The Tottenham Hotspur head coach search of 2023 rumbles on.
It felt at the start of this week as if this process would finally be coming to a close. The expectation at Tottenham — as well as at Feyenoord — was that Arne Slot would be the next man in charge. But as that dramatically collapsed on Wednesday, Tottenham are left still looking for the right man for the job.
In isolation, missing out on Slot does not have to be a disaster for Spurs. Clearly, he is a very good coach who has done spectacularly well at Feyenoord, winning the Eredivisie this season with a brand of football many fans would love to see at Tottenham. But he is not the only good coach on the market. The fear for Spurs fans is that not landing Slot represents a pattern, not just from this year’s search but from 2021 too.
The good news for Spurs, such as it is, is that Slot’s decision to stay at Feyenoord does not necessarily return Tottenham back to square one on the board. Even though Slot clearly moved into pole position last week, Spurs have been holding second-round interviews with other candidates. Not all of their eggs were left in the Arne Slot basket.
So which other candidates are there who Spurs could still appoint? Could a new candidate come into play who has not been part of the process to date? And do Spurs still have a route to a satisfactory ending?
In terms of long-standing candidates, the name of Luis Enrique has never truly gone away. He has been there since the genesis of this process, back in early March when Fabio Paratici drew up a list of candidates to replace Conte at the end of the season. Plenty has changed since then — Conte and Paratici have both left the club — and yet his candidacy cannot be completely discounted.
There is a lot to commend Luis Enrique for the Tottenham job. He has by far the best CV of all the candidates, having won the treble with Barcelona in 2014-15 and also managed Spain at Euro 2020 (very impressively) and Qatar 2022 (not so much). But he would come with very clear ideas about the football he wants to play: high pressing, dominating possession in the opposition half, very well-organised through relentless hard work on the training ground. (Some of this will remind people of Conte; some will not.)
It is easy to get preoccupied with Spain’s World Cup exit to Morocco, when they dominated possession (77 per cent) but had one shot on target; a sign of what can go wrong when the passing game does not quite click against organised opposition. But if you look back to the Euros the year before, Spain looked like potentially the next great European side.
The below graphic shows that Luis Enrique’s Spain played a slower, more high-possession game than any other candidates’ teams — although, of course, club football is different from international football, so the comparison is not perfect.
If Tottenham are looking for a name — someone who has coached at the highest level and won things — then Luis Enrique is still the obvious answer. And yet, those very criteria underline the fact that he is not exactly what Tottenham are looking for this summer. He feels far more in keeping with Spurs’ managerial recruitment strategy from 2019 to 2022, back when the CV of the candidate was enough to get them in the door.
This summer, Spurs are more focused on finding a candidate who can improve the culture at the club and bring everyone back together: the boardroom, the dressing room, the fans and the academy. After the failures of Jose Mourinho and Conte, they want a candidate who exudes a sense of wanting to be there, and who pulls in the same direction as everyone else. With that in mind, they will naturally be wary of Luis Enrique’s reputation as a headstrong character; someone who can be so convinced that he is right that he is reluctant to do the politics of persuasion.
If Luis Enrique were to become Tottenham head coach, he would certainly require careful management just like Conte did before him. And with Tottenham still waiting to appoint their next director of football, it remains to be seen if they will have a sufficiently robust structure to take him on board. All of which poses the question: if Tottenham were seriously committed to the idea of Luis Enrique, would they have appointed him by now?
Then there is Roberto De Zerbi. He has featured very prominently in Spurs’ thinking throughout this whole process and his name has never been ruled out. He has some things in common with Luis Enrique, namely a highly structured possession style, drilling his players on how to move the ball around in such a way as to encourage the opposition to press and thereby create space to attack. Pep Guardiola recently called him “one of the most influential managers in the last 20 years”.
But while Luis Enrique has not coached in club football since leaving Barcelona six years ago — and has never worked in England — De Zerbi’s football has been a triumph in the Premier League this season. He only took over at Brighton in September and he has guided them to sixth place in the Premier League. If Tottenham wanted someone who can bring them some of what Mauricio Pochettino did in 2014, De Zerbi would tick those boxes.
He is 43 (Pochettino was 42 when he joined), and he is young enough to be innovative while still old enough to be experienced. From his early works to Sassuolo to Shakhtar Donetsk to Brighton, he has already built his brand as someone who gets his teams to play a style of football unlike almost anyone else in the world.
So in those senses, he sounds perfect for Spurs. But there are also questions. He is a famously combustible character — as Spurs saw in their Premier League game against Brighton in early April — and it would be entirely understandable for Tottenham to prefer a more placid character to oversee their rebuild over the next few years. As with Luis Enrique, you wonder whether he would be a better appointment for Spurs in stabler times than right now.
The other issue, one that cannot be avoided, is whether De Zerbi would even want to come to Tottenham right now. Brighton will finish sixth, Tottenham could finish as low as ninth. Brighton will be in the Europa League next season, Spurs may not be in Europe at all.
