Perhaps, within the space of a day, Tottenham’s transfer window went from being one of the worst to among the best. Maybe at least Daniel Levy spared himself the rage of Antonio Conte, a manager whose frustrations tend to become public very quickly. Certainly Tottenham could view Arsenal’s inability to recruit and contrast it with their two high-calibre recruits, in the bought Rodrigo Bentancur and the borrowed Dejan Kulusevski.
Perhaps Conte was as pleased by the departures. Unsubtle as ever, he signalled his feelings with the teamsheet for Tottenham’s trip to Chelsea. The bench did not contain Dele Alli, Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso. If Conte had quickly tired of enigmas and underachievers, now each is gone, along with Bryan Gil.
In its own way, that represents an indictment: Ndombele and Lo Celso are the two most expensive signings in Spurs’ history and have been loaned out. While Lyon have an option to buy Ndombele for €65 million, in reality no one will pay that much for him. Nor are Villarreal likely to allow Tottenham to recoup their investment in Lo Celso. Gil feels a swift failure, a seemingly auspicious arrival who only got 86 minutes of Premier League football.
Alli’s case may be the saddest, given the heights he touched in his first two seasons at White Hart Lane. A permanent transfer to Everton is a definitive break, confirmation he cannot return to those levels in a Spurs shirt.
That he left for no initial fee indicates how his star has waned and how Spurs should have sold him sooner. But it also forms part of a broader issue, the breakdown of Tottenham’s midfield as an attacking unit. The Conte clearout has taken in three players who rarely provided the X-factor under him, Nuno Espirito Santo, Jose Mourinho and, Alli apart, Mauricio Pochettino.
In contrast, it is notable he kept his quick wingers, in Lucas Moura and the Ajax target Steven Bergwijn. Reshaping the squad still gives him the choice of both 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. Nevertheless, it is also revealing that the two newcomers are very different from the duo they had initially targeted.
Their window looked a chastening failure when Adama Traore chose Barcelona and Luis Diaz Liverpool instead. Bentancur and Kulusevski are scarcely like-for-like alternatives. There is no attack-minded right wing-back, meaning the limited Emerson Royal will presumably continue there.
Nor is there a prolific scorer to ease the burden on Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Perhaps neither has the possibility to be as transformative as Diaz. Kulusevski can operate in the front three and was one of Serie A’s most inventive players in 2019-20 but lacks the Colombian’s prolific return.
But they do offer an injection of craft and creativity, along with a combination of pedigree and potential. Conte may see Bentancur as a classier passer than Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp, though it could appear that he is collecting defensive midfielders. The Uruguayan is 24, the Swede, who Tottenham have an option to buy, 21. Each is experienced for his years.
That Tottenham have employed the former Juventus CFO Fabio Paratici as managing director of football always offered the chance they could raid the Italian market; Paratici seems to have returned to his homeland to strike two fine deals.
While Conte can appear a hardliner, he has a track record of moulding midfields and midfielders, with very different players, in imaginative ways, providing they are willing to buy into his work ethic and follow his instructions. He can be brutally decisive and was quick to give up on Ndombele, followed by Lo Celso and Alli, but the club have been quick to dispose of the unwanted. Now Conte’s Tottenham is taking shape.