Someone better explain this shit to Antonio Conte before he goes and does something stupid.
Oliver Kay wasn’t mincing his words last Monday week. In a way, this was a good thing: far better to actually say what you feel than to make scurrilous allusions, like Kay’s colleague at The Athletic, Simon Hughes, did in January (only Hughes will know exactly what Jürgen Klopp allegedly moving in with the club’s head of press “in a Liverpool apartment” for a few weeks one summer while his wife was back in Germany has to do with Liverpool’s Covid-19 testing regime, which in itself was the lamest exposé in football since Coleen Rooney outed Rebekah Vardy). But Kay went straight for the throat:
He was referring (partly) to the Liverpool manager’s comments immediately after the previous Saturday night’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham at Anfield, which realistically ended his team’s hopes of winning the 2021/22 Premier League title (i.e. failing the equivalent of a miracle from Aston Villa tomorrow). In one interview, the German noted that “they are still fifth” despite their point. In another, he stated:
I don’t like this kind of football. But that’s my personal problem. I think they’re world class and I think they should do more for the game.
Now, to be fair to Spurs, these (comparatively tame, by the way) comments were objectively wrong, even if Klopp did clarify that it was his own personal problem that he felt that way. As frustrating as it was to watch Liverpool try to create something against the massed ranks of the away side’s defensive set-up two weeks ago (which eventually cost them a goal, of course, with Luis Diaz’s shot clipping a stray appendage in a crowded penalty area and deflecting in), they weren’t even the most attritional tactics faced by Liverpool in the past month. Unai Emery’s Villareal (best epitomised by Francis Coquelin’s antics in the second leg) and Frank Lampard’s Everton (led by a gurning Jordan Pickford and embarrassing depths of simulation from Anthony Gordon and Richarlison) go head-to-head for that prize. The difference here was that they had failed to win, and along with those dropped points went a trophy. Klopp knew that only too well, and he reacted in a very human way.
Now, “humanity” is a strange currency in football. It is something that all of us — supporters and journalists alike — crave from players and managers, yet its merest hint is typically misunderstood and dismissed as a negative thing, in this case“crap”. It wasn’t, as Kay acknowledged in his replies, a pre-planned verbal assault. This was a manager presiding over one of the greatest single-season performances in English top flight history and dealing with the likelihood that he was about to come up agonisingly short for a second time in four years. Sid Lowe, in response, couldn’t have captured the reality much better:
Klopp subsequently apologised, saying: “…it was just my feeling in that moment. I could not respect Antonio more, what he is doing and how he organises teams.” His opposite number immediately acknowledged the apology: “I have great respect for Jürgen and I know he was very frustrated with the final result, and I have seen that and he apologised about what he said.” Antonio Conte, in this situation at least, was not trying to generate controversy, or a rivalry, or distract, or turn the spotlight onto himself, unlike some over the years (and currently). Neither was Klopp. This was genuine frustration in the moment that was borne of more than just one game or one result, and both men have swiftly moved on.
A storm in a teacup, then. Interestingly, though, Kay didn’t seem to have much to say about the biggest load of “crap” uttered in and around that game, a series of statements that were very much pre-planned and designed with a certain end in mind, namely Conte’s words beforehand about his future and comparisons with Klopp’s situation at Liverpool:
I don’t know but if I was sure this type of situation can happen, I sign, you understand?
But also the time for Liverpool was easier than now because when Liverpool started this work with Jürgen, they were a top team but not in a way they are now – so consolidated with an important manager, always the same team, big investment, big money spent on the transfer market.
They had also the right space to improve and reach this. Now, in my opinion, I am talking about this league, it is more difficult because the space is not so big.
To reduce this gap, you need to spend a lot of money because you need to buy important players. You have to know this otherwise you cannot reduce this gap and hope always for a miracle.
