If Tottenham Hotspur want a manager who can produce attractive football, win lots of matches, make a favourable impression on Harry Kane and bring together a near-mutinous fanbase, why are they missing what seems so blindingly obvious?
Or to rephrase the question: what more evidence did they need during this tortuous, sometimes torturous, search for a new manager to understand that Roberto De Zerbi is the real deal?
Hypothetical now, perhaps. It isn’t happening. Brighton are playing some wonderful stuff and looking forward to a crack at the Europa League next season. Life is good, basking in the warm afterglow of their highest-ever league finish. Nobody expects that to change, even though Tottenham’s talks with Arne Slot, Feyenoord’s title-winning manager, have led to nothing and a managerial vacancy remains open.
What happened with Arne Slot and why have Tottenham still not appointed a manager?
It is just difficult, to say the least, to understand why Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, has kept his distance when there is already a compelling body of work to demonstrate that De Zerbi is not just a brilliant, charismatic coach, but that he also has the force of personality to re-energise a club with Tottenham’s issues.
Anyone who has followed his work at Brighton could hardly fail to see that the Italian is a manager of style and substance. The eulogy this week from Pep Guardiola, a man who knows a thing or two about winning football matches, simply reinforced that point. And yet, Spurs have looked the other way.
De Zerbi did feature on their list of possible candidates (they are not entirely blind to his abilities) but that is as far as it ever went. And they continue to look the other way, even though their pursuit of Slot has ended, much like Tottenham’s season, in a state of collapse.
This is not just to assume that De Zerbi would have said yes. Brighton have been one of the success stories of the season and their supporters must find it wearisome that they are still seen as vulnerable to bigger, richer, more powerful clubs. They have already lost one manager, Graham Potter, this way and would rather not entertain the idea of something similar happening again, thank you very much. De Zerbi seems happy where he is. Next season will be a lot of fun to see whether they can maintain their upwards trajectory.
But it is still hard to understand why, despite everything, Levy appears to have concluded that De Zerbi would not be the right fit for a team with Tottenham’s needs.
Because it can’t be about money. A compensation package would, in theory, cost around £11million, possibly a bit higher. For context, that is less than Feyenoord wanted for Slot before it became clear he would remain in the Netherlands. Let’s not forget, either, that Spurs are quite accustomed to paying three, four or five times that amount for players. The idea that a manager should be worth so much less seems peculiar, in the extreme, given the importance of the role.
No, the more credible theory is that Levy just does not share the enthusiasm for De Zerbi that prompted Guardiola to describe the former Shakhtar Donetsk coach as the most influential manager there has been in the Premier League for two decades.
Is it that Spurs have heard De Zerbi has a reputation for being high-maintenance and that, to Levy, was a red flag?
Don’t rule it out. Levy had a difficult experience with Antonio Conte and has misgivings, it is said, about replacing an emotional, mercurial Italian with, well, an emotional, mercurial Italian. De Zerbi has mood swings. He can be precious, demanding and temperamental, as some of the best managers often are.
Is Guardiola right about De Zerbi’s influence? What about Lillo? Or Hodgson?
Maybe it counted against him, in Levy’s eyes, that when Brighton played at Spurs last month the bee in De Zerbi’s bonnet was in danger of buzzing out of control. He had taken offence and confronted Cristian Stellini, then Tottenham’s acting head coach, before the game even started. Both men were sent off after a second-half altercation. De Zerbi was happy to prolong the row in his news conference the following week. There is no doubt about it: the guy can be a firecracker.
If that is the crux of it, however, it still doesn’t add up given that we are talking about a manager whose good clearly outweighs the bad.
Does Levy imagine it was always a bed of roses for the board of Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager? Or that the directors of Nottingham Forest escaped the snake lick of Brian Clough’s tongue? Or that Manchester City’s hierarchy found it easy when Roberto Mancini rubbed up against them like sandpaper?
These clubs sucked it up because those managers knew what was needed to win at the highest level, playing some brilliant football in the process. It was worth the hassle, the drama, the rough with the smooth. Levy thought the same when he appointed Conte and, before that, Jose Mourinho. So what does it really matter if De Zerbi is not the obedient, goodie-two-shoes type either?
De Zerbi’s dismissal at Spurs was preceded by a red card for a show of temper towards the match officials after a game against Crystal Palace. There have been four yellow cards and two touchline bans. It is a lot, plainly, given that he did not replace Potter until mid-September. But just look at the football, the passing, the interplay, the results, the league table, the improvement of so many players under his tuition. That, surely, should be the most important consideration.
It is 60 days and counting since Conte lost his job. The mood at Tottenham is grumpy. Protestors hold up placards demanding Levy’s departure. It is the exact opposite vibe to the one you will find at Brighton’s home games, where De Zerbi is king. Yet Levy, for reasons unexplained, seems to think he can find someone better. If so, the next appointment of Tottenham Hotspur will be a very accomplished manager indeed.
(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)