Tottenham manager Antonio Conte cut a frustrated figure when watching his team slump to three defeats against Chelsea during January.
The Italian coach led the Blues to the Premier League title and the FA Cup during his previous spell in English football. He is accustomed to leading star-studded teams to victory, and he has racked up an impressive trophy haul during successful spells at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan.
Yet he currently faces the toughest challenge of his managerial career. The size of the task was laid bare by Tottenham’s lacklustre performances against his former employers, as Spurs lost 1-0 in both legs of their EFL Cup semi-final clash and then slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
That result left them seventh in the table. However, they have several games in hand on the teams above them, and Conte has certainly had a positive impact on the team during his brief tenure at the club thus far.
A Monumental Task
Tottenham tried to bring Conte to North London in the summer following his departure from Inter. However, he was unconvinced and he decided against the move, so Spurs ultimately turned to Nuno Espirito Santo following a chaotic recruitment process.
The Portuguese coach lasted just 10 Premier League games at the helm. He was sacked after a terrible run of results, which left Spurs eighth in the standings. They had lost four of their last six matches, culminating in a 3-0 defeat to Man Utd in which they failed to register a shot on target.
At the time, Spurs had the third worst goal difference in the Premier League, and they had only scored nine goals in 1 league matches. Talismanic striker Harry Kane was isolated up front, with just one league goal to his name.
Chairman Daniel Levy ruthlessly dispensed with Nuno, and he deserves credit for convincing Conte to take the job. After all, the Italian is widely regarded as one of the world’s best coaches. He said that Levy’s “contagious enthusiasm and determination” ultimately persuaded him to join at the second time of asking.
The club was in dire straits at the time, but Conte’s arrival galvanised the squad and generated a swift improvement in results.
Green Shoots of Recovery
There have been some clear missteps – an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Slovenian minnows NS Mura in the Europa Conference League, and the three defeats to Chelsea – but Conte has led the team to six wins, three draws and just one defeat in 10 league games.
Spurs may be seventh in the league, but they are level on points with sixth placed Arsenal and they have a game in hand on their fierce rivals. They are just one point behind West Ham, with three games in hand, and they are two points behind Man Utd, with two games in hand.
Chelsea are third, 11 points clear of Spurs, but they have played four more games. If Tottenham were to go on a winning streak, they would be in the top three. Man Utd are still the favourites in the spread betting to secure a top four place, but Spurs may now feel quietly confident of pipping the Red Devils to the post.
Meanwhile, the goal difference has improved from -7 to +2, and Kane is now on five league goals for the season. The England captain was a sulking presence up front during the early weeks of the campaign, but he seems rejuvenated after Conte’s arrival. Kane may still try to force a move next summer, but he has clearly been impressed by the way the Italian manager has turned things around at the club.
“He’s a manager that demands a lot,” said Kane. “He’s doing everything he can and as players we’ve responded really well to him and everyone’s working as hard as possible to get success. That’s the ultimate goal for everyone here at the club.”
Pulling No Punches
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Conte’s reign so far is his willingness to lay into his players in public.
After the NS Mura defeat, he admitted that Tottenham’s level is “not so high”. He added that the gulf in quality between Spurs and Chelsea is vast after a string of defeats to his former club this month.
He is an extremely forthright manager, and Levy will understand that Conte is speaking the truth. Spurs undoubtedly have some superb forwards – Son Heung-Min, Lucas Moura and Kane are excellent, even if the latter is keen to leave – but there is a distinct lack of quality in other departments.
It was not so long ago that Spurs had prime Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at the back, with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose excelling down the flanks and Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama bossing the midfield. Now they have a weak spine with second-rate players in many positions.
Conte is undoubtedly a fine manager, but he is not a magician, and he desperately needs reinforcements if Spurs are to match his ambitions. Levy is a notoriously parsimonious coach, but he must whip out the chequebook if the club is to return to challenging for the title.
Conte initially displayed energy and fiery passion on the touchline after joining, but he has looked increasingly agitated and frustrated in recent weeks, and he may walk away if the chairman does not take decisive action.
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