Livescore Thursday, April 25

Ange Postecoglou’s appointment as the new Spurs head coach heralds the start of a new era. Mercifully, it also ended the 72-day search for a permanent replacement for Antonio Conte. In that time, Spurs had two interim head coaches and fell from fourth all the way to eighth and out of the European places.

In a strange quirk, the 72 days it took from the departure of Antonio Conte to the appointment of Postecoglou is precisely the same length that it took Spurs to replace Jose Mourinho with Nuno Espirito Santo two years ago. But while many will point to the similarity between the two processes, highlighting how long it took and various high-profile candidates coming and going, there is another view.

This process, unlike 2021, was carried out in an atmosphere of secrecy and discretion by Tottenham, who were embarrassed by how public their scramble became two years ago. They have always wanted to conduct a thorough process and find the right man for the job. They knew this could take until after the end of the Premier League season, and once their targets were no longer competing for trophies, but they were happy to wait. And where the search two years ago had a scattergun feel to it, with a wide range of managers approached, there’s been a much tighter profile of coach looked at this time around.

Now that Postecoglou, 57, has been announced as the next head coach, Tottenham are confident that their patience has been worth it, and that they have found the right person. Unlike Nuno — surely the antithesis of the “Spurs DNA” that Daniel Levy had promised a month earlier — Postecoglou does appear to be the man to transform the club’s “culture”, this year’s equivalent buzzword. Postecoglou was also on the club’s original shortlist; Nuno was not.

This is how the search was carried out, what it tells us about Spurs in 2023, and why the club believe that Postecoglou will be worth the wait.

The origins of this search go back further than Conte’s infamous Southampton meltdown on March 18, the moment that made his Tottenham job untenable and led to his departure eight days later. It had been an open secret inside the club for some time that Conte would not be signing a new contract beyond the 20 months he signed up for in November 2021. And if there was initial frustration with Conte’s reluctance to commit, the downturn in results and atmosphere meant that by spring, the feeling at Tottenham was that a fresh start would in fact be better for everyone.

What Tottenham wanted to avoid was a repeat of what happened two years ago, when they sacked Mourinho in April with no real plan for the aftermath, and then stumbled around in full view of the world for 72 days before finally having to appoint Nuno, who then only lasted 10 league games. This time had to be different.

So succession planning was well underway by March, Levy putting managing director of football Fabio Paratici in charge of the job of drawing up a list of candidates for the summer. The initial idea was that the list would be drawn up over the course of March and then Tottenham could start thinking seriously about what to do next. Paratici would be working in conjunction with performance director Gretar Steinsson. At this early stage, it felt like the likeliest successor would be Luis Enrique, someone who Paratici had admired for years. He had long thought about the idea of bringing the former Barcelona manager to Tottenham, and given Luis Enrique resigned from the Spain job after the World Cup, he was out of work and open to coming to England. Other candidates, including Ruben Amorim, Sergio Conceicao and Oliver Glasner were also of interest to Paratici.

Back then, the hope at Tottenham was that, despite the bad results and the toxic mood, Conte could hang on until the end of the season. If he could keep Spurs in fourth place then everyone could save face and shake hands at the end of the season, ensuring a smooth transfer of power to the new manager. Unfortunately for Tottenham, events blew this out of the water.

It was sadly obvious when Conte returned in early March from his second recuperation period in Italy that the team was going nowhere. When they were meekly knocked out of the Champions League by AC Milan it felt as if there was no longer any real point to Conte staying in the job. And when fans sang the name of Mauricio Pochettino, it was clear they had no loyalty left to the man in the dugout. The question was whether the club would allow Conte to just muddle through until the end of the season.

It took an extraordinary intervention from Conte himself to force the issue. On March 18, Spurs were 3-1 up at Southampton only to throw the lead away and draw 3-3. When Conte finally made his way down to the cramped downstairs room at St Mary’s to give his press conference, he launched an attack on his players that three months on has lost none of its shock value. Conte said that his players were “selfish”, that they refused to play for each other, that they did not want to play under “pressure” or “stress”. He suggested that his own position was immaterial because Tottenham was such an unmanageable club.

In 10 minutes Conte had destroyed his standing and his relationships at the club, not least with the players themselves. He had wilfully made his continuation in the job impossible. The smooth transition at the end of May was out of the window. Tottenham had to act.

