Fourth place doesn’t come with a trophy. For clubs with ambition, fourth place isn’t an accomplishment as much as it’s an expectation. Finishing fourth is necessary, but it shouldn’t be sufficient. It is a platform to build something on and it’s a platform that Tottenham desperately needed to return to after missing out on Champions League play for two consecutive seasons. When Nuno Espirito Santo was fired in November, months after he was hired to lead Spurs, this team could’ve gone plenty of different ways. But, perhaps, only Antonio Conte could return them to fourth.
Conte arrived at Spurs during a moment of supreme instability. After a summer window that saw them flit from name to name in their search to replace Jose Mourinho, almost appointing Gennaro Gattuso as manager before finally settling on Nuno, had Spurs got it wrong yet again when Nuno was fired it would have been disastrous. But Daniel Levy didn’t, instead appointing Conte as manager. While Conte’s ability as a manager is clear, that didn’t mean the move was without risk. There was doubt that this would be a relationship that worked as Levy prefers shopping in the bargain bin while Conte wants top shelf additions — and some of those questions are still there entering the summer window — but with that Champions League platform now there (and the extra money that goes along with it), the hope is that Spurs now can offer what Conte’s transfer targets are looking for.
Spurs are on their third manager since firing Mauricio Pochettino in 2019 and frankly, they should consider themselves lucky to have Conte. Manchester United were also on the verge of changing managers in November, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer coming increasingly under fire. But, then United beat Spurs, prolonging the Solskjaer’s era and ending Espirito santos’ run. If that game ends differently perhaps and United made the decision to change sooner, then who knows what could have happened.
For now, despite their success, nothing is set in stone yet as Conte said after Spurs’ 5-0 victory over Norwich City. But he acknowledged the achievement of what the team has done saying, “It’s very very difficult – to reach a place in the Champions League. I have to consider this a really big big achievement for me and for my players, and also for the club consider this a big achievement after three years Tottenham is able to play again in the Champions League. For us it’s very important because the best players, the best coaches want to play in this competition, for this trophy. We must be pleased for what we did.”
When Conte took over, Spurs sat ninth in the league, struggling to score. Harry Kane was dejected that a summer move to Manchester City fell through and it was permeating to the rest of the team. Despite Espirito Santo being known as a defensively sound manager, the team struggled and let small mistakes hurt them constantly. But, from November onward, only Liverpool and Manchester City picked up more points than Conte’s Spurs.
There were growing pains but they settled into his 3-5-2 and became a team to be feared. Additions of Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski made the difference in January showing that Conte doesn’t need a lot of players to make his system work, but he does need the right ones. Joint Golden Boot winner Heung-min Son, Kane, and Kulusevski became the most prolific goal-scoring front three in the Premier League. Kane scored 17 goals while assisting nine more, Son scored 23 assisting seven, and Kulusevski scored five assisting eight since his January arrival.
Conte’s machine became a team that could beat you in many different ways and their return to Champions League is a signal that better days are on the horizon. Conte will ask for more during the summer and if he isn’t backed he could still walk, that’s always a threat with Conte, but that’s where having a director of football that he has worked with in the past helps. Fabio Paratici is very aware of Conte’s ways and can help ensure that if a target can’t be afforded on Spurs’ budget that someone comparable can be added.
Spurs ran into a situation like this in January chasing Luis Diaz only to see him head to Liverpool but signing Kulusevski worked out pretty well. The team will need more depth not only for their return to Champions League but also since the Premier League will return to allowing five substitutes per game. But the core is already in place. Decisions need to be made on the outside back positions and Ben Davies can’t be expected to perform at this level as in the left center-back position for an entire season next year but selling Champions League soccer is always easier than selling the hope of it.
The future is the brightest that it has been in a while in North London but it’s up to Daniel Levy to ensure that it stays that way. Entering a critical summer, everything possible must be done to ensure that Spurs’ golden manager stays in charge as he has already shown a taste of what he can do without the team even having a preseason under him.