Now, I have a good amount of respect Conte on the whole. As a Liverpool supporter I’m glad that he ended up at Tottenham rather than Manchester United, as was rumoured for a time back in the autumn, and that one of the most powerful clubs in the world instead elected to fuck around with an interim appointment for a season and then appoint an inexperienced manager rather than going for the decorated Italian because I think he could have really made something of them (they wouldn’t have lost 4-0 at Anfield last month, I’ll tell you that). As noted elsewhere on this blog, in 2016/17 he became the first manager to lead an English top-flight team to 30 wins over a 38-game season, which, despite the fact that Guardiola and Klopp have achieved it in the meantime, remains a superb achievement. That should give a good indication of his abilities as a manager, undoubtedly one of the best in the game currently.
He does, however, have a habit of leaving jobs unfinished, which is possibly why United were hesitant. He resigned from Juventus after three seasons in 2014 and, more recently, Inter after two campaigns in 2021. And although his spell at Chelsea was ended after two seasons by a sacking rather than a resignation in 2018, a fate that has befallen most managerial reigns at Stamford Bridge over the past two decades to be fair, the fact that he had fallen out with the club’s hierarchy certainly didn’t help his cause. Now in 2022, with statements like “if I was sure this type of situation can happen, I sign, you understand?”, it looks as though he may be setting the scene for another quick departure. In other words, it’s up to the club whether he stays, not Antonio Conte. You understand?
I do understand, but I’m not sure that Conte does. His words as quoted above seem to be framed by the notion of contending for the Premier League title (“reduce this gap” can’t be referring to Champions League qualification because they’re already on the brink of that), which is indeed a laudable ambition. He uses Klopp’s Liverpool as the benchmark, which is entirely correct reasoning too: Liverpool, rather than Manchester City, should be the shining example for clubs like Tottenham, Arsenal and others wishing to work their way towards a league title challenge, for obvious reasons (Newcastle United are about the only club likely to be looking at the Etihad for inspiration, also for obvious reasons). However, his conception of the German’s “situation” at Anfield since his arrival in October 2015 might need a little work, if only to avoid disappointment on his own part.
Let’s begin with this gem: “But also the time for Liverpool was easier than now because when Liverpool started this work with Jürgen, they were a top team but not in a way they are now.” Actually, in real terms, the team that Klopp inherited in 2015:
- was eight (eight) Premier League games removed from a 1-6 defeat at Stoke City on the final day of the 2014/15 season;
- was fourteen games removed from an FA Cup semi-final defeat to a team that finished three points above relegation (Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa, who would go on to finish rock bottom the following season, 17 points adrift of 19th, after a season where Klopp’s Liverpool beat them 6-0 at Villa Park);
- was on a run of 1 win in 6 at the start of the 2015/16 season, during which time they had haemorrhaged goals at a rate of almost two per game (1.83);
- had just finished 6th, a full 25 points off the pace, at a club that had won a single major trophy in 8 years and, aside from a brief, unexpected runner-up campaign in 2013/14, had otherwise finished 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th and 6th over the previous six years (it was a trend that Klopp was unable to arrest in his first season, finishing 8th once again for a seven-season average of 6th);
- had played six Champions League games in almost six years, with the only victory in that time coming courtesy of an injury-time penalty against Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad at Anfield.
That record just screams “top team”, doesn’t it? Let’s compare and contrast with the Tottenham side that Conte inherited at the start of November 2021, which:
- was on a similar run of 2 wins in 7 prior to the departure of the outgoing manager, during which time it had haemorrhaged goals at a rate of over two per game (2.29);
- nonetheless found itself only five points off the top-four after 10 games, despite an opening to the season that included games against Manchester City (currently 1st), Chelsea (currently 3rd), Arsenal (currently 5th), Manchester United (currently 6th), West Ham United (currently 7th) and Wolves (currently 8th);
- had just finished 7th, a full 30 points off the pace, at a club that had won two major trophies in 30 years and had finished 5th, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th over the previous seven years for an average of 4th;
- had played 35 Champions League games in the previous six years, and reached the final in 2018/19.
