A year ago the sky was falling in along the Tottenham High Road. After months of false starts, rejections and fan protests, they had appointed a manager in Nuno Espirito Santo who was about as popular as Ann Veal in the Bluth household. Him? Harry Kane had had enough and was determined to do what was best for his career i.e. play somewhere else. A season of Europa Conference League football held no appeal whatsoever.
Even their table-topping start to 2021-22 felt like a false dawn. Kane went from no show to non-entity and European football seemed to bring merriment only to rival fans, Spurs seemed to exist solely to be trolled by the likes of Pacos de Ferreira. Then Daniel Levy made what might be one of the shrewdest decisions of his tenure in north London, swiftly sacking Nuno and getting the man he had wanted first time around in Antonio Conte. Change was not necessarily immediate but a year on from the chaos it has been profound.
Kane looks to be back to his best. This year’s European competition is altogether more glamorous, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium bequeathed the Champions League nights it was built for. And at the center of it all is one of the best managers in the world. Surely things can only go up from here?
Spurs set to be the best of the rest…
By the time Conte had really left his mark on his new charges there were few metrics that did not indicate that Tottenham were the third best team in the country. Over the 28 games from his appointment to the end of the season, Spurs won 56 points, more than anyone bar Liverpool and Manchester City. They scored more goals and conceded fewer than the top two, registered the third most expected goals (xG) and allowed opponents the fourth least. In terms of xG difference they were comfortably third over what is almost the bulk of a season.
What was missing from that squad? More quality at wing back wouldn’t have gone amiss, so fundamental are those players to executing Conte’s brand of football. Another really authoritative midfielder who could assert himself in the tackle and carry the ball up the field would have helped. And of course that most elusive of figures in Tottenham’s recent history remained, the player who could credibly cover for Heung-min Son and Kane if they got injured. In Ivan Perisic, Djed Spence, Yves Bissouma and Richarlison they have got all those players. Meanwhile Clement Lenglet adds an option to a back three that could have benefited from extra depth.
With the possible exception of a more creative midfielder better, equipped to break down massed defensive ranks — how much might Spurs regret not putting up much fight to bring Christian Eriksen back? — this squad looks ready to assert itself on the Premier League with a level of depth that ought to allow it to compete in the Champions League as well. Tottenham had an effective team that serviced two of the best strikers the Premier League has seen in recent years. They plugged the gaps around them. They have a manager whose tactical acumen, motivational skills and ability to drag more out of those he coaches (and indeed those who employ them) are matched by precious few contemporaries. They already were the third best team in the league. Nothing that has happened this summer at Tottenham, Arsenal or Chelsea seems to have radically altered that. They seem well on course for the upper echelons of the Premier League.
… But is that enough for Conte?
The question that will surely be running through Conte’s mind in the final months of his contract is what the upper limit of this particular squad might be. After all his squad may have been the third best in England but it was a chasm that separated them from the Premier League’s shining lights. Their xG difference of 25.89 was impressive indeed, the teams above them on the list look like they are playing a different sport in statistical terms. Liverpool hit 45.24, Manchester City 55. Tottenham’s xG returns were nearer to those of Brighton and Crystal Palace, their points won as close to Newcastle or, perish the thought, Manchester United.
That is not the sort of gap that you can bridge in one transfer window, no matter how excellent it appears to be on paper. Spurs have proven that on their day they can compete at the same level as England’s finest teams; with no little good fortune they beat City home and away last season and were unlucky not to get more than a point at Anfield in May. What the top two do that it is hard to be certain Tottenham can credibly be expected to do is steamroll everyone else in their path. In the period where Conte was in charge, Spurs went 15-3-4 against teams outside the top six. Liverpool went 19-0-2, City 19-3-0.
Their ability to match the best in Europe on one off occasions would suggest a team that might be well suited to a deep run in the Champions League. Certainly on paper they exist in that clutch of dark horses behind, quelle surprise, Liverpool and City. And yet this hardly seems like a pairing well suited for cup competitions. Famously Conte has struggled in continental football aside from his run to the 2020 Europa League final, where his Inter Milan side blew an early lead against underdogs Sevilla. Meanwhile Spurs can on occasion seem riddled with neuroses, the last vestiges of Mauricio Pochettino’s great side seemingly weighed down by the years and years without silverware. Past evidence would suggest that Conte and this squad should be well suited to league football, the issue is there are two teams who far better placed.
City and Liverpool are finely tuned machines, ones that have been incrementally upgraded in the most precise fashion possible such that they have the sort of formidable depth that Conte can only aspire to. What would it take for Spurs to credibly match those two teams? It might be that the easiest answer is to make Kane and Son 24 again by science or magic. Tottenham might now have a good back up for them but Richarlison is still nothing like the real thing and the clock is ticking inexorably towards the moment where Spurs will have to find that. Kane has just turned 29, Son 30. Entering their fourth decade need not be a death knell for either player’s career but both have plenty of yards in their legs, in the case of the former those have taken a fair few shocks to the system over recent years.
Conte will know all of this, that the best period to win big with this squad is right away. It should be noted that the Italian, who for much of last season only ever seemed to be one loose pass away from quitting, has spoken about building a squad that can grow over the next three to four years even at the same time as he speaks about youngsters such as Spence as being club signings, not his own. His every profession of affection for Tottenham still comes caveated with that repeating phrase “in this moment”.
“You know, football is always very strange,” he told reporters during preseason. “In this moment I’m very happy to stay at Tottenham, I’m very happy to work with this group of players, to work with the club.
“We don’t have a problem and we are trying to create a great group also outside of the pitch with the club. In this moment, we have only one target: to go together in the same direction. I think we are doing well with Daniel [Levy, club chairman] and with Fabio [Paratici, director of football].”
Already considered one of the world’s top coaches, Conte reputation has only been enhanced by the swift strides Tottenham made last season with only a few additions in the transfer window. If this serial winner, a man seemingly addicted to league titles, concludes that the gap to Liverpool and City is too great to bridge, could he blamed if his eye wondered in the direction of a club where major silverware is more within reach?
- Premier League finish: 3rd
- Top scorer: Heung-Min Son
- Player of the season: Heung-Min Son
- Something unexpected: Ryan Sessegnon has a breakout season, ending it with a combined goals and assists tally that is comfortably in double figures