Rafa Benitez and Antonio Conte are in a similar situation. They are top-class coaches in charge of – at least for now – second-rate clubs. Their teams meet today at Goodison Park with Everton and Tottenham Hotspur desperate to break morale-sapping losing streaks in the league.
Conte’s arrival has lifted the spirits for Spurs, whose humiliating 3-0 defeat by Manchester United led to the departure of Nuno Espírito Santo. The Portuguese may have left but Tottenham’s problems remain. The new manager has inherited a mismatched squad, a host of underperforming players, an unhappy Harry Kane and, in Daniel Levy, a chairman whose position would surely be called into question if he didn’t own almost 30 per cent of the club. What Conte hasn’t inherited is any money. The expense of the stadium and the impact of the pandemic have left Spurs short of cash.
It does not look like a recipe for success. Conte left his last three club jobs after falling out with his bosses over transfers and budgets.
The Italian’s 18-month contract gives an insight into his thinking. At the moment there is no pretence that Conte is in it for the long haul. In many ways the 52-year-old is in a no-lose situation. White Hart Lane is a graveyard for managers. It would not reflect too badly on him if he fails in a position that chewed up and spat out Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho.
One of the things Tottenham and Everton have in common is that, at least in the early stages of a managerial tenure, it does not take much to make the fans happy. Both clubs have slipped a long way since they were part of the ‘Big Five.’ The Premier League era has not been kind to them.
Pochettino made Spurs competitive. More than that, he made them respectable. If Conte does that, he will be deemed a success. He must improve the many underachievers in the squad and organise the team. For a man of his talents, that should be easy.
Except the lesson of Benitez at Goodison is that it is not so simple. What if the majority of the playing staff are, at least in the short term, unimprovable?
After a positive start to the campaign Everton have backslid badly. Injuries have had an impact and the Benitez effect was exaggerated by a series of easy early fixtures but the embarrassing 5-2 defeat by Watford and the meek performance in the 2-1 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers laid bare the Spaniard’s problems.
The 61-year-old is normally irrepressible but during the past two weeks he has looked like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. After spending more than half a billion in the past five years, the Merseyside club are in financial fair play jail. They need to get people off the wage bill and out of the exit. The Everton players who are on the trading block will not have buyers hammering at the gates come January.
Unlike his Tottenham counterpart, Benitez would like to be in his role for the long haul. He has the advantage of having Alisher Usmanov in his corner. Farhad Moshiri has his name over the front door at Goodison but Usmanov is the owner’s mentor, the club’s most important sponsor and the power behind the throne.
These two former Chelsea managers have very different personalities. Conte is combative and aggressive. During his time in charge of Juventus, he would listen to the press conferences of opposition coaches, aiming to seize on any negative comments that he could use to ramp up the rhetoric.
He is not remembered fondly by the hierarchy at Stamford Bridge, whereas Benitez’s relationship with those upstairs at Chelsea has always been cordial. Conte’s fiery nature has left scorched earth in boardrooms across Italy and England. Levy is likely to have his hands full with his new manager.
The downtrodden fans at Goodison and White Hart Lane can at least console themselves that they have high-quality operators in the dugout. The problems at both clubs run deeper than the manager. Spurs have gone for a quick fix, Everton are taking a longer view. Either way, Benitez and Conte have huge jobs on their hands.