A year ago to the day, on June 29, 2021, Daniel Levy and Fabio Paratici reluctantly agreed that their only option was to appoint Nuno Espirito Santo as their new head coach. Tottenham had been looking for Jose Mourinho’s successor for 10 weeks and, with players due to return for pre-season training within days, they were short of the way. Their only hope was that Nuno could stabilize the club and that, with the Portuguese only granted a two-year contract, they could find an upgrade sooner rather than later.
The following day, Nuno arrived at Tottenham to sign his contract, but even that was not the end of Spurs’ chaotic summer. Nuno was due to arrive with four staff members: assistant coach Rui Pedro Silva, physical trainer Antonio Dias, goalkeeping coach Rui Barbosa and rehabilitation coach Joao Lapa. But Silva and Lapa simply didn’t show up, and Ian Cathro joined them instead. Tottenham staff were surprised that such a big change could happen in the short term. (Silva has since taken over for FC Famalicao in Portugal and brought Lapa with him.)
And from there it was pretty much all downhill. After a disastrous 3-1 defeat at Arsenal on September 26, Levy realized he might have to start looking for a replacement even sooner than he had anticipated. After a relentless 3-0 loss to Manchester United on October 30, Levy sacked Nuno and eventually, on the second attempt, appointed Antonio Conte.
It effectively marked the end of a long period of instability and drift at Tottenham Hotspur, which began when Jose Mourinho was sacked in April (or, you can say, when Mauricio Pochettino was sacked in November 2019).
What is remarkable, looking back a year, is how a club that has always prided itself on being smartly run and forward-thinking could find themselves in such dire straits.
There aren’t many examples of big clubs getting it so wrong in the modern era – either in the sense of spending so much time scrambling for a date (clubs don’t tend to fire managers without knowing who comes next), or in the sense of appointing someone who was clearly not right for the job, and having to get rid of them so soon. Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea, David Moyes at Manchester United, Roy Hodgson at Liverpool: all of these were clearly not suitable for the job, but they all had more than half a season before being sacked. Nuno is left, by modern Big Six standards, not so much as an Edward VIII figure but as a Lady Jane Grey.
The difference in feel between this summer and this one is so pronounced that this track hardly needs rewording. Spurs have spent the summer of 2021 looking for a head coach, desperately trying to hold onto Harry Kane, preparing for life in the Europa Conference League, revamping the club’s football structure, battered by protests from furious fans of their club’s alliance with the Super League, trying to fix the club’s finances post-COVID-19 and, frankly, with no obvious plan or idea for the club’s future in the 2020s.
This summer? They have one of the best managers in the world in Antonio Conte. Kane seems attached to the club and is not the subject of any speculation. Spurs are back in the Champions League and will find out who they will face in the group stage on August 25. After a season of full stadium income – and with another injection of £150million to come – Spurs can be active in the transfer market and already have three established players through the door. More importantly than all that: it feels like Tottenham are heading in the right direction again, that they have a clear plan and the means to get there.
So right now, the summer of 2021 feels like a bad dream, something best left in the recesses of our collective memory, and never spoken about again. (Like the embarrassing memories of a drunken night out that you’re too ashamed to try to access.) But it’s worth wondering how things got so bad last year. How did Tottenham go so far adrift?
In the summer of 2021, Tottenham didn’t know what they wanted to be. They had tried the glamorous big-name option, replacing Pochettino with Mourinho, and it had failed. With Spurs no closer to a Champions League return and an air of toxic apathy enveloping the club, what could they do next?
Plan A was for Levy to give Steve Hitchen (who was then the club’s technical performance director) the task of drawing up a shortlist of coaches with a view to appointing someone as similar to Pochettino as possible. . They wanted to bring a coaching philosophy, young players and attacking football back to Tottenham. Some candidates were ruled out from the start – Julian Nagelsmann had gone to Bayern Munich, Brendan Rodgers was a non-runner – but Hitchen put together a shortlist in April and May. There was Roberto Martinez, Ralf Rangnick (what happened to him?) and Graham Potter.
