Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte will on Tuesday take charge of a Champions League match for the 37th time. It’s a relatively small tally when you consider Conte has been an elite coach for more than a decade. A point of comparison: Pep Guardiola will be overseeing his 150th European Cup game on Wednesday.
Lose at Eintracht Frankfurt and Conte’s record in the competition will stand all square: as many losses as victories, and an overall win ratio of around one in three. And the comparisons with other elite coaches are not flattering for the Italian.
The precocious Julian Nagelsmann, 35, has managed in a similar number of Champions League fixtures, and already built up a win percentage of over 50. Admittedly, Nagelsmann is in his second campaign coaching Bayern Munich, but the majority of his assignments in Europe’s principal competition were at Hoffenheim, who never won under him, and a sometimes erratic RB Leipzig.
Conte has meanwhile managed Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan on midweek Uefa nights, usually as the proud bearer of a league title he guided them to.
The contradiction between his domestic expertise, and a career freighted with gold medals with different clubs from different countries, and the limp catalogue of early exits from Europe has long been a puzzle.
Conte is a builder of confidence in players and squads, a nurturer of drive and stamina, but when it comes to the European Cup, in which he reached four finals as a Juventus player, Conte teams again and again hit a wall.
Granted, his Inter did go all the way to a losing Europa League final in 2020, but that was after they had been relegated into that competition in the autumn.
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All told, in his five campaigns as a Champions League manager, Conte has successfully negotiated just one knockout tie, Juventus overcoming Celtic back in 2013. He has failed to go beyond the group stage three times. And that’s a precedent that casts a particulate shadow over this early stage of his first Champions League adventure with Spurs.
There are anxieties ahead of the back-to-back fixtures against Eintracht Frankfurt in a tight Group D, starting with the Germany leg Tuesday. “This has to be a big push,” said the Italian.
Some of Conte’s compatriots have a theory on his Jekyll-and-Hyde, Europe-and-domestic character - that an excess of tactical caution might explain the serial shortcomings in Europe’s most elevated company.
They draw the contrast with Conte’s fellow Italian exporter of coaching excellence, Carlo Ancelotti. Ancelotti, 63 and 10 years Conte’s senior, has a stunning four Champions League titles as a coach but it took him 27 years of working in club management to reach his fifth league title – one for each country where he has worked.
Among the European expert Ancelotti’s fortes are his flexibility, a freedom from set dogmas. Conte certainly cuts a very distinct figure on the touchline, harnessing rage and energy, very firm in his instructions and beliefs.
He will travel to Frankfurt to the background of probably as noisy a blast of criticism as at any time since he joined Spurs 11 months ago.
Then, he had to oversee the last petering out of a glum Europa Conference League campaign – exit at the group stage – but the uptick in form, and vibrancy, after the later period of Jose Mourinho’s management of the club, and the short-lived Nuno Espirito Santo reaffirmed Conte’s knack of galvanising a squad.
Finishing fourth in the Premier League was an excellent achievement.
But Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at table-topping Arsenal, in the most resonant of fixtures for Tottenham fans, stalled the promising momentum of the current campaign and held up an uncomfortable mirror on Spurs limitations – and on Conte’s instinct to rely on counter-attack, as they were doing even before Spurs were reduced to 10 men with the sending-off of Emerson Royal. “We have to improve the situation,” admitted Conte.
Frankfurt, by contrast, beat the Bundesliga leaders Union Berlin, at the weekend and although they will be without Mario Gotze due to an ankle problem, their coach Oliver Glasner insists “we’ll be well prepared. We’ve studied how Spurs operate and we’ll be playing to win.”
The clubs are tied on three points each in the group, behind Portugal’s Sporting, who have maximum points. “The two games in eight days make it feel like it’s a knockout tie,” said Sebastian Rode, the Frankfurt captain.