On the eve of the last north London derby, in October, Antonio Conte highlighted Arsenal’s progress under Mikel Arteta and spoke of the “time and patience” every club should show when looking to rebuild under new management.
“I think the club backed Arteta in these years,” the Tottenham Hotspur head coach said. “And now you are seeing (what happens) when you trust in a person. Arsenal showed in a tough period with Arteta to back him in every moment — and now they are having good results.”
The message was clear: if you back your coach to the hilt — “It’s right for the manager to show the vision that you have and then the club has to agree with them” — you will be rewarded, particularly, you suspect, if the coach in question is a proven winner like Conte.
Arteta would not have made it this far, never mind to the top of the Premier League, without the time and patience Arsenal showed through the difficult winter of 2020 in particular.
At the first anniversary of his appointment, they lay 14th in the Premier League having taken just two points from their previous seven games. Their overall league record across his first year in charge was 13 wins, eight draws and 13 defeats. And as dispiriting as results were — the FA Cup triumph a notable exception — performances at that stage were equally so.
The story of Arsenal’s gradual reawakening under Arteta has been chronicled in great depth by The Athletic, and whether or not it takes them to a first Premier League title since the Invincibles campaign of 2003-04, it is fair to say their ambitions now extend far beyond finishing above Tottenham for the first time in seven seasons. They are gearing up for Sunday’s north London derby five points clear at the top of the Premier League, 11 points clear of fifth-placed Tottenham (and with a game in hand).
It is a reasonable bet that Conte will play the “time and patience” card again when he faces the media at Friday’s pre-match news conference. Time, patience and no doubt significant financial support too. And by that, of course, he means unequivocally backing his judgement in the transfer market, even if barely a week goes by without him casting doubts over whether he will stay beyond a contract that expires at the end of this season.
Time and patience are precious in football, where long-term plans are frequently sacrificed in order to focus on highly lucrative short-term objectives. In each of the past three seasons, Tottenham have sacked their head coach (Mauricio Pochettino in November 2019, Jose Mourinho in April 2021, Nuno Espirito Santo in November 2021) partly out of fear of missing out on Champions League qualification. It was Conte who succeeded in that particular salvage operation last season, leading the late charge that saw Tottenham brush a tiring Arsenal aside in the final straight and finish fourth, sealing their return to the Champions League after a two-year absence.
The defining match in that run came last May, when Arsenal, four points clear of their rivals at the start of play, were blown away at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. They were a player down inside 33 minutes (as defender Rob Holding was sent off) and 3-0 down after 47 minutes.
Conte got his tactics spot-on that night — as well as hitting the intended target with his post-match comments, saying Arteta “needs to be focused more on his team and not to complain”. All the narrative was about how the 40-year-old Arsenal manager had been “schooled”, in the press conference room as well as on the touchline, by a far more experienced, more successful, more streetwise coach.
It was a similar story whenever Mourinho led Tottenham to derby wins — 2-1 in July 2020, 2-0 five months later, both of them lauded as tactical masterclasses from a coach who, even more than Conte, has been there and won that. But as time has passed, those fleeting victories under Mourinho and Conte look more and more hollow next to Arteta’s impressive rebuilding operation at Arsenal.
Conte, like Mourinho, would point out that Arteta has been afforded patience; Arsenal stood by him when they spent the entire 2020-21 campaign in mid-table and when they lost the first three games of the following season, as opposed to Tottenham sacking Mourinho when they were seventh, five points off fourth and a few days away from the Carabao Cup final.
But patience is about more than a club simply giving a manager time to rebuild as he sees fit. Patience is about appointing a manager who can offer a long-term vision — and helping him to implement that — rather than being seduced by a big name promising a quick fix. And, critically in this conversation, patience is required of the manager as well as the club.
Conte can cite the time and patience Arsenal have afforded Arteta, but at Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Tottenham, the Italian has come across as the ultimate example of a manager in a hurry. There is an awful lot to be said for that — promotion to Serie A in his first full season at Bari and in his first campaign at Siena, three Serie A titles in as many years at Juventus, Premier League title success in his first season at Chelsea, even the “trophy” of Champions League qualification barely six months into his tenure at Tottenham — but it is almost the anthesis of the long-term rebuilding job Arteta has undertaken at Arsenal.
