Antonio Conte has given Tottenham players the jolt they badly needed | Jonathan Wilson
There is, the statswallahs tell us, no such thing as new-manager bounce. Our brains, attuned to spotting patterns, spy a regression to the mean and attribute it to the arrival of a new manager. And probably in the long term that is largely true. But it does seem to ignore the way the replacement of one manager by another can lead players to reset and refocus; a project that had gone stale can, at least temporarily, be refreshed. It also ignores Antonio Conte.
Five Premier League games since he took over at Tottenham have yielded 11 points and, while beating Leeds (narrowly), Brentford and Norwich may not seem like much, the performance in last week’s 2-2 draw against Liverpool represented a clear upturn. There was an energy and intensity that has not been seen since the Mauricio Pochettino era – and not even really in the final few months of that.
At which point, before anybody gets too excited, it probably is worth remembering where Spurs were at Christmas last year. Then, too, Tottenham had just reached the League Cup semi-finals and although they were sixth in the league, a place better off than this season, they were only six points behind the leaders, Liverpool, and two points off second, rather than 18 points behind the leaders, Manchester City, and 15 off second as they are now (albeit they have three games in hand on many of the sides above them).
It had been only two league games earlier that a win at Anfield would have taken them top, and there had even been a thought that in a weird Covid-affected season, with empty stadiums, a truncated pre-season and a compacted calendar, José Mourinho’s vision of football might again be successful, the ancient king returning to bestride the ravaged world.
As it turned out, his negativity at Anfield after Spurs’ equaliser invited pressure that brought a Liverpool winner, precipitating the doom cycle of seven wins from 19 league games. So while Tottenham’s position may look ostensibly similar to how it appeared last Christmas, the direction of travel looks very different.
Taking over mid-season should make it difficult for a coach who specialises in pressing. Really, he needs a full pre-season to get the players fit enough and to instil those patterns. At Tottenham, there had been a sense, under Mourinho and then Nuno Espírito Santo, that fitness levels had dropped from where they were under Pochettino: his pressing demanded it; their more reactive approach did not. And yet Tottenham have gone from running 100km a game under Nuno, the lowest figure in the Premier League, to 115km a game under Conte, the highest.
Although being without a number of players must have complicated things, it may be that the three postponed matches have helped, giving Conte a little time to work with his squad without the immediate pressure for results. But still, the upturn is remarkable. Football is an increasingly complicated game, but maybe all they needed was to get off the ketchup. The condiment prohibition is easy to mock, but it is important for what it represents: Conte cares about details, he demands self-sacrifice and he is changing the wider culture of the club.
Whether that improvement is sustainable is another issue. Jürgen Klopp took over at Liverpool in October 2015 and, after an initial uplift, results were patchier towards the end of that season as injuries and fatigue took their toll. But that the possibility of tiredness is even an issue is a marked improvement; it’s only a month ago that this was a squad that looked in need of wholesale replacement.
And that is down to Conte. There is a danger that focusing on his personality and energy neglects the detailed work he does in terms of structuring programmes of pressing – and this is a coach, it should not be forgotten, who when in charge of Italy refused to allow any but his most-trusted assistants to attend his sessions on pressing so that details couldn’t leak out to opponents – but equally the biggest change so far has been one of tone.
When Daniel Levy appointed Mourinho, he was looking for somebody who could administer a jolt of electricity to a moribund squad. Perhaps a decade earlier he could have done. But this is weary, cynical, late-period Mourinho and he soon took to pointing out the limitations of his players to deflect blame from himself. That squad is even more beaten down now, and yet Conte has given them renewed life: Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Steven Bergwijn and Davinson Sánchez, who all looked shot, suddenly look like footballers again. Ryan Sessegnon has been rediscovered.
Suddenly it’s not just about Son Heung-min and Harry Kane. (Although Kane is another issue; he may not yet be as lethal in front of goal as he is at his best, but at least he has looked re-engaged recently.) The monster, this ungainly hybrid squad cobbled together from previous visions of the club, has awoken again.
Conte, notoriously, always wants more players and always ends up falling out with his board because of it. He will, surely, be demanding investment in personnel and probably wouldn’t have taken the job without certain assurances, no matter what the club may have said in public.
But he is good with imperfect materials: when he took over Juventus in 2011, they were not the super-club they became but in transition after Internazionale’s treble. When he led Chelsea to the title in 2016-17, they were recovering from what he dubbed the “Mourinho season”. He made Inter title winners despite the seeming dominance of Juve (aided, it’s true, by Juve’s oddly self-destructive leadership) against the backdrop of financial meltdown. Among the elite-level coaches, Conte is probably the best manager of less-than-elite-level players.
Which should give Tottenham hope. This is a squad that requires work, but Conte’s arrival, his intensity and his energy have been enough to arrest a year of decline, which itself followed 18 months or so of drift. Perhaps it’s true that the average manager makes only a limited difference, but Conte is not an average manager.