The timing, at the start of an international break, worked in Spurs’ favour. Conte had returned to Italy, as he always did at the start of international break, but with no desperate wish to come back. There were 15 days until the next game, away at Everton. Levy and Paratici looked into their options, all with an eye on the strategic priority of securing fourth place and keeping Tottenham in the Champions League. The question was whether they could speed up their plans and appoint a new permanent head coach in March, rather than at the end of the season.

This was earlier than Tottenham had expected to move, but there was one high-profile manager who was still out of work and naturally piqued the club’s interest. Thomas Tuchel had been sacked by Chelsea in September and was interested in the idea of returning to the Premier League and to London. He had been admired at Tottenham for years, for everything he had achieved at Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea. After Conte’s outburst at Southampton, Levy and Paratici intensified their research into Tuchel, wondering whether he would be able to come straight in, save Spurs’ season and then build for the future.

But on the Friday of that week, Bayern Munich made an announcement: Julian Nagelsmann had been sacked and would be replaced by Tuchel. Clearly, something had given Bayern reason to move fast to secure Tuchel. In reality, Tottenham and Tuchel never got into advanced negotiations and Bayern’s move for the former Chelsea boss had started long before. But the whispers of Spurs’ curiosity may well have sped it up.

It was only on that weekend that Tottenham finalised their plan for the final part of the season. Late on Sunday March 26, Spurs announced that they had reached an agreement with Conte, who would leave the club and would not have to return to take Spurs to Goodison Park. Conte would be replaced by his assistant Cristian Stellini for the last 10 games (in reality he only lasted four) and Tottenham would have plenty of time to find the next permanent head coach.

For the next two days, at least, there was calm at Spurs. Stellini could work with the players, Paratici could work on the shortlist, deciding exactly which candidates would be recommended to Levy. Paratici even recorded a video for the Tottenham website explaining the decision to keep Stellini in charge. But then the whole club was rocked on March 29 when FIFA announced that Paratici’s ban from Italian football would in fact be extended with “global effect”. Tottenham had hoped that they had at least until April 19 for Paratici’s future to become clear. But FIFA had effectively taken the matter out of their hands three weeks earlier than expected. Two days later, Paratici stepped away from his duties, pending his appeal.

With Paratici out of the picture, Tottenham had lost the man who had been overseeing their process. Yes, there were still people underneath him who could work on it, compiling due diligence on the shortlisted candidates. It also meant a bigger role for Levy — though it’s worth noting that the search included technical football staff, as well as external and internal analytics and data teams. But it was an inevitably disruptive development to a process that Paratici was meant to be running. Tottenham had hoped that Paratici would have his ban overturned on appeal on April 19, allowing him to step straight back into the cockpit at Spurs to oversee the next stage of the search. Instead, Paratici’s appeal to the Italian Olympic Committee was unsuccessful and he formally resigned from Spurs the next day. All of a sudden, Spurs were trying to run not one but two simultaneous high-profile recruitment processes, for the head coach and for Paratici’s replacement, with the clock ticking on each. Tottenham did not want to be rushed as they conducted thorough due diligence on the candidates.

But Paratici’s departure raised a question among fans, one that became louder as the search went on. Why not bring back Mauricio Pochettino? Spurs fans had been pining for Pochettino ever since he was sacked in November 2019. When Tottenham briefly tried to bring him back in May 2021, only for PSG to say no, it only strengthened the feeling that one day he would make his triumphant return. Pochettino had been sacked by PSG in July 2022 and had been waiting for his next job all year. But as long as Paratici was still at Tottenham, it felt unlikely. Paratici had worked hard to build up his power base at Tottenham and would not willingly dismantle it to bring in a manager who would instantly be more powerful and popular than he could ever be. So it was no surprise when Pochettino was not on Paratici’s original list.

With Paratici on the way out, some Spurs fans started to hope that the case for Pochettino had strengthened. His name had been sung in the stands in late March and early April. The public pressure was growing on Levy to finally pick up the phone and make the call to Pochettino. Given how unpopular Levy had become with the fans this season, bringing back Pochettino felt like the most obvious lever he had to pull to get the public back onside. But the decision had already been made. There was a keen awareness inside the building of how toxic things became in 2019, before they had to sack Pochettino. There was also a feeling that it is never wise to go back. So Levy ignored the public pressure and never put the call in. By late April, it was clear that Pochettino would be taking over at Chelsea instead and the singing of his name by Spurs fans abated. It was time for everyone to move on.

