Antonio Conte has left a trail of destruction at Tottenham - where will he cause chaos next?
One of football’s finest tactical brains has been finessing a unique strategy for a while now. It seems forever on the brink of succeeding. And yet, however often or vituperatively Antonio Conte criticises Tottenham, they refuse to sack him and pretend none of his comments are about Daniel Levy and the board.
Perhaps it is an approach born of a mixture of pragmatism and desperation, rationalising their chances of a top-four finish are higher even with Conte setting fire to the building on his way out than without him. Or maybe Tottenham simply think the greatest punishment they can give him is to force him to manage Tottenham for the rest of the season.
Whichever, Conte’s exit plan seems a little needless, given he is leaving when his contract expires anyway; not so much by mutual consent as mutual discontent. But part two of his gameplan always promised to be harder, and Conte is making it tougher again. He has to find another club and one more suited to his particular demands and the danger is that he is making himself the best unemployable manager in football.
There are relatively few clubs who would tick his boxes and increasing reasons why he would not tick all of theirs. Some would have multiple grounds for rejecting them.
The most obvious is that several already have a manager for the long term; others want one and Conte, whose longest spell at Juventus lasted three years and who hasn’t survived more than two since before and whose crash-and-burn tactics can leave a trail of destruction behind him, is a short-termist.
It was disingenuous when Conte pointed to Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as an example of what time and patience can do when he has neither. Likewise, while Manchester United suffered in the short term by overlooking him as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign unravelled, they are benefiting now from Erik ten Hag’s willingness to rebuild over several years.
The clubs who have an empire builder – like Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp or Manchester City with Pep Guardiola or Arsenal with Arteta – have a smaller turnover of managers anyway, reducing the opportunities for revolving-door managers like Conte.
In Ten Hag, Xavi and Julian Nagelsmann, United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich hope they have figures for the future and the German has a five-year contract. Even Chelsea are trying to focus on the long term, even though they may have to get an upgrade on Graham Potter.
Then there is Conte’s style of play which – perhaps outside his homeland, anyway – can give him the look of a man out of time. In an age when everyone wants their Klopp or Guardiola, he is neither. A passive approach with, by the standards of top clubs, relatively low possession and a low block, could suggest he is an anachronism; back threes are falling out of favour, too, and since Chelsea’s hugely impressive title in 2017, Conte has a lone defining feat, Inter’s 2021 Scudetto.
The lack of entertainment has been an issue at Tottenham, too; on aesthetic grounds, Bayern, Barcelona, Liverpool and City might all reject Conte. It seemed to form part of United’s reservations, too, and Conte appears antithetical to Borussia Dortmund’s ethos. A reluctance to trust in youth and gegenpress form other factors why the Bundesliga’s big beasts might all ignore Conte, even before the thorny question of money came up.
For those with a more pragmatic bent who, like Conte himself, like to judge success by trophies, he has a major shortcoming: his European record is wretched, with Spurs’ limp exit to AC Milan compounding it.
If winning the Champions League has a disproportionate importance to Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, with their very different records, why even consider Conte?
Then there are the problems caused by his past. His explosive outbursts are part of a tendency to make enemies on his way out of a club; if some of those he alienated at Chelsea have since left Stamford Bridge, he may still have been too toxic for a return to be realistic. Likewise, there is little prospect of a second spell at Inter. It may only leave Juventus for a possible comeback.
But Serie A is short of funds and Juventus, with their 15-point deduction, are unlikely to be in the Champions League and face an uncertain future. In turn, that reduces their spending power while Conte has never properly explained why he, Antonio Conte, should always have unlimited funds to spend and be allowed to buy all the expensive players he admires, especially when some of his signature feats have actually come without vast outlay and with excellent coaching and tactics.
Spurs have spent more than Conte would acknowledge but it is an indictment of him that he has brought virtually nothing from £100 million of signings: he readily agreed with Richarlison’s suggestion he is having a “sh*t season” and the £60m buy, Brazil’s first-choice striker, still has not scored a Premier League goal for him. Yves Bissouma, outstanding for Brighton, became the last-choice midfielder for Conte. Djed Spence was given five minutes in the Premier League and loaned out. The January arrival Arnaut Danjuma has been granted just 47 minutes on the pitch.
Meanwhile, Conte has dispatched a whole host of players he does not like out on loan; one of them, Tanguy Ndombele, will win Serie A.
If it could repel clubs with a director of football in charge of purchasing players, it should scarcely endear him to those with a limited budget. Which, realistically, includes virtually everyone in his native Italy. The Serie A recruitment model has come to involve picking up lost talents on loan and discovering the unknown.
Bargain hunting helped Stefano Pioli’s AC Milan win the Scudetto last season. Napoli will do so this season making a transfer-market profit, playing better football than Conte ever has and turning the previously obscure Khvicha Kvaratskhelia into one of the world’s most coveted players. Luciano Spalletti has done an astonishing job on a relative shoestring and Conte’s 2021 title, after two years of heavy spending, looks unaffordable in contrast and led to a fire sale at Inter.
Now AC Milan, like Juventus, has been touted as a possible destination and if the latter feels more likely, recent results at both clubs reduce the need for change while neither could satisfy Conte’s urge to spend. Perhaps Atletico Madrid’s acceptance of pragmatism could render him a potential replacement if Diego Simeone left but there is the risk he ends up complaining Barcelona and Real have more money.
It feels Conte has locked many a door before it could open for him. And if he will slam it on his way out of Tottenham, his ferocious assaults on his employers will further deter anyone else from offering him an escape route. And so a manager with five league titles to his name is running the risk he has nowhere to go next.