Antonio Conte of Tottenham Hotspur is under pressure as the usual storm clouds gather ahead of a big week.
Antonio Conte will mark a year in charge of Tottenham Hotspur next week, but all indications are that it will not be a happy occasion.
The former Juventus, Chelsea, and Inter Milan coach has been a relative success since arriving at the club last November, rescuing a seemingly hopeless situation. By the end of the season, he had led the team into the Champions League, thanks to a late surge that saw Spurs overtake Arsenal in the final week for fourth place.
Conte did exactly what Conte does. He is the ultimate quick-fix coach, bringing fitness and organization while demanding absolute focus and commitment from his players, and that blueprint allowed Spurs to rise from ninth on the day he arrived to fourth, with a two-point cushion, at the end of the season.
Conte was able to demand and receive strong backing in the summer transfer market, when Spurs spent over £150 million on new players, including forward Richarlison, midfielder Yves Bissouma, and defender Cristian Romero (whose loan was made permanent), to transform the team from one with top-four ambitions to one capable of challenging for the Premier League title.
Nonetheless, despite overseeing Tottenham's best-ever start to a Premier League season, recent results have significantly lowered expectations, and the storm clouds that have always hovered over Conte's head are beginning to return. The initial sugar rush that his teams always seem to enjoy when he takes over has begun to wear off, and history shows that once the 53-year-old loses that early impetus, the trajectory of results and fan satisfaction only tends to go in one direction.
It's why Manchester United turned down the chance to sign Conte a year ago, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's grip on the manager's job at Old Trafford was slipping. According to ESPN, the club hierarchy wanted to avoid hiring Conte due to the short-term nature of his coaching career and concerns that his methods would only work for a limited time with United's players.
But are United's reservations about Conte beginning to show at Tottenham? The next week should reveal whether the cracks that are beginning to appear can be smoothed over or if they will grow even larger.
Following two straight league defeats, Saturday's trip to Bournemouth is a must-win game, while Spurs cannot afford to lose Tuesday's final Champions League group game against Marseille at Stade Velodrome. Then comes Liverpool a week later on Sunday, a team that has struggled recently but is unbeaten in 10 games against Spurs dating back to October 2017.
With Spurs fans beginning to complain about Conte's football style, and the nostalgic glow of Mauricio Pochettino's teams casting a negative light on the Italian's side, failure to emerge from the current malaise in those games will increase the coach's scrutiny.
Conte's reaction to Harry Kane's VAR-disallowed winner against Sporting CP on Wednesday, which earned him a red card from the referee, exemplified his growing annoyance. And it stems from his team's repeated failure to demonstrate that they are capable of becoming a winning team rather than an unreliable and inconsistent one.
Simply put, when the Spurs were asked to make a statement this season, they failed. Conte's team has lost to Arsenal, Manchester United, and Newcastle, three direct rivals for the top four, and their indifferent form in the Champions League has left them needing to avoid defeat in Marseille next Tuesday to qualify for the knockout stages.
Injuries have undoubtedly hampered the team's progress, with Dejan Kulusevski out since mid-September and Richarlison struggling to recover ahead of the World Cup next month, but the unavoidable fact about Spurs is that they remain completely reliant on Kane's goals, and Conte has done nothing to change that. The England captain has 11 goals in 15 games, including 10 of the team's 23 in the league, and is once again carrying the team. If Conte cannot find a way to distribute the team's goal-scoring burden, Spurs will be walking a tightrope until the end of the season.
Because of the way he works and his challenging personality, being coached by Conte is frequently a perilous existence for the clubs that employ him. Conte rarely appears calm, preferring to maintain a state of simmering tension with players, senior figures, match officials, and supporters.
The uncertainty surrounding his future with the Spurs – his contract expires at the end of the season, with Spurs having a one-year option to extend – does not lend itself to the required calm, and the team now appears to be entering a state of flux that will eventually affect all of his sides. The storm clouds are gathering, and if Marseille knocks Spurs out of the Champions League next Wednesday, Conte's first anniversary will be accompanied by the sound of thunder.