If you’re getting sucked under the current, you might as well reach for the strongest line possible. Tottenham, after looking completely adrift as a team and club on Sunday against Manchester United, have pretty much done that by hiring Antonio Conte. It’s not a signal of long-term planning. It’s probably not going to cure the institutional problems that Spurs have. It’s a Band-Aid. But it is THE Band-Aid.
First, Spurs got here because they never really gave Nuno Espírito Santo much of a chance. Santo is a limited manager. He’s pragmatic, defensive, and where he got Wolves — comfortably mid-table in the Premier League — very well might be the ceiling of what he can accomplish. Santo’s tactics can work at the highest level — being compact, defensive, and springing aggressively on the counter — as Jose Mourinho proved a while ago now. It’s not that different from what Thomas Tuchel did with Chelsea to win the Champions League last season.
But you can’t do that if you’re telling a manager like Santo to not do those things, and with a squad that isn’t really built for one direction or the other. It’s not Santo’s fault he was fifth- or sixth-choice for the job, and you can’t blame him for taking it. But Santo was a known-known. Hiring him, and then trying to force him to stick to some foggy and nebulous club policy of playing attacking, attractive soccer was doomed from jump street. You don’t race a Prius.
The thing is, you’re not going to get free-flowing, inspirational soccer from Conte either. But unlike Santo, Conte can point to his overflowing trophy cabinet, and then probably point to his crotch at any suggestion that he has to do it in any way other than his. You don’t hire Conte to not let him be Conte.
There is an urge to try and diminish Conte’s accomplishments by pointing out that he’s basically been at the biggest club in whatever country. Chelsea’s spending prowess is only topped by Manchester City’s. Inter Milan’s only by Juventus, and Juve were seriously on the decline. Juventus were the biggest club in the land when he was there. And Conte walked on all of those clubs when they wouldn’t spend to the limits of their capabilities. Spurs don’t even have those capabilities. What exactly have they promised Conte? And what is he expecting?
That said, the 2016 Italy team that Conte got to the quarterfinals of the Euros and only lost on penalties to defending World Cup champion Germany (thanks to Zaza’s performance art) was about as limited of a side that Italy had thrown out at a major tournament. Conte beat Spain and Belgium on the way. He can do it with lesser talent.
What Spurs fans can expect is reverting to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation. Son Heung-min and Harry Kane can certainly replicate what Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez did last year for Inter. Maybe they don’t have the combined pace, but we saw last season what they can come up with. Or they could go 3-4-3 with Lucas Moura or Steven Bergwijn joining them.
Certainly Sergio Reguilón and Emerson Royal are the wing-backs that Conte desires, and there is a good central defense to be fashioned with the center-backs on hand. Maybe not a world-class one, but Conte just has to get them to play a little over their heads to be quality.
Perhaps the most exciting question is if Conte will bring Tanguy Ndombele in from the cold to link the midfield to attack. He doesn’t fit in a 3-4-3 so much, but in a 3-5-2 that Inter sported last year he absolutely can and flourish doing so. Santo was hesitant, if not loathe, to use him regularly, which only buried him deeper with the Spurs fans. Pierre Højbjerg and Gio Lo Celso can pair as the midfield destroyers in either system and are skilled enough on the ball to spring the front three, in whatever shape, on the counter. There is a team here.
What Conte has to do is get this team working again. Under Santo, Spurs didn’t press, but they didn’t really defend hard in their own half either. Kane used to be one of the harder working forwards in the Premier League, but this season has just wandered through matches like he’s trying to get his parking validated. Conte isn’t going to stand for that. Merely playing with high-pressure anywhere on the field will be a balm to the supporters for sure.
What we do know is that it won’t last long. Conte burns at an inferno-rate and is gone within a couple years, and generally no one is sorry to see him go (maybe because he threatens to murder his defenders?). He clearly has been made some promises about what type and how expensive of a player that Spurs will bring in, but they aren’t going to be for the long-term. This isn’t the youngest squad in the world, but Conte isn’t one to show up for a turnover and rebuild. They’re going to add to what’s here and make it work as best as they can. Which means in two seasons, Spurs might be on an even bigger precipice than they are now. But that’s going to be someone else’s problem, and no one’s going to care as much if Conte brings in a FA Cup or Europa League or gets Spurs back to the Champions League.
It’s a gamble, because if it doesn’t work, Spurs might be more hamstrung than they are now, with an even older squad and more money out the door. But if you’ve got only one throw of the dice left, bet big.