This is Conte’s third transfer window as Tottenham head coach and it is the third time he has given the impression of someone ready to commit an act of defenestration if he doesn’t get the players he wants. Given the growing dissent towards Daniel Levy and the ENIC regime, plenty of Tottenham fans would share that sentiment (only a few of them literally), but it is also possible to imagine the club could accede to his every demand and he would still find a reason to complain.
Last January Conte wanted a midfielder, a winger and a centre-forward and he was only delivered two of them, Rodrigo Bentacur and Dejan Kulusevski, the latter of them after losing out to Liverpool in pursuit of Luis Diaz. After the club loaned out three players he didn’t want (Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli) he complained that his squad had been left weaker.
Last summer Conte submitted an extensive list of his priorities in the transfer market. Some of them were signed at considerable expense — Richarlison for an initial £50million ($61.2m) transfer fee, Ivan Perisic on a free transfer but, at 33, a two-year deal worth £180,000 a week, and a £42.5million deal to make Cristian Romero’s arrival permanent — but some of his other wishes were not granted. Clement Lenglet, on loan from Barcelona, was far from his top target as a left-sided central defender; Djed Spence, untested at Premier League level, was not his idea of a right wing-back ready to hit the ground running.
He has gone into January on a familiar footing, outlining his frustrations with the Tottenham “project” in one news conference and then insisting in the next that he wants to stay and see it through — though never offering any assurances regarding negotiations over a new contract. He says the rebuilding aspect of Tottenham’s project makes it different to the jobs he took on at Juventus, Inter and Chelsea “and if I want to stay here I have to accept this. Otherwise, if I don’t accept this, I have to go”.
Conte’s misgivings are understandable, but none of this is terribly useful when it comes to long-term planning. He wants Tottenham to sign Pedro Porro, who has a €45million release clause at Sporting Lisbon, but does it really make sense to buy another right wing-back when they already have Matt Doherty, Emerson Royal and, most pertinently, in Spence, a player the club bought six months ago in the belief he was the ideal candidate for that role?
And now contrast all of this with Arteta’s first three transfer windows in charge of Arsenal, when the emphasis was primarily on reducing the wage bill (and getting rid of a number of problematic characters) rather than looking to the market to strengthen a mediocre squad.
In Arteta’s first transfer window in January 2020, with a demoralised team bobbing around in mid-table, Arsenal’s only signings were Spanish central defender Pablo Mari on loan from Flamengo and sometime Portugal right-back Cedric on loan from Southampton. That summer they made those two deals permanent (to little great effect), signed Brazilian veteran Willian on a free transfer (ditto) and, more significantly, signed Ghana midfielder Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for £45million, 22-year-old Brazilian defender Gabriel from Lille for £23million and Spanish midfielder Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid. The following January brought two loan signings: goalkeeper Mat Ryan from Brighton & Hove Albion and midfielder Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid.
Gabriel, Partey and Odegaard (once he made his move permanent in August 2021), proved inspired signings, but the rest were cut-price or temporary additions who have made no lasting impression. Over the same three transfer windows, Tottenham, under Mourinho, signed Lo Celso from Real Betis £27.5million (after an initial loan), Steven Bergwijn from PSV Eindhoven for £27million, the lesser-seen Gedson Fernandes on loan from Benfica, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton for £15million, Doherty from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £13.4million, Sergio Reguilon from Real Madrid for £25million, Joe Rodon from Swansea City for £11million and two loan deals: Carlos Vinicius from Benfica and Gareth Bale from Real Madrid.
Mourinho started fairly brightly at Tottenham — they were briefly top of the Premier League in December 2020 — but faded to the extent that he was sacked before the end of that season. Arteta’s first 12 months at Arsenal were pretty wretched, taking just 47 points from 34 games (1.38 points per game), but their form steadily picked up; from Boxing Day to the end of the season they took 42 points from 24 games (14 wins, five draws, five defeats, an average of 1.75 points per game). Although they finished eighth, they were only eight points off third and only one point behind Tottenham.
And all the while, Arteta was taking steps to build an Arsenal team for the longer term. The fast-track development of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli looks like a no-brainer now, but would Mourinho or Conte have been so willing to nurture them through their growing pains or indeed to make Premier League central defenders of Gabriel at 22 and, even if it felt like it took an age, William Saliba at 21?
Some of those decisions involved taking short-term pain in pursuit of long-term gain. Arteta’s uncompromising stance towards Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who were marginalised and ultimately banished, was unpopular among many supporters at times when results were up-and-down at best, but these too were significant steps in enabling Arsenal to make a fresh start with younger players — similar, perhaps, to Erik ten Hag’s willingness to jettison a disillusioned Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United.
