The Tottenham Hotspur dressing room has been just like fans’ groups in the last two days. The players have been giddily sharing videos of the last few minutes at Leicester City. Of particular joy has been Antonio Conte going to hug a steward, which has naturally been pointed out to the manager.
A glee has totally replaced a developing sense of gloom. The fretful questions people around the club had been asking have been totally washed away. They’re no longer wondering whether Conte could really walk, or if this is the most difficult situation he’s walked into.
The talk is now only about what’s possible. There’s even more hope about some of the transfers, which had been such a point of contention. This is the excitement that only late winners can produce. This is the effect that Conte can have.
It makes his return to Chelsea this Sunday all the more timely, given how Thomas Tuchel’s effect has suddenly been stunted, and given just how telling the Italian’s time at Stamford Bridge was.
The second season soured to the point that some supporters won’t welcome Conte back, culminating as it did in an acrimonious employment tribunal. The first was genuinely one of the touchstone Premier League seasons, and for Tottenham as much as Chelsea and the division as a whole.
For all the anxiety around Spurs over whether the circumstances are suitable enough for Conte right now, the situation at Stamford Bridge in 2016 was – in the words of some there – “a complete basket case”.
Chelsea obviously had a lot of talent, but the squad were still recovering from the wreckage of Jose Mourinho’s first major meltdown as a manager. The same questions were being asked of the whole club culture as are now being asked of Manchester United. It just seemed broken. So many players, from Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas to Eden Hazard, looked like they were done; as if something had gone from their careers.
That in itself sounds familiar to now. Conte did lay it on a little because it was a chance to needle a rival in Mourinho, but most of what he said at the time was true. “When you finish 10th, there is something strange,” he said early on in that 2016/17 season. “It will not be easy to cancel a bad season like last season.”
It took a lot of hard work, as Conte would often repeat, but also some rare individual insight. Frustrated with the make-up of his squad, the Italian had a moment of clear managerial inspiration as he realised a 3-4-3 might fit.
The result was one of the most resoundingly impressive title wins seen, as Conte oversaw one of the highest leaps from any Premier League winners, going from 10th to first. That wasn’t quite as much as Leicester City, who went from 14th to first, but the points jump was even greater. While Claudio Ranieri’s team claimed an extra 40 points, to go from 41 to 81, Chelsea went from 50 to 93.
That season has since been a little overlooked because it came between Leicester’s miracle and the Pep Guardiola-Jurgen Klopp era, but that’s a little ironic because it also overshadowed another feat of immense overachievement.
Spurs were the team that ran Chelsea closest, with Mauricio Pochettino’s side amassing a huge 86 points.
That might now be written off as an irrelevant runners-up spot, rather typical of Tottenham. Their relative lack of success and financial clout nevertheless means it stands alone in the club’s modern history.
That 86 points is by far their biggest haul of the four decades when three points have been awarded for a win, and that’s even including the seasons with 42 league games. Spurs’ next best was 77 points, in 2017/18, which was also delivered by Pochettino. Again, it is quite a leap. Their return is usually in the 60s.
The only Spurs season that surpasses it in their entire history is 1960/61. Extrapolated to modern conditions, that would have been an 88-point season.
Tottenham’s best Premier League seasons
Andre Villas Boas
Andre Villas Boas / Tim Sherwood
This is all relevant to Conte for three main reasons. It first of all emphasises what an incredible job Pochettino did, and what coaches of their class can achieve. This is the potential for Conte, but also the scale of the challenge.
Pochettino had the advantage of Spurs’ best core of players in at least two generations, but he still had to trust them and hone them. He then maximised them… and yet his 86 points were still only enough to win 14 of the Premier League’s 29 titles.
It was another unfortunate effect of football’s modern economic stratification. In a different era, that combination of unique group and great managerial effect might have been enough to win a title. As it was, Spurs were subsumed by wealthier forces. The club were instead left to celebrate great moments rather than successes. “Ajax 2019” became their real Champions League final.
It is similarly timely that Wednesday night at Leicester offered something similar.
Conte is on the other side of Pochettino’s generation as he is really managing the remnants of that team, given the club still hasn’t had any meaningful overhaul. It is one big reason why there has been such a sense of staleness. Despite that, he remains unbeaten in the league, with six wins from nine. That gives Spurs the second best form in the Premier League, with an average points per game of 2.33. Projected over a season, that would be 89 points.
It is obviously something of a false picture then, from a short span of games. Some of those fixtures have been forgiving, and others have been fortunate. Spurs are not yet anything like an 89-point team.
The biggest question, particularly for someone that demands victory like Conte, is whether they can be; whether he can bring them even further.
That form may not be sustainable but those results mostly come from his effect. The majority of the players are really responding to him. Harry Kane, above anyone else, looks much sharper. Harry Winks is one of a few players back to really productive levels. It was meanwhile the source of much delight that Matt Doherty set up the second goal against Leicester and Steven Bergwijn scored both. These are players whose futures are in doubt.
Conte is at the same time making Spurs much more difficult to read for opposition. As with Chelsea, he is finessing new formations. Spurs are not just going from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 but switching to four at the back in some games, to unbalance opposition sides mid-game. All of that puts them on course for 72 points, which would give them a real chance of top four.
It is all the more impressive given the poor start to the season. Some of that is down to the failings of the clubs around Spurs, but it plays into the fact there is a window there.
There is an opportunity. The question is not whether Conte can seize that, but whether the club can.
There is a danger it will be a repeat of 2018. That summer, Pochettino felt that Spurs could kick on for a proper title challenge, with just a bit more work on the team. He wanted a few players discarded, and two moderate signings in – most notably a young Jack Grealish. The Aston Villa playmaker was willing to go.
Spurs weren’t willing to make the investments necessary. Daniel Levy wanted too much for certain unwanted players, Spurs couldn’t spend what was required.
Pochettino and his staff now see it as a great wasted chance, and occasionally comment that they “could have been Liverpool”. Conte will not want another what-if.
He can possibly make the top four with this team. He feels he can definitely make it with the right signings. It would take a bit more investment than Levy would want, but the rewards could be immense. If that doesn’t happen, and Spurs just miss out, that is when they could miss out on a future under Conte.
Even before the Leicester win, sources who know the Italian didn’t see that as a live threat right now, but concede it could be an issue for the future. The feeling is that this is one job – more than any other he’s had – that he would leave “in a heartbeat” if a better offer came along.
That can change, though. The problems only started at Chelsea when recruitment became an issue. That eroded the connection he had. That doesn’t need to be the case at Spurs. Moments like Leicester help with that connection.
Sunday is probably his biggest test yet, given it is away. It will be the biggest tell over where this team are, and what they can do under this manager.
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