But while Pochettino was out of the picture, his legacy still loomed large over the whole club. And by late April, it was finally clear what Tottenham wanted from their next head coach. Not Pochettino himself, but someone who represented what he brought to the club when he was appointed from Southampton in 2014. The buzzword at Tottenham this summer would be “culture”, an acknowledgment of the sense that it had become a pretty miserable place to work in the last few years after the failed appointments of Mourinho and Conte. That was the thinking behind the appointment of Scott Munn as chief football officer too, after a thorough rethink about how the whole club was run.

So the priority was to find a new head coach who could change all this. They wanted someone who could transform the feel of the club and bring everyone together. This meant a commitment to bringing through young players and also to bringing back an attractive style of play. (Everyone remembers Levy’s infamous comments about Spurs ‘DNA’ from May 2021, but this time the club were serious about following through on it.) It also meant moving away from the policy of the last few years when Tottenham had only appointed big-name celebrity coaches, and instead finding someone who would be there for the long haul. These were the criteria that informed their eventual decision, but it was a long journey to get there.

By the end of April, the long due diligence stage was finally over and Tottenham were ready to sit down and talk. Vincent Kompany, admired at Spurs given his age, potential and excellent work this season, declined to be part of the process and signed a new deal at Burnley. Spurs’ sense was always that he would end up staying at Turf Moor.

But Tottenham would not be sitting down with the highest-profile candidate of them all. Julian Nagelsmann had long been admired at Spurs: they liked him in 2019 but he had joined RB Leipzig by the time Spurs sacked Pochettino. They wanted him in 2021 but he signed with Bayern just days before Spurs sacked Mourinho. The timing had never quite lined up.

But here was a coach who ticked many of Spurs’ boxes. He had his own distinct brand of possession football, which had been successful in all three jobs in Germany. He could revolutionise the playing style at Tottenham, which is something they desperately needed. He was experienced, having worked in the Bundesliga for almost eight years. But he was still young, at 35, the youngest of all the candidates Spurs looked at. On top of all of this, he was a name. Even if Luis Enrique had won more in his career, Nagelsmann had a brand identity all of his own.

Tottenham were certainly very interested in the idea of Nagelsmann and talks took place via intermediaries. He had already been part of the Chelsea managerial process this spring, unsuccessfully. He was on the market, but anyone who appointed him would have to agree compensation with Bayern, where he was still contracted. Nagelsmann was curious about the idea of coaching Spurs, at least in theory, but he had questions about the details. Not least about the structure at the club and the lack of a director of football to replace Paratici. For their part, Spurs were always confident any manager would be working within a clear football structure, helped by the appointment of Munn.

In the end, Nagelsmann did not want an interview for the job after all. Each side, as is natural in any break-up, was keen to portray itself as the one who pulled the plug. The word from Tottenham, which arrived on May 12, was that they did not want to interview him, not seeing Nagelsmann as the right fit for them, as much as they admired his work. Whether it was actually Tottenham’s decision not to interview Nagelsmann is up for debate, to put it mildly. But the upshot was clear: he would not be the next Spurs head coach.

All Spurs could do was press on with their first-round interviews for the candidates who actually wanted them, and these took place in early May. This stage of interviewing was conducted by board members, who above all wanted to check whether the candidates were the right fit for Spurs. This was all about ethos and culture, about whether they had the values that everyone at the club could rally behind, and whether they could speak convincingly as the public face of the club. The football specifics would come later.

The field was starting to narrow. Xabi Alonso had distanced himself from the job, publicly committing his future to Bayer Leverkusen on May 17, so he was out of the picture too. He was the least experienced of all the shortlisted candidates, having only been a first-team manager for less than one full season. Giving him the job would always have been a risk, albeit an exciting one. But there were still plenty of other good options, including Postecoglou, Slot, Luis Enrique and Roberto De Zerbi, all of whom offered Tottenham the chance for the cultural reset they wanted.

And the week after Tottenham publicly distanced themselves from Nagelsmann, the decision-makers at the club started to move towards Slot. With the Eredivisie title now secured, Spurs felt that the time was right to step up their interest. He was not a big name, and so in that sense represented a departure from the club’s policy in recent years. But he ticked almost all of the boxes for this summer’s search. He had overachieved in his two jobs in senior management, first with AZ Alkmaar and then spectacularly with Feyenoord, guiding them to this season’s Eredivisie title, just their second league title this century. He played an adventurous, high-pressing style of football, just like Spurs wanted, and had achieved his successes at Feynoord on a budget. On top of all of this, he was a hugely popular figure with players and fans, someone who offered the promise of being able to bring the whole of Tottenham Hotspur back together, instituting the cultural improvement Spurs were so desperate for.