You could say Arteta took one step back to take two steps forward. Given their trajectory over the past three years — starting from a low base, hitting rock-bottom in December 2020, then the gradual emergence of a team that has set an astonishing pace in the first half of this season — you could equally say he took three steps back to take ten steps forward. The level of improvement over the past two years has been extraordinary and perhaps, in order to make that possible, the whole thing needed to be dismantled and rebuilt.
In defence of Mourinho and Conte, it is harder to go for a full reset when there is the promise of a way forward with players like Hugo Lloris, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane. There has always been a financial pressure to aim for Champions League qualification — just as there was at Arsenal during the last decade, when they drifted at times under Arsene Wenger and were eventually overhauled and left behind by a Tottenham team that had been quietly rebuilt by Pochettino. For Mourinho and Conte, taking over in the autumn of a season when a top-four finish was still up for grabs, the focus rarely went far beyond the next match.
But that is their nature, as well as the situation in which they found themselves at Tottenham. That fierce, unflinching approach has brought spectacular successes at clubs (notably Chelsea and Inter in both cases) that were ready to compete for the biggest prizes.
The irony, perhaps, is that appointing proven winners like Mourinho or Conte, at a time when Manchester City and Liverpool were pre-eminent in the Premier League, was far less likely to take Tottenham to the elusive “next level” than hiring a coach who would build them up over the medium term like Pochettino did — and like Arteta is doing at Arsenal, or like Jurgen Klopp did over his first few seasons at Liverpool, or indeed like Eddie Howe appears to be doing at Newcastle United, who have improved dramatically over his first year in charge.
In all of those cases, not least that of a newly enriched Newcastle, the biggest difference the manager has made is by creating something, building something, fostering something that wasn’t there before. Conte, more than most coaches in world football, is capable of doing that, but the individual and collective improvement you would expect on his watch hasn’t really happened at Tottenham. Under Conte they have frequently produced stirring fightbacks, coming from behind to win, but the technical evolution of the team has been underwhelming.
The next few weeks will see a serious test of Tottenham’s progress under Conte. Sunday’s derby is followed four days later by a trip to Manchester City, who then visit the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on February 5. Everything about Conte’s team suggests they will do everything they can to make life difficult for Arsenal and City — how their supporters would relish the prospect of damaging their rivals’ title challenge — but, even if so, the doubts about their long-term progress will persist.
And it is all so public and so tiresome, whether Conte is happy with their activity in the transfer market (or the lack of it), whether he intends to sign a new contract. He can only answer those questions if they are put to him by the media of course, but Pochettino, at least for the first four years or so, managed to bite his lip and to keep any public frustrations to a minimum. So has Klopp at Liverpool. And so too, at risk of labouring the point, has Arteta throughout some very challenging times at Arsenal.
These are the type of managers Tottenham executive chairman Daniel Levy has traditionally preferred: managers who will try to build a team while broadly falling into line with the club’s philosophy. Levy was not the only one who felt, after falling just short under Pochettino, that they needed to break that mould by hiring a serial winner like Mourinho and then another serial winner like Conte.
Has it worked? In a very limited way, yes; they recovered under Mourinho in 2019-20 and ended up sixth, qualifying for the Europa League, and they recovered under Conte two years later and ended up fourth, qualifying for the Champions League. As the short-lived Nuno experiment illustrated, there was a potential scenario where Tottenham, having fallen away from the peak of the Pochettino years, could have drifted into mid-table anonymity had they taken a serious misstep.
But rarely since Pochettino’s departure have Tottenham found a real sense of momentum or indeed purpose. There was an 11-game unbeaten run in the Premier League under Mourinho in late 2019 and two impressive runs under Conte in the second half of last season, but at no point have performances or results generated the kind of progress and excitement that have come to characterise Arteta’s tenure at Arsenal.
That comes down to more than just a club giving a manager time. It is about the right manager showing the patience and the single-mindedness to pursue a long-term vision and develop an exciting young team with higher aspirations, setting the correct tone, never talking the club or the players down.
Patience is a virtue, but it has to be a two-way street. In Arteta, Arsenal found the right manager for the right time.
(Lead images: Getty Images)
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Arsenal found the perfect fit in Arteta – can Spurs be so sure about Conte?
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