Antonio Conte & Tottenham Hotspur – Pales of Insignificance
Pieter Breughel’s depiction of the fall of Icarus is one that people would seldom manage to glean the meaning of without knowing the name. The only thing that can be seen of the titular character are his legs poking out of the ocean. The tale of a boy that fell into the sea and drowned for flying too close to the sun is an event worthy of taking centre stage. Yet, the scene that Breughel’s paints with his brush is one focusing on the picturesque landscape instead. Icarus’s demise is overshadowed to be such an insignificance by the beautiful landscape in a way that calls into question the perspective of suffering for all.
The painting is still about Icarus though. For the past 4 or so seasons, one could say that Tottenham Hotspur have been emulating the mistake of the Ancient Greek boy. Under the guidance of Mauricio Pochettino, they managed to finish in the top four and with it Champions League qualification.
In those 4 seasons of doing this, they even had a second-place finish, overshadowed by their London rivals, Chelsea. They managed to romp the league with, then, the second-best-ever points record in Premier League. The fact that they recovered from an annus horribilis the season before made it even more remarkable. The man that presided over that team, Chelsea’s beautiful landscape to Tottenham’s Icarus, was Antonio Conte.
Fast forward almost 6 years, Conte has just been relieved of his duties by Tottenham Hotspur. And without the miracles & success he managed to achieve at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter. It was the third permanent managerial appointment since the sad ending of the Pochettino era, with all three coming in direct opposition to the philosophy that Tottenham had seemingly laid.
Daniel Levy, the face of the ENIC group that owns Tottenham, felt the rays of ambition and kept flying higher and higher. Now, with the departure of Conte, coming after his tirade in wake of the Southampton debacle, it seems like Spurs are sinking.
It didn’t start out like this for Conte at Tottenham, however. The Italian came on the 2nd of November and from then until the end of the season, he managed to get the 3rd most points in the Premier League, averaging 2 points per game. Similarly, they averaged that amount of goals per game and just under 1 goal conceded per game.
Looking at their xG, it mostly fell in line with these numbers, with a little overperformance, which is normal for a team of Spurs’ calibre. So essentially, he managed to bring the uplift that was so dearly needed from the hangover that was courtesy of Jose Mourinho and the brief but much-maligned stint of Nuno Espirito Santo.
Not enough can be said about the January signings of Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski being a contributory factor. The former gave the bit of added panache that has been missing from the North London midfield since the decline and then departure of Moussa Dembele. The Swedish attacker had such an impact that he changed what was a fiery duo of Harry Kane and Son Heung Min into a terrific trio.
The run they had in the last third of the season, 32 points from 14 games, was incredible and once again, only bettered by the top two that season in Liverpool and Manchester City on a per game basis. The security of the 3-4-3, something of a Conte staple now, also contributed to that fact as it gave their centre backs more bodies around them.
That run made it feel as if this was the foundation for the springboard that could finally propel Spurs into ending their trophy drought. If not with a team that could go on to have dynastical success that brought home league and European titles alike, but just one to stop the rot at least. The closure of the summer window brought mixed feelings, but a majority were happy with the dealings that had been made.
The acquisitions of Yves Bissouma & Richarlison were of the ilk that would both provide competent enough rotational pieces with an eye to eventually breaking into the first team and cementing a first-team slot. Djed Spence was a signing for the longer term but could also push to be a starter given that Matt Doherty and Emerson Royal had both flattered to deceive. Ivan Perisic on a free as the LWB choice, where he thrived under Conte at Inter, was spoken as the smart pick-up.
Clement Lenglet’s season-long stint with the Lilywhites was to provide much-needed experience and depth to the fragile backline already discussed, even if the signings of Alessandro Bastoni was the one craved by Conte. All in all, it was a transfer window where many felt if Conte was to work the magic he has done with other clubs, they would be in contention of competing for the title.
As aforementioned, the feelings were mixed because the signings didn’t feel like matching the gravitas of having a manager like the serial league title winning, they employed. It felt more of the same whereby Spurs stopped at the point where their manager needed support the most.
As it turned out, Spurs have regressed. Statistically, mentally, tactically. You name it. Their rate of concession under Conte went up from just under 1 to 1.4. That is an extra 11 goals in the same amount of games played.
Even on xG, they conceded about 1.25 per game this season. A manager that prides himself on the ability to keep balls out of the net, Tottenham are anything but hard to beat. In the league, they have conceded the 4 most amount of shots from open play. The only teams above them are Bournemouth, Brentford and Everton.
Open Play only – Stats courtesy of Opta Analyst
If you delve deeper in the stats though, you see that in terms of the xG they concede per shot, it is better than most in the league. Out of 8 selected teams, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Brighton, Man Utd, Newcastle, Chelsea and Spurs, Conte’s team fares the best with 0.09xG per shot, along with the Magpies. The massive difference is that Spurs have conceded 74 more shots than the next highest (Man Utd – 210), albeit playing 2 games more.
Equalising for the games played though, Spurs are still comfortably the highest (10.8). So, while they might look unlucky when compared to their XG, having conceded 5 more goals than you would expect on average, the fact is that they are simply conceding too many shots that will allow for those low-percentage shots to find its way into the back of the net. This coupled with the form Hugo Lloris has been in this season, it has provided a nasty cocktail for the Spurs fan in seeing their team concede way more than they should have.
