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Is Antonio Conte's Tottenham squad really that much worse than the one he inherited at Chelsea?

Antonio Conte, Tottenham
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Antonio Conte can specialise in withering putdowns. It can be an issue that he directs some of them at his own side. He responded to his first defeat to English opposition as Tottenham manager by branding Spurs a mid-table team. Or, as he put it: “We are a team in the middle. Because in the last few years the level of Tottenham has dropped, and dropped a lot.”

Tottenham were sixth when he spoke, two points off the top four. Conte’s definition of mid-table may be harsher than many another’s, even if, 20 points off the top and 23 from the bottom, Spurs are mathematically close to a halfway between Manchester City and Norwich. But he could certainly argue he took over one mid-table Premier League team: Chelsea.

Spurs’ conquerors last week and their opponents this Wednesday limped in 10th in 2016, albeit courtesy of what Conte, in another magnificent takedown, called “a Mourinho season.” He duly made them champions in his debut year, securing 43 points more than in the previous campaign.

In most respects, of course, Chelsea were not a mid-table team: they had been champions in 2015, Champions League semi-finalists the season before, Europa League and Champions League winners in the two preceding years. They had not finished outside the top six since 1996 until Jose Mourinho’s reign imploded and Guus Hiddink steered them to mid-table obscurity. Conte’s inheritance included virtually all of the 2015 title-winning team, garnished by the talent of Eden Hazard but also including Diego Costa, Gary Cahill and Thibaut Courtois. Chelsea re-signed their Champions League winner David Luiz and added N’Golo Kante, who had powered Leicester to the Premier League. They had sufficient strength in depth that Willian and Cesc Fabregas made more appearances as substitutes than starters that season.

And while Conte can be melodramatic and while last week’s pessimistic interpretation may have been made with the January transfer window in mind, he identified a pattern of decline. Tottenham sacked Nuno Espirito Santo in eighth, after coming seventh and sixth in the previous two seasons. Their appearance in the 2019 Champions League final arguably masked a drop in standards. They went from 86 points, second only to Conte’s Chelsea, to 59 and 62. When Nuno was fired, they were on course for 57. 

At Chelsea, Conte was bequeathed plenty of high-class individuals who, with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses reinvented as their unlikely sidekicks, he could forge into a team. At Tottenham, he may have only taken over three elite players: Hugo Lloris, Heung-Min Son and an underachieving and unhappy Harry Kane. There is a case for including Cristian Romero, as Serie A’s outstanding defender last season, but he isn’t owned by Tottenham.

Conte faced Pochettino’s Tottenham at their peak. He took over a team whose key players had either departed due to age (in Mousa Dembele, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose) or ambition (in Kyle Walker and Christian Eriksen) or suffered a sad but stunning personal decline, in Dele Alli. To a lesser extent, Eric Dier and Harry Winks had lost their way. Lucas Moura had stopped scoring. Steven Bergwijn had never really started. The expensive additions supposed to symbolise a new side, in Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, instead became a conundrum for each manager who arrived. One summer signing, Emerson Royal, already needs upgrading because of his inability to offer much other than enthusiasm in the final third.

That Conte has configured Tottenham in the same 3-4-3 formation he used at Chelsea renders comparisons easier. Select a hypothetical combined 11 and it would contain few of his current charges: perhaps Kane, if he can recapture his best form; maybe Sergio Reguilon, probably a better all-round player than Alonso but a lesser goalscorer, but not too many others.

Spurs’ comprehensive defeat last week to the current Chelsea team prompted Conte’s disparaging assessment. There may be a paradox that Pochettino was a manager who took a long-term view and yet Spurs are the club who declined whereas Conte was the short-termist but, four years since his departure, Chelsea remain the major force, aided by Thomas Tuchel’s decision to revive the Italian’s 3-4-3 formation. And if the gulf is explained in part by expenditure, it does not render Tottenham a mid-table team as much as one striving to be first among the second pack and fourth overall. 

But the bigger problem for Conte is that, while he arrived in England when Leicester were champions, the best have since got better. It was a process he began.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.