Tottenham are clearly higher up the football food chain than Brighton, but that does not mean that they are necessarily a more attractive job right now. And while there was plenty of speculation about De Zerbi’s future earlier in the season, his intention now is to stay at Brighton for next season’s Europa League campaign. “For me, it’s an honour to work here and to continue to work here,” he said last week. “I never thought to change teams, I never thought to go back to Italy or to another Premier League team.”
If Tottenham wanted an even younger candidate than De Zerbi, there is still Ruben Amorim. The Sporting Lisbon manager is only 38 but has already established himself as one of the best young managers in Europe, and one certain to end up at a top club sooner rather than later.
Amorim will always be known for winning the Portuguese league title with Sporting in 2020-21, their first in 19 years. It was a remarkable achievement at the time, even more so now because of the turnover of players Sporting have to go through. This season has been harder given sales — Sporting are fourth and heading for next season’s Europa League — but Amorim has been given assurances about the summer market and is now busily planning for next season. With three years left on his contract and a €15million (£13m; $16.1m) release clause, he would not be easy to get out of Sporting, and this summer may not necessarily be the right time.
But it is easy to see the attraction of a young manager who, above all, has a remarkable ability to bond with and convince players. Perhaps it is because he was a player so recently, but he is a brilliant communicator who is able to convince his players totally of the value of his methods. He does not play as intricate possession football as some of the other options, while his 3-4-3 may give some fans flashbacks to the Conte era. But given how many wing-backs Spurs have now accumulated (not least Pedro Porro, who starred for Amorim’s Sporting team), perhaps it would make sense to appoint a coach with a plan to use them.
Ultimately, the candidate who now looks to have the momentum is Ange Postecoglou. He has been in Tottenham’s thinking for a while even if he has not had the glamorous profile of some of the other candidates. He has had a longer route to the top, working in Australia, Japan and now in Scotland with Celtic for the last two years. At 57, he is the oldest of all the candidates under consideration — and he is four years older than previous manager Conte — so could not bring the youthful energy of De Zerbi or Amorim.
And yet, Postecoglou ticks some of the boxes better than anyone else. He has shown a natural gift for building a team dynamic and bringing supporters in line with the team; it’s exactly what Spurs want this summer. Some people doubted whether he could handle the switch to such a big club and high-pressure environment as Celtic, but he has managed the public-facing elements of it brilliantly.
His teams play enterprising front-foot football of the sort that Spurs have not seen since Pochettino was in charge. They overwhelm opponents and have two Scottish league titles to show for it from two seasons. The below graphic shows that Postecoglou’s Celtic have the lowest PPDA (passes per defensive action) and therefore the highest pressing intensity of all other candidates’ teams, even ahead of Amorim’s Sporting.
It might feel like a leap in taking a manager who has never worked in Europe’s top five leagues and putting him in charge at Tottenham. But then Spurs have appointed by strength of CV before and look how that turned out.
The other thing to remember is that Spurs have more time than it feels like. We are still only in May. Even if this search feels like it has been going on forever — Saturday is 62 days since Antonio Conte was sacked on 26 March — Tottenham are not under time pressure quite yet. There is still one game left of this Premier League season. Some players will then have a proper break, but others will be playing international football in the middle of June. Pre-season is not expected to start for non-international players until early July.
If by mid-June there is no head coach, then people will start to get more anxious. The need to appoint Nuno Espirito Santo two years ago ultimately came from the pressure imposed by the return of players from pre-season at the end of June. But we are not at that point yet.
So there is plenty of time left for new candidates to emerge or to force their way into Levy’s thinking. A resumption of talks with Julian Nagelsmann’s camp does feel unlikely after the way they collapsed at the start of this month. But it is entirely plausible that another new candidate will enter the picture.
Like Graham Potter, who ticks so many of the boxes in terms of football and culture, is well respected at Tottenham, and whose main weakness is the fact that he briefly and unsuccessfully worked for Chelsea. Or Marco Silva, whose Fulham future remains notably uncertain. Or even Marcelo Gallardo, whose hugely successful spell at River Plate ended earlier this season. (One candidate very unlikely to get the job is Brendan Rodgers, sacked by Leicester City last month. He nearly became Tottenham manager in 2012, but has never been close to the job since.)
If you go back to 2021, so much of the action took place after May turned into June. That was when their talks with Conte collapsed, when they nearly appointed Paulo Fonseca and then pulled out, when they nearly appointed Gennaro Gattuso and then were forced to pull out, and then eventually ended up with Nuno. On the last weekend of the 2020-21 Premier League season, there was no real prospect of Spurs going for Conte, Fonseca, Gattuso or Nuno, and yet they ended up pursuing all four of them in turn.
If Spurs do decide to depart from their shortlist this summer, there is plenty of time for new characters to be part of this story too.
(Photo: Juan Luis Diaz/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)