The question, as Slot became the favourite for the job, was whether he wanted it. Before any formal offer was made, Slot’s future would be decided by a day of talks on May 24. Feyenoord were certainly expecting that Slot would ask to leave and they were busy trying to line up a replacement. This is just how modern football works: the big Premier League clubs can pick off whoever they want, and that applies to managers as much as it does to players. But it would have been a big move for Slot, uprooting his family, turning his back on the club where he had just won the league, giving up Champions League football to take over a team likely to have no European football at all. And Slot thought very hard about it and then announced on May 25 he had decided to stay in Rotterdam and sign a new contract instead.

“Because of the way we work here, the way I work with my staff, the players we have, the facilities we have,” Slot told The Athletic on the day that he signed his contract. “And the thing is, I think the possibilities we have here in the near future, and the longer term future, are still challenging for me. We are going to play Champions League, which I have never done before, as a player or as a coach, which I am looking forward to. The club is in a real good place. I felt I want to work longer, based on the project, to see what comes from that. Because you go every time, after one or two successful seasons. But in the end, where and what are you then? Sometimes you also have to cherish what you have.”

Part of Slot’s decision was down to his trust in the Feyenoord structure, and not least close relationship with Feyenoord CEO Dennis te Kloese, who himself turned down an offer to work for Tottenham just before. Te Kloese said that Slot’s choice was down to “sporting decisions”. Seeing thousands of fans outside Rotterdam city hall celebrating Feyenoord’s title left a mark on Slot. Te Kloese suggested that another good season at Feyenoord could see even bigger doors than Tottenham opening to Slot.

“You really get a feeling this is a really big club, and if you see the scenes last week, how much emotion gets poured into it, it is definitely impactful,” Te Kloese told The Athletic. “If you take everything into account and you recognize also what you have here, it is not that bad. With a nice contract, with a supportive staff, with people in our organisation, at our training complex and our youth academy, they all have the best interests for the club, best interests for head coach, supportive teamwork and spirit. To convince somebody to step out of that is not an easy one.”

Te Kloese denied that Feyenoord were ever approached by Tottenham about appointing Slot, as all discussions went through intermediaries. Tottenham have always denied offering Slot the job. But regardless, with Slot committing his future to Feyenoord, Spurs would have to look elsewhere for their next head coach.

In the second half of May, Tottenham were conducting their second-round interviews and with candidates other than Slot too. If the first round was about ethos, the second round, led by Levy himself, was about specifics. Tottenham wanted to know what the candidates’ vision was for this squad, what their specific plans would be for next season, and how they would turn the team around.

By this point, there were not many candidates left. Roberto De Zerbi had been very highly thought of through the process. He was proven in the Premier League with Brighton, has his own distinctive style of possession football and, perhaps like Nagelsmann, would make Spurs feel like they were at the cutting edge of the game again. There were some reservations, not least about his combustibility, which Spurs witnessed up close when Brighton lost at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on April 8. Spurs knew that he would be an exciting appointment but also a risk. And although he was prominent in Tottenham’s thinking, by late May it was clear that he would not be leaving Brighton this summer.

If Tottenham wanted someone closer to their last few appointments and who was open to the job there was always Luis Enrique. He was a contender throughout the process and yet some felt that if Tottenham really wanted to appoint him they could have done so earlier. He had been out of work since the World Cup and was always attracted to the idea of coming to manage Spurs. Graham Potter, also out of work since being sacked by Chelsea in April, was also under consideration in the latter stages of the search, along with Fulham’s Marco Silva.

By the time Tottenham’s season wrapped up at Elland Road on May 28, there were effectively two plausible candidates left: Luis Enrique and Postecoglou. The Celtic manager had been in the process since the start, and was a popular idea at Spurs even back in April, when most public speculation concerned Nagelsmann. Crucially, Postecoglou ticked so many of the boxes for what Spurs were looking for. When it came to creating a new ethos at the club, improving the culture, and being the public face of the whole institution, there was no better candidate in the race than Postecoglou. These demands are precisely what he delivered at Celtic, taking over a club at a low ebb and bringing the fanbase behind the team and behind himself more than had been the case for years. The parallels between the situation Postecoglou inherited at Celtic — a club that had lost its way playing unattractive football under an unpopular manager, with upheaval in the boardroom, needing to rediscover its identity and rebuild the squad — and the one he would enter into at Spurs were striking.