But at the top of the shortlist were Erik ten Hag and Hansi Flick. They loved Ten Hag’s style of play with Ajax but after his interview they were slightly disappointed. He wasn’t as bossy as they had hoped (Ajax also triggered a contract extension for Ten Hag, but that wouldn’t have been an obstacle to him taking over). Flick was hugely impressive, with a broad resume and a commitment to an aggressive style of play. But he stuck to his original plan of taking the job in Germany instead.
Spurs therefore decided to return to Pochettino himself, who still held the club close to his heart and was torn by the romantic idea of returning to the club where he was so loved. But when Paris Saint-Germain made it clear there was absolutely no way they could lose their manager to Tottenham Hotspur, Levy and Hitchen needed a new plan.
It was at the end of May, when the Pochettino plan failed, that Levy considered a new idea: bringing in Fabio Paratici from Juventus in a role of general manager of football, and Conte, who had just won Serie A with Inter. , as a leader. coach. Appointing Conte was a great idea, but it was also a 180 degree turn from the youth-focused rebuild (“Tottenham DNA” and all that) that Levy had promised weeks before. Spurs were back to shopping at the top end of the market.
When Tottenham spoke with Conte, he was very impressive: clear that he could bring the team back to life, but that he would never change who he was, and that if he ever felt like he was being lied to , it would work. “I am who I am” was his central message. There was no problem accepting the contract or the salary. But then Conte decided to say no and spend at least the first part of the next season on the beach instead.
That’s when the drama really began. Tottenham had gone from planning a return to their own values, to aiming for the best manager in the market, and ended up with neither. So where did they turn next? A deal was struck for Paulo Fonseca and Paratici, already working for the club behind the scenes, spoke to him in Milan. But when he held a two-day summit with Fonseca in Como, to finalize plans for behind-the-scenes staff, transfers and style of play, he came away feeling that Fonseca wouldn’t be the right fit after all. Tottenham needed a more powerful and assertive figure.
How lucky, then, that Gennaro Gattuso is already leaving Fiorentina, having signed a contract but not yet resumed. And even more lucky that his agent Jorge Mendes is so close to Paratici. The morning after Spurs came out against Fonseca, Mendes called Paratici and kicked off Gattuso. Paratici was intrigued and after a quick interview in Italy, the job was indeed his. He was no Conte, but Tottenham felt he had the strength of personality and instant charisma to rally players and fans alike again. He might not be as smart as Pochettino, it was thought, but he had some of his conviction.
But when fans started voicing their disapproval for comments Gattuso had made in the past, Levy had to unplug. (This in itself was unprecedented: no Premier League fan base had previously blocked a manager’s appointment on moral grounds.)
Levy was forced back to the drawing board once again. Had they left it too late for Ten Hag? Could they get Potter out of Brighton? Was it too early for Scott Parker? (Yes, no and yes.) Paratici was more intrigued by Nuno’s idea than the club had been at the start of the summer, and with no other better option available, Nuno got the job.
It really is, in hindsight, the most bizarre sequence of events. And what does it tell us? Well, on the one hand, if a club loses sight of its “core priorities” (as Levy himself put it, beginning of this process), then they can undock quickly. These layoffs should only be done with a succession plan in place, if not a successor lined up. Spurs seemed to sketch and then have a trash can full of succession plans between Mourinho’s sacking and Conte’s appointment.
But the alternative reading of this is that it practically didn’t matter. Spurs are now in a position they could hardly have dreamed of at the end of last season, at the end of Ryan Mason’s interregnum, when he felt every part of this football club was pulling in a different direction. .
Ultimately it’s the underlying health of the club – the stadium, the training ground, the players, the location, just being one of the biggest teams in the Premier League, at a time of English financial dominance – which kept Spurs relevant. . Thanks to a combination of good fortune and good decisions, this is a club with a lot to gain. Even if it wasn’t feel like that when it all fell apart last year.
In the modern stratified Premier League, status is more permanent than one might think.
(Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)