Additionally, while I haven’t gone back through seasons upon seasons of results and will certainly defer to Tottenham supporters on the subject of how humiliating or disappointing certain defeats have felt for them, I would wager that it’s a long time since they suffered a result comparable to being beaten 6-1 at Stoke City or being denied passage to an FA Cup final by Tim Sherwood. Even the 2-7 loss at home to Bayern Munich in October 2019 was suffered in Europe’s premier club football competition, at the hands of the eventual winners, and was in any case offset by eventual qualification for the last-16 (i.e. making it a successful group stage). Being 5-0 down at the Britannia Stadium in a meaningless game on the last day of a bitterly disappointing season is just pitiful.
Otherwise, the situations both managers inherited were fairly comparable. Liverpool were four points off 4th after 8 games in 2015/16 vs. five after 10 games for Tottenham in 2021/22, and the Reds had finished 6th on 62 points the previous season (2014/15) vs. 7th on 62 points for Spurs (2020/21). Tottenham, however, had a higher average finish in the league over the previous 7 years (4th vs. 6th) and a big advantage in terms of recent European experience (35 Champions League games in the previous six years vs. 6 for Liverpool), with all of the additional prestige and revenues that brings. There was a time not too long ago, remember, when Liverpool targets like Gylfi Sigurðsson, Clint Dempsey and Willian preferred White Hart Lane over Anfield, and that recent European pedigree (they also finished ahead of Liverpool domestically for eight seasons out of nine) undoubtedly helped.
Speaking of revenues, now let’s examine Conte’s second proposition regarding Liverpool, the one about “big investment, big money spent on the transfer market” and the “need to spend a lot of money because you need to buy important players”. If the on-pitch performances of both clubs in the years prior to the respective arrivals of Klopp and Conte are comparable at the very least, and even in Tottenham’s favour in some respects, the exact same is true of their transfer spending. To compare, I have gone back to the start of the 2015/16 season (Klopp’s first at the club) to see exactly how both clubs have supported their managers over the past seven seasons in terms of cold, hard cash, the kind of support to which Conte is expressly referring. The comparison below, taken from Transfermarkt.co.uk, gives the total for all Premier League clubs across the period in question:
Liverpool have spent around £97m more than Tottenham on players since the summer of 2015 (although Spurs are ahead on net spend), an amount that averages out to around £14m per season. It’s not a dramatic amount by any means, and around £140m of that outlay came from the sale of a player that Klopp did not, under any circumstances, want to lose (Philippe Coutinho). Tottenham’s decision to spend an estimated £1 billion on a new stadium (capacity: 62,850) also needs to be factored in. By way of comparison, once the current Anfield Road expansion is completed in the summer of 2023, Liverpool will have spent an estimated £190m developing half their stadium and increasing its capacity to a near-identical figure (61,000). They haven’t spent all of that £800m balance on players, but it probably goes some way to explaining the difference in transfer spend between the two clubs.
The next list shows the overall transfer spend since the start of the 2010/11 season, when FSG arrived at the eleventh hour to purchase Liverpool with the club drifting towards administration. This raises the difference in transfer spend between the clubs to around £20m per season. That’s certainly a more significant total, although again, Liverpool had to suffer the loss of a number of key players during that time (Javier Mascherano, Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling and Coutinho for a cumulative £270m) to generate a significant portion of those funds. The similarly wounding departures of Gareth Bale, Luka Modrić and Kyle Walker, for around £170m combined, accounts for some £100m of the 12-year difference between the transfer spends. Eliminate that, and it’s around £12.5m per season, and that’s before you figure the stadium issue (again) into the calculations.
All of which is to say that Liverpool and Tottenham have, mostly, been shopping in the same supermarket for years, often painfully so. While Pep is over in Waitrose or M&S picking out the finest, I dunno, organic Haaland or vegan Grealish, it should come as no big surprise for Conte if he wanders down the Luis Diaz aisle in Tesco only to see Jürgen Klopp’s big toothy grin smiling back at him. Indeed, if you look at the last decade, it should come as no real surprise that it was these two clubs fighting over the Colombian wizard in January. Take Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson out of the equation, at least one of whom was purchased with the Coutinho money, and the respective record transfers of each club is eerily similar too (Naby Keïta and Tanguy Ndombele for £54m each).