On the eye, it can be seen as well. It has been remarked time and time again that Spurs lack of provocation when it comes to seizing control of the game has led to the dismal, drab, dark football that has clouded over the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2022/23. Of course, the desire to be entertained is something that any fan would like.
More than anything though, fans like to see competency, even in a style of play leaving the spectator’s desires half-met. When you are playing a style that is reactive and defensive, then it should at least be a team that is difficult to break down, but teams find it all too easy to get off shots on the Tottenham goal.
Their goals scored remained largely the same but that’s due more to the fantastic finishing of Kane, as they have managed to eke out 52 goals from an xG of 43. Exclude the 2 own goals, then you see that Kane is actually responsible for half of that overperformance. It speaks to his quality as a player, but it should be supplemented by others in the squad and in a team with a much higher chance creation.
Throughout Conte’s coaching career, he has been a big proponent of shadow play. Essentially, without a physical ball as a reference, a coach will shout where the ball would be, and the players would set up in the fashion they have been coached to be in until it becomes second nature to them. This along with the fact that Conte enjoys coaching circuits, set moves that the players can use in certain situations to create overloads or get out of pressure, means doing a lot of the same thing repeatedly, day in and day out.
As said by multiple outlets, the players at Tottenham reportedly got bored of this. At its best, it can yield wonderful results. You only have to look at some of the best performances under Conte’s managerial tenure to see how well his team can dismantle the opposition. When it doesn’t, it becomes monotonous and that is never a far cry away from dissent.
The repetitiveness and his own character can begin to wear thin on the training pitch, even if the effervescent celebrations and gesticulations can spur you on in some other moments. Conte just began to wear thin on everyone. Those reports also said that at the end of January, the players and Conte had a meeting whereby it was decided that the shackles would be let off a little. It coincided with a streak where they won 4 out of 5 games, with victories against Man City and Chelsea included.
Then it all came crumbling down again and trophies, the lack thereof, was at the centre of it again. For that run came to end with an embarrassing exit to Sheffield United, followed quickly by a 0-0 draw against AC Milan, the Lilywhites unable to undo their 1-0 loss at the San Siro. With the Premier League title out the picture and the Nottingham Forest loss in the League Cup, it means another trophyless season. So, it made the fans, board, media all think more holistically about the Conte situation.
There would be no justification of the means by the end because it was likely to be an end they have seen in multiple seasons prior. A team that couldn’t justify its agriculture style with any product, in results or trophies, led by a manager whose contract was running out and looked like he wanted to be anywhere in the world but in the dugout of N17. This angst became palpable. It led up to his tirade against Southampton, which made the situation untenable. All making Levy believe that Conte was indeed sackable.
A sacking that leaves Tottenham none the wiser as to where to go. With Jose, it was the story of a manager that had won before but more in his pomp, one he was far removed from. It was archaic, in terms of his management and coaching, but Spurs felt that the winning mentality he had shown in his career would be enough for the talented squad that they had. As it turned out, the Portuguese manager was able to get less change out of them than his Argentine predecessor.
After a debacle of a hiring process, Nuno was appointed as pretty much the last name on the list. Even in the games that he won; Spurs did not look like a team that was going anywhere. If Jose was over the hill, his Portuguese compatriot had never even started on the trail. So, in came Conte, at the top of the hill, in the middle of his managerial career, to give them exactly what they needed. Yet nothing yielded from that either.
Before Icarus set off to flee, his father, Daedalus, gave him stern words of warning. To not fly too high for the beeswax would melt on the wings, as you know, but also not to fly too low. 3 out of the last 4 managers of Spurs have complained about Levy showing complacency in getting the best playing staff available. The Englishman is a shrewd operator, known for getting the best deal when selling, but his shrewdness knows no bounds in house as well. It can be a source of frustration that his hand on the purse strings loosens only when push comes to shove.
In a strange way, Levy has flown too high and too low. He flew high as the attraction of trophies made him go for the short-termism that can often be rooted in desperation. A squad that had seemingly shown the quality to win the things they had contested for, so the Jose Mourinhos and Antonio Contes were brought in to match the new gleaming stadium and training facilities that had been built to bring Spurs to their zenith.
But perhaps they wouldn’t have needed to take on this course of action if they had just been supportive of Mauricio Pochettino instead of too flying low. The belief was that Pochettino would be able to continue to make a lot out of a little. What he did was magical but oftentimes, reality bites back and drags you down back to the level you should be at, just as the sea pulls in someone as they drown.
It has resulted in the conundrum that Spurs find themselves in now. Represented no more than the decision their talisman will have to make in the summer. As much as Kane himself is a Spurs legend, in the Premier League too for that matter, one wonders how much longer he can stay before he too pales to insignificance. Moving on might have to be the only way he fights against that.
Because that is the fate that could currently await Tottenham Hotspur. In the annals of the beautiful landscape of Premier League history, this period in which they were able to be discussed with the powerhouses, a boy kicking his legs drowning in an insignificant parchment of a painting might be the metaphorical summation of the club.
By: Elijah Sofoluke / @AliquamScripto
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto