If Tottenham Hotspur are serious about challenging for trophies and ridding the club, once and for all, of its reputation for promising much but delivering nothing, chairman Daniel Levy should respond to manager Antonio Conte’s remarkable postmatch rant at Southampton by offering him a new long-term contract.
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It would be a high-risk strategy, one which would almost certainly lead to some senior players heading for the exit door at the end of the season. But the choice facing Levy now is this: either back a group of players who have repeatedly failed under successive managers, or gamble on giving Conte the licence to dismantle the squad and surround himself with players who share his demanding, winning mentality.
If it is the latter, those players who believe they are now enduring the final days of an unpopular manager before welcoming a new one in the summer would realise that Conte is stronger than ever, with the backing of the club to make tough decisions. It would be shock therapy, but that is what is needed.
After seeing his team surrender a 3-1 lead to draw 3-3 at St Mary’s on Saturday, former Chelsea and Inter Milan coach Conte delivered a brutal, 10-minute post-match assessment of his players’ mentality. It will do little for squad harmony and only serve to increase any hostility towards him, but that is a risk he was prepared to take.
“We are not a team,” Conte said. “We are 11 players that go on to the pitch. I see selfish players, players who don’t want to put their heart into it.
“They’re used to it here. Don’t play for something important, they don’t want to play under pressure. They don’t want to play under stress. Tottenham’s story is this. Twenty years there is the owner and they never won something.
“They change the manager, a lot of managers, but the situation cannot change, believe me.”
When the players began to lose faith in the methods of Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho, Levy removed the managers and pressed the reset button by hiring a new coach. The easiest option now would be to do the same with Conte, whose contract expires in the summer, and clear the air by handing another new boss the chance to be the one who finally cracks the code at the club. But taking the easy option is precisely what Conte is railing against and that is the dilemma facing Levy: accept the manager’s uncomfortable truths or prove him right by firing him and allowing the players to rest easy again.
Conte is by no means blameless for yet another season without a trophy for Spurs following two particularly dismal cup exits against Sheffield United in the FA Cup and AC Milan in the Champions League. He is abrasive, publicly critical of his players and his tactical approach often jars with Tottenham’s identity as a club that plays exciting attacking football. But when he surveys the locker room and looks at his players, it cannot be disputed that he sees a large group who have survived failure for too long at Tottenham.
Eight of his senior players were either signed by Pochettino or given their big chance in the team by the manager who left in November 2019, six months after taking Spurs to the Champions League final. Hugo Lloris, Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Ben Davies, Lucas Moura, Davinson Sanchez and Ryan Sessegnon all date back to the Pochettino era and have nothing to show for their time at the club. Some of them have survived too long under successive managers, while others such as Kane and Son should have taken their talents to a club more capable of providing them with a platform for success.
Kane and Son are examples of players who haven’t played under the pressure or stress that Conte refers to, but whether he is exposing an apparent lack of ambition in those two or suggesting that their teammates have let them down is a question that is up in the air, waiting to be answered. Son signed a four-year contract less than two years ago, when he was at the peak of his form, but a more ruthless, ambitious player might well have lost patience with the Tottenham project and moved elsewhere.
But Spurs offer a comfort zone for their players. The club play at the best stadium in the Premier League and they are a member of the so-called Big Six, although their lack of trophies — just one Carabao Cup this century — suggests that it is really a Big Five, with Spurs only bracketed with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United because of their stadium.
They have all of the credentials to become a really big club, one that wins trophies, apart from perhaps the most important — mentality. Conte has that in abundance, having won league titles at Juventus, Inter and Chelsea, so his impatience and anger with the recurring failings of Tottenham, on and off the pitch, is understandable.
But it would take a change of culture at Spurs for Conte to be backed ahead of the players and nobody expects that happen because Tottenham don’t learn from their mistakes. They only repeat them.