Tottenham saw the precious sense of alignment that Postecoglou had achieved at Celtic and wondered if he could deliver the same feeling at Spurs. When it came to football, Postecoglou has a record of getting his teams to play an expansive, attacking possession game, precisely what Spurs had been crying out for in recent years. He is also a great orator, and a great respecter of football clubs as institutions and their fans. Added to that, he is not one to complain about referees or opposition managers, and in so many ways seemed like a break from Tottenham’s last few managers. Plus if he joined he would be so hungry to prove himself and succeed.

Postecoglou was also known to the Tottenham hierarchy partly because of his very good reputation within the City Football Group (CFG). Postecoglou had a successful spell at Yokohama F. Marinos, which CFG has a 20 per cent stake in, between 2017 and 2021, including winning the J1 League. His successes there caught CFG’s attention, during which time his compatriot Munn, who will officially start at Tottenham on July 1, was the CEO of CFG China. Munn also considered hiring Postecoglou as manager of the newly-formed Melbourne Heart team that he was tasked with setting up back in 2009.

There were downsides to consider when it came to Postecoglou, though. One was that his Celtic side had struggled in Europe — exiting the Europa League and then Champions League group stage in his two seasons in charge (although poor European campaigns were an issue for Celtic long before Postecoglou’s arrival). Spurs won’t be in Europe next season but, for his critics, those failures were symptomatic of Postecoglou’s lack of tactical flexibility. His philosophy is essentially that if Plan A doesn’t work, try and do Plan A again but better. Which is possibly also why his in-game changes aren’t always especially effective. Postecoglou was also an unknown quantity when it came to managing in one of Europe’s biggest leagues. Was winning a two-horse race in Scotland sufficient preparation for the uber-competitive Premier League?

So in that week when May became June, Tottenham had a simple choice to make. On the one hand, there was Luis Enrique, tested at the highest level, winner of the treble with Barcelona, experienced in some of the biggest clubs in Europe, as well as having taken Spain to two major tournaments. He would bring a stellar CV, and would be consistent with Spurs’ managerial policy in recent years. And, on the other hand, there was Postecoglou. His CV was less glamorous, he had never worked in Europe’s top five leagues, and barely made an impression on the Champions League at Celtic. But while Luis Enrique has a reputation for rubbing people up the wrong way, Postecoglou is an expert in bringing people along with him. He was the candidate who offered the best promise of the cultural improvement and alignment that Spurs had been looking for all along. By the end of that week, Tottenham had decided they wanted him to be their next manager.

With the decision made, the only issue that remained was Celtic having one game left in their season, the Scottish Cup final on June 3 against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. No one wanted to say anything before that game, out of respect for Celtic and their fans as they pursued the cup. But Celtic won 3-1, completing their treble, and Postecoglou was pointedly non-committal on his future after the game. But once the celebrations were over, things moved fast. Talks between Celtic and Tottenham were accelerated on Sunday June 4 and the finer details were agreed on June 5, as Postecoglou signed a four-year deal to manage Spurs. The following day, the club announced that Postecoglou had been appointed.

“Ange brings a positive mentality and a fast, attacking style of play,” Levy said. “He has a strong track record of developing players and an understanding of the importance of the link from the academy — everything that is important to our club.

Returning to the idea of how similar this search and the one in 2021 were, there are clearly some big differences as well as the obvious similarity of the same number of days. And even within that, an important distinction is that two years ago Spurs were hustled into appointing Nuno when they did because players were due back for pre-season literally the following week. On this occasion, they still had plenty of time before that important milestone and so the Postecoglou appointment feels more planned out rather than rushed through. And actually, given Tottenham wanted to respect the fact that Slot and Postecoglou wanted to focus on the trophies they were competing for until very recently, realistically they would have struggled to appoint either man much sooner. The sooner Tottenham made the hire the better, given how much planning things like pre-season and the summer tour require, but this was a very different situation to 2021.

Most importantly, the end result is so different from two years ago. Where Nuno was an uninspired last resort of a choice, Postecoglou is a thought-out, calculated gamble that has an enormous upside, even if it carries with it a degree of risk.

Some fans might feel he lacks the top-level experience for the job but, apart from his age, he is precisely the sort of profile most have been calling out for. A unifying character, who is on the way up rather than down, and mercifully not another big-name vanity appointment.

Yes, it took 72 days again, but crucially this time Spurs genuinely feel like they’ve got the right man.

Additional reporting: Adam Crafton

(Artwork: Sam Richardson; Photos: Getty Images)

Read the full article here

Leave A Reply