to their integration into the side being delayed.
And let’s not forget that for the 2023-24 season, we will have a host of players who are out on loan potentially returning. Destiny Udogie, Troy Parrott, Dane Scarlett, Djed Spence, Harry Winks, Bryan Gil, Giovani Lo Celso, Joe Rodon, Tanguy Ndombele, Harvey White and Sergio Reguilon could all be coming back to the THS, with options to buy Clement Lengel and Arnaut Danjuma, who we have brought in on loan. This not only would give any manager coming in an issue in having a massive squad (although some players will leave during the close season), but it leaves the squads being named for the various competitions omitting some players, with home-grown players likely to take advantage over some of the imports. Squad rotation is an important part of the modern game, but as I said earlier, to win things, you need your best players on the pitch as often as possible.
Since Pochettino’s time in charge, we have chopped and changed managers, so this appointment (like all the others) would be one that needs to be right.