Honeymoon is over for Antonio Conte as Tottenham curse strikes again in Middlesbrough upset
Spurs are going to have to wait at least another season to end their trophy drought...
At what point do we start to seriously entertain the notion that Tottenham Hotspur have been secretly cursed by some sort of unholy alliance between a coven of forest-dwelling witches and the Union of Back Alley Ancient Egyptian Artefact Peddling Shopkeepers?
Try and try as they might, the north Londoners just can’t seem to break their trophy duck, to the extent that in recent years it’s been used as a hackneyed stick with which detractors have gleefully battered them, while the word ‘Spursy’ has become a synonym for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
On Tuesday evening, it was the turn of Championship outfit Middlesbrough to etch their own footnote into the ongoing purgatory of Tottenham’s barren spell.
Gutsy and inspired, Chris Wilder’s men showed themselves to be the willing antithesis to Spurs’ pervasive apathy, and their extra time winner, courtesy of local teenager Josh Coburn, was a just reward for their endeavours.
Boro now stroll on through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, while for Antonio Conte and his team, yet another inquest begins.
At this stage, the animated Italian must be asking what more he can do. He’s banned ketchup, he’s done that thing where he jumps up and down on the touchline, eyes and nostrils flared like Taz the Tasmanian Devil, he’s even managed to coax/hoax (delete as applicable) Frank Lampard into taking over custody of Dele Alli.
Perhaps the next step is to draft in Tony Robinson and his Time Team minions to determine whether or not the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was inadvertently built on the site of a hitherto undiscovered sacred burial ground for retired silversmiths.
By rights, and especially with the flames of a recent downturn in consistency tickling at the soles of their feet, Spurs should really have gone out and swept aside Middlesbrough with minimal fuss on Tuesday night. You would expect most other sides in the top half of the Premier League to do exactly that against a Championship promotion hopeful whose own form has been relatively patchy in recent weeks.
Instead, Tottenham did what Tottenham do far too often.
They toiled and troubled, butting up against a resolute opponent without the flair or composure to solve the puzzle in front of them.
And for Conte, who openly questioned whether or not he was the man to take this squad forward in the aftermath of their defeat to Burnley last week, it was another post-match press conference that saw him reflect on his side in hues of vexation.
“For sure the result is not good and we have to be frustrated,” he told the BBC.
“It was a pity because in these types of games you have to start and kill your opponent.
“If you give them hope, they will take confidence and improve during the game. Then anything can happen.”
But while Conte alluded to the unpredictability that continues to undermine Tottenham’s efforts - both in cup competition and in their bid for Champions League qualification - the reality is that Spurs’ entropy is fast becoming their only reliable constant.
In the years since Mauricio Pochettino was ousted, the club have failed to finish higher than sixth in the Premier League, and the memories of the Argentine’s agonising brush with European glory feel as if they fade a little more with each feeble misstep.
Conte looked like a foolproof antidote, and the early signs were promising, but after a recent slump and a reemergence of persistent bad habits, the Italian would be forgiven for fearing that he stands on the precipice of an inevitable, gradual decline that even he, with all of his undeniable pedigree, may struggle to arrest.
After 11 games at the helm, Conte had lost just once as Tottenham boss. After 23 games, he has now lost eight times, while his points per game average evens out at 1.7.
His predecessor, Nuno Espirito Santo, wasn’t granted the good grace of 23 matches in charge, but in the 17 he did manage, his points per game came in at 1.65. That’s hardly a seismic surge in fortunes.
More alarmingly still, divine sourpuss Jose Mourinho averaged 1.77 points per game. Granted, numbers don’t tell the whole story, especially when the numbers are as marginal as the ones on display here, but if late night repeats of Play Your Cards Right in the dustiest reaches of Freeview have taught us anything, it’s that points, one way or another, do usually mean prizes, and in that respect, Spurs are in danger of stagnating, or worse, regressing.
By now, false dawns have become a frequent phenomenon in north London, but as the light begins to eek away on another flattering start to a managerial tenure, Conte is facing up to the reality that the honeymoon is well and truly over.
That’s not to say that the marriage is inescapably doomed to fail - the immediate impact of January signings Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski have offered glimpses into the kind of success the Spurs boss can have when his recruitment needs are satiated - but the concern will be that the cracks and fissures that have already begun to open up in his project will eat away at Conte’s appetite for the unique rigours of the task ahead of him.
Honestly, if he walked at the end of the season, would it be a shock? Probably not.
And that brings us back to the original point on which we started this rumination.
If Tottenham can drive a manager like Antonio Conte - the Antonio Conte with his heaving medal drawer and his furious, inextinguishable fizz - away, then maybe, just maybe they are cursed after all.
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