LONDON — Antonio Conte has always been a coach with the rare ability to deliver a quick-fix and silverware at the same time, but then again, he has never previously had to deal with a challenge like Tottenham Hotspur.
As Spurs exited the Carabao Cup with a 3-0 aggregate semifinal loss to Chelsea, accompanied by chants of “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happening again,” from the visiting fans, Conte merely became the latest Tottenham manager to discover that this is a club that always stumbles when the pressure is on.
“At the end of the two games Chelsea deserved to reach the final in this competition, we have to be honest,” Spurs manager Conte said. “In the second half we created many chances to score and we deserved a result better than losing 1-0 but if you have a judgement over the two games Chelsea deserved to win.”
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Conte, appointed manager in November following the dismissal of Nuno Espirito Santo after less than six months in charge, has already realised that big changes need to be made at the club, but his usual approach of shock therapy, which has brought success in his first seasons at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan, won’t work at Spurs.
This time, he needs to hit the reset button. The only problem for Conte is that he may also have to sanction the departure of Harry Kane in order to bring in the finances required to fund a much-needed rebuild.
It’s a Catch-22 situation. Spurs without Kane does not even bear thinking about — he is their only world-class player and one whose goals have kept the team within touching distance of the elite in recent seasons.
But even with Kane, who had a goal disallowed for offside as Spurs chased the game in the second-half, Tottenham were easily brushed aside by Chelsea, who reached their third major cup final (four if you count the UEFA Super Cup) since coach Thomas Tuchel took charge 12 months ago.
Dealing with Kane is the easy bit, however. If he stays, Spurs retain their best player; if he goes, they will bank at least £100 million to spend on reinforcements.
The problem for Conte is what to do with the rest of the players who are either not good enough or exposed by inferior quality around them. Other than Kane and the injured Heung-min Son, he really doesn’t have much to work with.
For this game, the Italian selected a team largely made up of players fighting for their future at the club, but apart from Kane (who has made it clear for almost a year now that he wants to leave), none of them did anything to suggest to Conte that they deserve a reprieve.
It’s Catch-22 for Antonio Conte. Wednesday’s Cup exit underlined Spurs’ desperate need for a rebuild, but he may need to sell Harry Kane to do so. Nick Potts/PA Images
Matt Doherty, Harry Winks, Emerson Royal and Giovani Lo Celso all confirmed their lack of sufficient quality or commitment, while substitute winger Bryan Gil displayed none of the flair he was expected to bring when he arrived from Sevilla last summer.
Dele Alli, meanwhile, remained unused on the bench, while there was no place at all for club record signing Tanguy Ndombele, who was booed off by fans following an unimpressive display during Sunday’s FA Cup win against EFL League One team Morecambe.
Sources have told ESPN that Conte would happily offload all of those players, plus Netherlands midfielder Steven Bergwijn, if the right offers come in this month but, in a game that has been hit hard by the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be wishful thinking to expect Spurs to raise substantial funds via sales.
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But Tottenham’s problems run deeper than a lack of quality within the squad. It is also a club that needs stability off the pitch having had three permanent managers — and interim Ryan Mason — since Mauricio Pochettino took the club to the Champions League final in 2019.
Less than three years have passed since that defeat against Liverpool in Madrid, but all of the promise displayed by Pochettino’s Spurs has been progressively eroded by a combination of poor recruitment and misjudged managerial appointments — Jose Mourinho and Nuno — since Pochettino left in November 2019.
The players have suffered as a consequence. Their confidence has been drained by Mourinho and Nuno and the squad is now imbalanced — a mash-up of players signed by three different managers with different tactical requirements.
Those same players were made to look like rookies by Chelsea, who played with the confidence, arrogance and belief of a team that has won big and knows how to do it again.
Conte has the pedigree to turn it around and put Spurs back on track, but he has never been a team-builder during his time as a top-level coach, so he is entering new territory at Spurs and, if the combustible personality which led to his exits from Chelsea and Inter resurfaces, he may not even hang around to see the job through.
But right now, Spurs aren’t even showing signs of competing. As soon as Antonio Rudiger headed Chelsea into the lead in this game on 17 minutes to make it 3-0 on aggregate, Spurs looked bereft of hope.
Yes, they had two penalties rightly overturned by VAR, after referee Andre Marriner had pointed to the spot, and Kane was unhappy at seeing his “goal” ruled out on 63 minutes, but Tuchel and his players never looked in danger of surrendering their advantage.
It was a routine win for Chelsea, who will face Liverpool or Arsenal in the final at Wembley on Feb. 27, as Spurs fell short once again.
Conte has it all to do, but at least he has already worked that out. Fixing it will be the toughest job of his career though.