Why Antonio Conte and Spurs’ awkward alliance needs fixing

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Why Antonio Conte and Spurs’ awkward alliance needs fixing

The ongoing internal tension at Tottenham Hotspur is perhaps best exemplified by manager Antonio Conte publicly calling for togetherness while also refusing to commit his future to the club beyond this summer. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the 53-year-old’s career will know he is no stranger to this sort of equivocation, as he’s known for manipulating his reputation as a proven winner to keep his employers honest. It usually ends acrimoniously.

Conte has never spent more than three years at any club since beginning his managerial career at Arezzo in 2006. In more recent times, he has delivered great success at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan — until disagreements with senior figures over future strategy contributed to an abrupt departure.

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Spurs knew what they were signing up for — anticipating anything different from Conte would be like getting a cat and expecting it to bark. But the club felt the drama was a price worth paying if he delivered the one thing missing from modern-day Tottenham: trophies. After all, the other pieces have already been there — a stunning £1 billion stadium, state-of-the-art training ground and, in Harry Kane, the talismanic England captain on course to break individual goal-scoring records for club and country.

Tottenham hired Conte not to win just any trophy — although that would be a start since their last silverware came in 2008 — but to make a serious tilt at the Premier League, and maybe even the Champions League on the basis that they reached the final less than four years ago. Given the lack of public comment from owners ENIC Group and chairman Daniel Levy, it’s difficult to know how close the club hierarchy believed they were to becoming challengers when appointing Conte in November 2021. But in all probability, the Italian has made it clear there is more to do than they first anticipated when hiring him.

Conte has repeatedly talked about the gap between Spurs and the top clubs and the need for significant, widespread investment in the squad. After losing to Aston Villa last weekend, Conte described securing Champions League qualification on the final day of last season as a “miracle” — a view with some truth given it required a late collapse from Arsenal to help them over the line.

Antonio Conte took the helm at Tottenham Hotspur last year after stints at Inter Milan and Chelsea. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking ahead of the league game Wednesday against Crystal Palace, Conte continued to flit between insisting he is happy at the club and hinting he could walk away if not 100% convinced about the future. That latter part is effectively code for: “Back me in the way that I want or I’ll move on and coach elsewhere.”

He calls for this from a position of relative strength, secure in the knowledge his nine career trophies as a manager and 14 as a Juventus player provide a gravitas to his argument that is difficult to resist. Spurs have listened to a significant extent. Steve Hitchen had been Spurs’ chief scout since 2017, but left in February last year — three months after Conte’s arrival — following the appointment of Fabio Paratici as head of football. Sources have told ESPN that Hitchen felt marginalised by Paratici, as Conte’s close ally began to drive the club’s transfer strategy alongside Levy.

They’ve also spent money, bringing in midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur and winger Dejan Kulusevski last winter before a net summer spend of around £145m, which included 33-year-old midfielder Ivan Perisic, an atypical Tottenham acquisition given his age and limited ability to increase his transfer value.

Conte wanted more. Of course he did. He always does, and he will this month, too. But the reason tensions are growing is that, simply put, he should be getting more out of the players he already has at his disposal.

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The football at Tottenham, by and large, has been dreadful this season. Forward Heung-Min Son has been well below his best, with just three goals and two assists in 15 league appearances. Sources close to the club have questioned whether Conte’s gruelling training sessions are fully appropriate for the physical demands of a condensed, unprecedented season with a World Cup in the middle of it.

Conte also possesses a mixed track record in developing young players and his desire to spend, mixed with an urgency to deliver, has left some caught in the middle — none more so than defender Djed Spence, a hugely promising talent signed for £19m who has made four Premier League appearances as a substitute totalling seven minutes (plus added time). Hinting at a disagreement over transfer policy, Conte has repeatedly described Spence as a “club signing.”

So, if there is also an acknowledgment going in that Conte is not the sort of manager to stick around long-term, that raises the question: when results begin to slide, what else is there to recommend him?

“We have to stay together and know we are going to do something good if we have time and patience,” said Conte, who has a reputation as one of the more impatient managers of his generation.

Antonio Conte sees Clement Lenglet off the field in Tottenham’s loss to Liverpool in November. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Conte claims he is the one to provide the building blocks for success, and he insisted on Tuesday that he always recognised they cannot win immediately, something he’s accustomed to. “Now, the task is this, my big challenge is this: to continue to work so strong with my staff and the players, to improve the club, to create a solid foundation,” he said.

But what is that foundation? And does a club that appointed Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Conte as managers in succession have a clear, longstanding DNA to develop in the first place?

Conte would benefit from more public visibility from Levy or, even less likely, majority owner Joe Lewis, in describing the club’s vision. Instead, that vacuum has been filled by fan vitriol, which has grown steadily louder of late in Levy’s direction. That leaves Conte to defend a strategy he clearly doesn’t have complete faith in or, at the very least, is at odds with his past.

The divergence seems to centre on Conte’s desire to win now against an acknowledgment that Spurs want to build a core group with a robust mentality capable of winning trophies as more players are added. That long-term vision would be akin to the model of Manchester City or Liverpool, with one or two targeted-but-premium additions each summer.

Ultimately, while Conte insists he is fully invested in Tottenham’s strategy and the club would point to the compromises they’ve already made in return, both parties are not truly aligned. It is perhaps inevitable in a marriage of convenience such as this.

Either Conte needs to fully accept Tottenham are not a club that will spend endlessly in pursuit of glory, or Spurs need to be much bolder in the transfer market. Otherwise this uneasy alliance will only get more awkward over time.