After the final whistle, after the booing and brawling had subsided, as Arsenal’s giddy players jigged and danced their way over to their supporters in the corner, Yves Bissouma stood alone in the Tottenham half watching them. Watching with longing, and envy, and perhaps even a certain curiosity. Joy? Pleasure? Celebration? What are these strange new things?
By that stage, of course, Bissouma’s teammates had long since retired to the warmth of the dressing room. They did not want to be there any longer, and nor did the Tottenham fans who were already slogging down the High Road in search of liquid consolation. Antonio Conte, as he never tires of telling us, does still want to be here. Ideally. Providing several important conditions are met. It can hardly be his fault, after all, that the club keeps disappointing him like this.
Conte is one of the world’s great coaches. No quibbles there. But some coaches and clubs are simply the wrong fit for each other. Tottenham have now played six games against the rest of the big seven and lost every one, bar the late draw at Chelsea. What is the purpose of Conte’s nous and experience if not to navigate them through the biggest games? How many players have improved under him, developed, found new levels? If you were the sporting director at an elite European club looking to raid Tottenham for their best young talent, who would you look at to build a team around for the next five years?
Dejan Kulusevski, certainly. Rodrigo Bentancur and Cristian Romero, maybe. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, fitness permitting. The rest you would probably discard. Bissouma, signed to such fanfare in the summer, has retreated into himself. The same for Ryan Sessegnon. Djed Spence may turn into a player, but we’re not finding out any time soon. Pape Sarr has promise, but throwing a debutant into a two-on-four midfield ambush in a game of this size was an act of pure dereliction, and one with predictable consequences.
None of this is really the issue, though. As Tottenham forlornly tried to feel their way into a game that had started without them, the stench of gilded dysfunction poured out of every orifice. Heavy touches. Passes straight out of play. Passes to static players who had no room to manoeuvre. A genuinely unbelievable percentage of Tottenham attacks ended up with the ball at Hugo Lloris’s feet, as if they were trying to score the perfect team goal in reverse. At one point Pierre-Emile Højbjerg tried a little diagonal dink to Kulusevski and ended up not merely putting it out of play, but sending it halfway to Hornsey. There is a fear here, a fatalism, sod’s law in football club form. What if that pass gets cut out? What if I lose possession? What if Arsenal counter? Don’t make a mistake. DON’T MAKE A MISTAKE.
Remember Arsenal’s first game back after the World Cup? West Ham at home. Everyone’s wondering whether they still have it. Whether the break will kill their flow. They go a goal down. And the noise that rises around them is a godly thing: a howl of defiance and conviction, a storm to scream down the storm. The players still remember it fondly. Martin Ødegaard mentioned it last week. It was their fortifying moment.
Here Tottenham went a goal down. Nothing. Just the hiss of leaking air, a numbness, a dumbness. What if Arsenal win the league? What if Kane leaves? What is this thing we’ve paid to watch? Our bills keep rising, nothing works, last year’s Golden Boot winner has forgotten how to trap a football and it’s been raining for about four months. Best to sit quietly and wait for this to pass, which it will not.
There are a lot of things here that are not Conte’s fault, but one important thing that is. Conte is not responsible for the years of dysfunction that preceded him, Son’s mystifying decline, the uneven squad he inherited. It is not Conte’s fault that Arsenal are as good as they are, their movement so precise, extreme order in the clothes of extreme chaos, Ødegaard a man playing in his own personal metaverse, Bukayo Saka a winger who simply refuses to let you have the ball.
But when a coach’s commitment to the club feels so conditional, why should anybody else sweat and bleed for it? Conte is not wedded to this project as Pep Guardiola is to Manchester City or Jürgen Klopp to Liverpool. He does not empathise with Tottenham as Mikel Arteta does with Arsenal or Gareth Ainsworth with Wycombe. This is a job, and a strictly limited-term job at that, a job to keep him going until something better comes along. His priority, career-wise, is simply not to mess up. Grasp that, and everything you see on the pitch makes a little more sense.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. The Conte interregnum should at least end Daniel Levy’s masochistic obsession with managers who believe the club is beneath them. A club of Tottenham’s size should not be trying to hire the last great coach but the next, the visionary who can pick through this shambles piece by piece, keep what works and sweep away what does not. At the very least, it should find someone who really, unconditionally wants to be there. Why, indeed, should any club settle for anything less?