One year ago today, 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 in days, they had run out of ground. His only hope was that Nuno could stabilize the club and that, as the Portuguese had only been given 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 expected to arrive with four members of staff: 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 were joined instead by Ian Cathro. Tottenham staff were surprised that such a big change could happen in such a short time. (Since then, Silva took over FC Famalicao in Portugal, taking Lapa with him.)
And from there it was pretty much all downhill. After a disastrous 3-1 loss to Arsenal on September 26, Levy realized that he might have to start looking for a replacement even sooner than he expected. After a 3-0 riotous loss to Manchester United on 30 October, Levy sacked Nuno and finally, at the second attempt, appointed Antonio Conte.
That effectively marked the end of a long period of instability and drift at Tottenham Hotspur, which began when José Mourinho was sacked in April (or, it can be argued, 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 managed in an intelligent and forward-thinking manner could have gotten into such a disastrous mess.
There aren’t many examples of big clubs doing things that badly in the modern era, either in the sense of spending so much time fighting for an appointment (clubs don’t tend to fire managers without knowing who’s next), or in the sense of appointing someone who was obviously not cut out for the job and having to get rid of him so soon. Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea, David Moyes at Manchester United, Roy Hodgson at Liverpool: they were all clearly not suitable for the job, but they all had more than half a season before they were sacked. Nuno remains, by modern Big Six standards, not so much an Edward VIII figure as a Lady Jane Grey.
The difference in sensations between that summer and this one is so pronounced that it is hardly necessary to repeat this part. Spurs spent the summer of 2021 fighting for a head coach, desperately trying to hang on to Harry Kane, preparing for life in the Europa Conference League, revamping the club’s football structure, bruised by outcry from fans furious over the his club’s flirtation with the Super League, trying to repair 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 coaches in the world in Antonio Conte. Kane seems committed to the club and is not the subject of speculation. Spurs are back in the Champions League and on August 25 they will find out who they will face in the group stage. After a season of full stadium revenue, and with another £150m cash infusion, Spurs may be active on the transfer market and already have three established players on the doorstep. More important than any of that: It looks 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 better left in the recesses of our collective memory, and never mentioned again. (Like the embarrassing memories of a drunken night that you’re embarrassed to try to access.) But it’s worth wondering how things got so bad last year. How did Tottenham get so adrift?
In the summer of 2021, Tottenham did not 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 returning to the Champions League and an air of toxic apathy engulfing the club, what could they do next?
Plan A was for Levy to task Steve Hitchen (then the club’s director of technical performance) with putting together a short list of coaches with a view to appointing someone as close to Pochettino as possible. They wanted to bring back to Tottenham a coaching spirit, young players and attacking football. Some candidates were ruled out early on: Julian Nagelsmann had left for Bayern Munich, Brendan Rodgers was not a starter, but Hitchen created 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 list were Erik ten Hag and Hansi Flick. They loved Ten Hag’s style of play with Ajax, but after their interview they were a bit disappointed. He wasn’t as authoritative as they’d hoped (Ajax also triggered a Ten Hag contract extension, but that wouldn’t have been a barrier to him taking over). Flick was hugely impressive, with a broad resume and a commitment to an aggressive style of play. But he went ahead with his initial plan to take the job in Germany.
So Spurs decided to return to Pochettino himself, who still had the club in his heart, and who was torn by the romantic idea of returning to the club where they loved him so much. But when Paris Saint-Germain made it clear there was absolutely no way they were going to lose their manager to Tottenham Hotspur, Levy and Hitchen needed a new plan.
It was at the end of May, with Pochettino’s plan running aground, that Levy considered a new idea: bringing in Fabio Paratici from Juventus in a general manager of football role, and Conte, who had just won Serie A with Inter, as boss. coach. Appointing Conte was a great idea, but it was also a 180-degree turn from the youth-oriented rebuild (“Tottenham DNA” and all) that Levy had promised just weeks before. The Spurs bought back at the top end of the market.
When Tottenham spoke to Conte it was very impressive: sure he could revive the team, but he would never change who he was, and if he ever felt he was being lied to, he would leave. “I am who I am” was his central message. There was no problem with agreeing on the contract or the salary. But then Conte decided to say no and spend at least the first part of next season on the beach.
That’s when the drama really started. Tottenham had gone from planning a return to their own values to aspiring to the best coach on the market, and they kept none. So where did they turn next? A deal was made for Paulo Fonseca and Paratici, already working for the club behind the scenes, spoke to him in Milan. But when he arranged a two-day summit with Fonseca in Como, to finalize plans for backroom personnel, transfers and playing style, he left feeling that Fonseca would not be the right man after all. . Tottenham needed a more powerful and assertive figure.
What good luck, then, that Gennaro Gattuso was already leaving Fiorentina, having signed a contract but not yet taken over. And even better luck that his agent Jorge Mendes is so close to Paratici. The morning after the Spurs decided against Fonseca, Mendes called Paratici and threw to Gattuso. Paratici was intrigued, and after a brief interview in Italy, the position was effectively his. It wasn’t Conte, but Tottenham felt he had the strength of personality and instant charisma to bring players and fans back together. He may not be as smart as Pochettino, he thought, but he had some of his conviction.
But when fans began to voice their disapproval over comments Gattuso had made in the past, Levy had to pull the plug. (This in itself is unprecedented: no Premier League fan base has ever blocked the appointment of a manager on moral grounds before.)
Levy was forced to go back to the drawing board once more. Had they left it too late for Ten Hag? Could they get Potter out of Brighton? Was it too soon 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 options available, Nuno landed the job.
It really is, looking back, the strangest sequence of events. And what does it tell us? Well, for one thing, if a club loses sight of its “key priorities” (as Levy himself put it, beginning of this process), then they can be unleashed quickly. That layoffs should only be done with a succession plan in place, if there is no successor lined up. Spurs seemed to sketch and then dump a bin full of succession plans between Mourinho’s sacking and Conte’s appointment.
But the alternative reading of this is that it has hardly mattered. The Spurs are now in a position they could hardly have dreamed of at the end of last season, at the end of the Ryan Mason interregnum, when they felt every part of this football club was pulling in a different direction.
Ultimately, it was the underlying health of the club – the stadium, the training ground, the players, the location, the simple fact of being one of the biggest teams in the Premier League, at a time of English financial dominance – that that kept the Spurs relevant. . Through a combination of good fortune and good decisions, this is a club with a lot going for it. Even if it wasn’t feel that way when everything was falling apart last year.
In the modern stratified Premier League, status is more permanent than we think.
(Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)