Antonio Conte: Italian’s departure a mere formality after incendiary statements against Tottenham

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Antonio Conte’s departure as Tottenham Hotspur manager was a mere formality from the moment he concluded his incendiary unmasking of his squad’s frailties and the culture of failure at the club.

The Italian could not be bolstered by the protection of results or performances as a shield from an outburst that was always going to receive an ice-cold welcome from chairman Daniel Levy after Spurs cast aside a 3-1 lead to draw at Southampton.

The 53-year-old Conte’s words were heavily laced with self-preservation, both for his previously stellar reputation and for the deadly dull fare served up under his stewardship.

For too long he has carried the appearance of someone feeling he was doing Spurs a large favour by managing them.

The monologue was mischievously described by one observer in the room at St Mary’s Stadium, following that late Spurs collapse, as a “come and sack me plea”.

It put Levy right in the frontline for criticism from fans – and that invariably only ends one way.

And so it proved as Conte took his leave from the north London club by “mutual consent” late on Sunday evening.

The inescapable problem for Levy is that while there was a lot wrong with what Conte said – especially how he carefully loaded responsibility on to his players while taking precisely none himself – there was actually a lot that was right.

It effectively lobbed a verbal hand grenade through the door of Levy’s office.

Conte may have insisted his brief reference to “the owner” and 20 years of under-achievement was part of a wider attack on his players, but it brought the entire stewardship of Levy under scrutiny and posed many questions about Spurs’ future.

Cristian Stellini takes the reins as head coach assisted by Ryan Mason until the end of the season, giving Levy time to weigh up his options, while trying to get Spurs into the top four and the Champions League next season.

This comes with an element of risk because, for all furore surrounding Conte, Spurs remain fourth in the Premier League, albeit having played two games more than nearest challengers Newcastle United. All is not lost.

But what comes next in the long-term?

And what will captain Harry Kane, without a single trophy to his name for all his sustained brilliance, make of it all? Will it be the final straw for his relationship with Spurs?

Levy has appointed managers with a track record of success before they came to Spurs – Conte and Jose Mourinho in particular – only for them to become locked in the same spiral which sees the League Cup as the only trophy won on his watch, and that way back in 2008.

Mauricio Pochettino may not have trophies to his name but is beloved by fans for the attacking style he produced when boss – and the almost-miraculous run to the 2019 Champions League Final when they lost to Liverpool in Madrid.

If ever there was a moment for Spurs to strike, to make a concerted effort to join the elite, that was it.

It became clear an increasingly discontented Pochettino felt the requisite backing was not forthcoming and he was sacked five months later.

And making matters even more painful for Spurs is the stunning renaissance down the road at Arsenal, playing gloriously attractive football with a young emerging side guided by Mikel Arteta.

The Gunners manager was not only backed by a board when many were calling for his removal, but actually given the assurances of a long-term contract and time to do his work, which now sees them eight points clear at the top of the Premier League.

It seems to be the same old story pretty much every time a manager leaves Spurs and the common denominator is chairman Levy.

Argentine Pochettino will be one of the names under consideration by Spurs as they consider their next move, along with former Spain coach Luis Enrique.

The return of Pochettino would have instant results when measured by approval ratings, but what has actually changed from when he was shown the door in November 2019? Would it be an admission by Levy that he got it wrong?

And what about the sudden wild card, the unexpected availability of Julian Nagelsmann, previously admired by Spurs and now available following his unceremonious sacking by Bayern Munich?

Brighton’s Robert de Zerbi has made a stunning impact since succeeding Graham Potter and Ange Postecoglou is excelling at Celtic. Eintracht Frankfurt’s Oliver Glasner is another being touted.

Antonio Conte
Antonio Conte spent two years at Tottenham, having previously spent two seasons with fellow Londoners Chelsea between 2016-2018

Levy’s preferred option would have been for Conte to see out an increasingly loveless association until his contract expired at the end of the season, with neither side showing any desire to extend their partnership, and with Spurs preferably finishing in the top four.

This outcome was impossible after those 10 minutes at St Mary’s when Conte blew a fuse.

And who will even appoint the manager? Levy or managing director of football Fabio Paratici, whose own future is under a cloud after investigations into financial irregularities at former club Juventus?

Paratici was given an 30-month suspension from Italian football under sanctions imposed on Juve by the Italian Football Federation – and it could yet impact on his role at Spurs if extended further than his home country.

It all adds to the current sense of instability around Spurs. Again.

Conte looked like a man at the end of his tether, indeed at the end of his job, at Southampton.

The emotional Italian, though, has also had much to contend with off the field this year, following the deaths of his long-time confidante and beloved fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone along with close friends Gianluca Vialli and Sinisa Mihajlovic.

In the end, however, there was no way he could last any longer at Spurs after launching an attack on the scale he did at St Mary’s.

Levy’s strategy at Spurs chairman must also be questioned. There is only so long he can point to a magnificent new stadium, as good as any in the world, while his club continues to flatter to deceive on the margins.

When making the ill-fated appointment of Nuno Espirito Santo after a protracted search, Levy spoke about a return to the club’s “core DNA of playing attacking, entertaining football”, which suggested he had not witnessed much of Wolves’ pragmatic style under the Portuguese.

Nuno lasted only four months before being replaced by Conte, a hugely successful manager with Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan, but not a name instantly associated with Levy’s previous description.

It was not as if Levy did not know what he was getting with Mourinho and Conte, both in personality and playing style.

Levy has faced up to fan revolt before and survived, but once again his running of the club and its resulting lack of success makes his next appointment another one of those “his most important yet” moments.

And watching it all will be Kane, in the history books for his goalscoring feats at both Spurs and England, but with nothing tangible to show when it comes to actual success.

The all-time record goalscorer for club and country will have one year left on his contract at the end of the season – and may feel the time is right to finally cut the ties with Spurs.

It would certainly present a dilemma for Levy, who would risk losing an expensive asset for nothing 12 months down the line if he holds firm.

Manchester United are already being linked with a summer move and yet more uncertainty and managerial churn under Levy is unlikely to settle Kane’s mind, especially with memories of his previous dalliance with Manchester City still not erased.

Conte’s words may not have sat easily with many Spurs fans or those in the boardroom – and they were self-serving and contradictory from a combustible personality who has not shown any indications of long-term commitment – but they arguably turned the spotlight on Levy like never before.

How the chairman reacts, once the holding pattern of Stellini and Mason ends, will shape Spurs’ future and whether he can finally end the years of failure.

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