The good news for Daniel Levy is that Tottenham’s pursuit of a Champions League place will be overseen by the manager who was in charge on the touchline for their best result of the season. It is rather harder to present Cristian Stellini’s interim promotion as the masterplan, despite the 1-0 win over Manchester City that he supervised in Antonio Conte’s absence.
Rather, it is a peculiarly Tottenham-esque end to a season: after some of Levy’s previous statement appointments, of Glenn Hoddle, Andre Villas-Boas and Jose Mourinho, they have instead finished campaigns under David Pleat, Tim Sherwood and Ryan Mason. After Conte brought his brand of dynamite, stood on it and pressed the detonator, his long-term assistant has to sift through the rubble.
The oddity is that, with a few fine results under Stellini, Conte’s reign of increasingly negative football and rhetoric could go down as a qualified success. Spurs got fourth last season and stand fourth now. One eventual verdict on both the season and the Italian’s regime may be that Levy secured Champions League football and bought himself time.
Yet if Conte’s exit has created a void for a central character – and any successor may not be as explosively compelling – it also shunts the more mysterious Levy back into the spotlight. For a while, he cultivated a reputation as a Machiavellian mastermind.
That was harder to sustain in the 72-day farce in 2021 when Tottenham searched for a manager with growing incompetence. Levy compiled a hugely impressive shortlist two years ago – Erik ten Hag, Hansi Flick, Julian Nagelsmann, Mauricio Pochettino, Roberto Martinez, Conte – and appointed the least impressive figure on it, Nuno Espirito Santo. He came and went in 10 league games.
Now Nagelsmann’s sudden availability, after his sacking by Bayern Munich, presents the chance that Levy will fall on his feet. Even as one possible target, Thomas Tuchel, was taken off the market, another looks more attainable. Tottenham should nevertheless be stung by the Conte experiment, their ego battered by the sense of rejection of a superstar manager who evidently did not want to be there. The first question in a job interview should be a simple one – “do you actually want to manage Spurs?” – but the answer touches on a deeper issue of identity and of Tottenham’s place in the footballing firmament. They have the £1bn stadium and the deluxe training ground, plus regular Champions League football. They have a lone trophy in the 21st century and none in 15 seasons. Harry Kane is the greatest on-field asset but a new manager may either have to sell him or risk losing Spurs’ record scorer on a free transfer.
The last time Tottenham were under a caretaker, Ryan Mason in 2021, Levy admitted the club had “lost sight of our priorities and what’s truly in our DNA”. He then proved he was blinded by that stage, following one pragmatist, in Mourinho, with two more, in Nuno and Conte, in a short-term prioritisation of the top four over everything else. Arguably, Levy is always led astray when he is seduced by stardust. Appointing former Chelsea managers has not proved a particularly productive policy; would going for Bayern’s supposed wunderkind be any better? Would he be safest by reverting to Tottenham’s past, in Pochettino, who brought the best modern definition of the Tottenham DNA?
Each could be considered a glamorous cast-off now. Nagelsmann’s youth means that, despite the first major setback of his managerial career, he feels like a manager on the up; Mourinho, Nuno and Conte, each with stale ideas, seemed those on the way down. Part of the case against Pochettino is the theory to never go back, part of it, the question if a man in his fifties whose relationship with Levy had deteriorated before his 2019 departure is the galvanising force of old.
And perhaps Spurs’ ideal appointment is whoever is the closest thing to a 2014 Pochettino, offering the potential of longevity, attacking football and improving players through his coaching, but not seeing Tottenham as either an immediate stepping stone or a drop down. If the 2023 Pochettino or Nagelsmann, who might attract a better offer, do not qualify, that might give Roberto De Zerbi or Ruben Amorim an allure.
But if Levy requires the vision to identify the right candidate and the persuasive powers to attract them, it feels as though, the league table notwithstanding, Conte has left something of a mess. Heavy spending in his reign has, with the notable exceptions of Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur, brought too little return. Spurs committed £40m in January to a wing-back, in Pedro Porro, but have parted company with the high priest of wing-backs. They spent £60m on Richarlison, who has scored no league goals. Kane, Heung-Min Son and Hugo Lloris are 17 months older than when he arrived, meaning a rebuilding job could be necessitated. Spurs loaned out a host of players Conte did not want, last summer’s buy Djed Spence among them, but have both too many footballers and too few high-class automatic choices. It all adds to the complications and the sense of waste, though the right manager may sense some untapped potential.
If they get fourth, it will be an indictment of Liverpool and Chelsea. City and a dreadful Chelsea apart, they have barely beaten an elite side all season. There have been tame exits from all three knockout competitions this season. The supporters are disillusioned but rarely entertained. All of which could have presented grounds for dismissal of Conte had he not made incendiary comments and toughened the task for his eventual replacement. And in the meantime, Spurs’ fate rests in the hands of a manager sacked by a Serie C team in his only spell in permanent charge. It is part of Conte’s legacy, and partly Levy’s fault.