It should be noted as well that Tottenham spent £26m on reinforcements during Conte’s first transfer window at the club, in the form of Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski (£17.1m and a £9m loan fee respectively), an outlay that has almost certainly helped them to the cusp of 4th. By way of comparison, back in January 2016 (Klopp’s first window) Liverpool spent £6.3m on a player (Marko Grujić) who wouldn’t arrive until the following summer, following up with a loan move for QPR’s Steven Caulker who featured just three times for the club. Neither player contributed anything to a league campaign that ultimately ended in a disappointing 8th place finish.
Returning to the first table above, the reality is that if Conte wants the kind of backing at Spurs that Klopp has had at Liverpool, he should expect a couple of things. Firstly, he will be outspent by around £70m and £43m per season by Manchester City and Manchester United respectively (we’ll omit Chelsea as they will likely soon be following a more sustainable route). That’s if he gets the same level of backing that Klopp has. And secondly, if he does want to spend big at any point, he’ll likely need to generate most of those funds himself. That may involve losing a key player or two. It is interesting to consider, for example, whether Conte would be willing to lose, say, Harry Kane if it meant an extra £100m or thereabouts to spend on the team. That lot might net you, say, Luis Diaz and Aurélien Tchouaméni, with enough left over for a year of their wages, but you would obviously lose your team’s talisman. Would Conte accept that trade-off?
If he would, then Spurs may very well be the club for him. The stadium is wonderful, the supporters passionate, the squad is shot through with real quality from front to back, and he is likely to be supported financially about as well as anyone outside of Guardiola and Eddie Howe. He may, of course, continue to lose out on targets like Diaz as Tottenham work their way back to real relevance in European and domestic football, but they are almost certain to be in the 2022/23 Champions League now and that will help. After that, as Klopp would no doubt tell him, it’s all about the results he can fashion on the pitch. 4th place at the end of his first (partial) season in charge is a phenomenal start, even if they were only five points away from that target upon his arrival in November. If he can keep that momentum going into next season, perhaps reach the knockout stages of the Champions League and reach a domestic cup semi-final or final, then Spurs may become a favoured destination for players once again.
The trouble is, I don’t know if Antonio does accept that trade-off. When he talks about “big investment” and spending “a lot of money”, he references Klopp but the reality is that he may be thinking about Guardiola. He initially turned down Tottenham last summer, stating that “if there’s something that doesn’t convince me I prefer not to accept, regardless of the money”. Perhaps that was based on a more realistic assessment at the time of how the club were likely to be able to compete at the top of the table. Certainly, if a league title is his aim, he won’t be able to ‘buy’ it if Liverpool is his template.
He’ll also need to adjust his expectations on the pitch if he wants to finish top of the pile. His team’s result at Anfield was certainly well-deserved, even if the point earned ultimately counted for nothing (they will finish 4th by two points tomorrow, barring a miracle from relegated Norwich City). However, as I pointed out in December, “…there are no good away points at the top of the Premier League anymore, not when you might have to win 31 or 32 of 38 games to stand a chance. Liverpool drew at places like the Emirates, Goodison, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge during 2018/19, but won 30 games besides and still they lost the title by a point. Every single one of those represented two points dropped under the circumstances, not a point gained.”
I specifically referenced Liverpool’s 2-2 draw away to Conte’s Spurs last December in that post as an example of a ‘good point’ on paper essentially meaning very little these days (Klopp himself mentioned it in a similar vein following his team’s bittersweet 2-1 win at Southampton on Tuesday). To that, we can certainly add the 2-2 draw at the Etihad last month, where the Reds recovered from a difficult first half against one of the world’s very best teams to claim a point that, in reality, effectively represented two dropped given the way the title race has since panned out.
If it is truly a Premier League title that Conte craves, then financial support alone won’t be the only requirement. He may have to actually show up to Anfield one of these days with ambitions of winning, because that’s how City and Liverpool do it and that’s why even 28 wins out of 38 guarantees you nothing anymore. Will he be able to do it? Will he be able to come to terms with the fact that league titles are now forged to a large extent in the fires of ambition? Time will ultimately tell, but only if he sticks around. That will only be possible if, in the end, he accepts the reality of his situation. For the wandering Italian, that may prove a bridge too far.