If Tottenham Hotspur want a manager who can produce attractive football, win plenty of games, impress Harry Kane and muster a near-mutinous fan base, why are they missing out on 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 figure out that Roberto De Zerbi is the real deal?
Hypothetical now, perhaps. It doesn’t happen. Brighton are playing wonderful stuff and are looking forward to a crack in the Europa League next season. Life is good, basking in the warm afterglow of their best league standings. No one expects that to change, although Tottenham’s talks with Feyenoord’s title-winning manager Arne Slot have come to nothing and a managerial post remains vacant.
What happened with Arne Slot and why haven’t Tottenham appointed a manager yet?
It’s just hard, to say the least, to understand why Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has kept his distance when there is already compelling work out there to demonstrate that De Zerbi is not just a brilliant and charismatic manager, but that he also has the strength of personality to reinvigorate a club with Tottenham’s problems.
Anyone who has followed his work at Brighton could not fail to see that the Italian is a manager of style and substance. This week’s eulogy of Pep Guardiola, a man who knows a thing or two about winning football matches, only reinforced that point. And yet, Spurs looked the other way.
De Zerbi was on their list of possible candidates (they’re not entirely blind to his abilities), but that’s all he ever did. And they continue to look the other way, even though their pursuit of Slot has ended, as has Tottenham’s season, in a state of collapse.
It’s not just about assuming that De Zerbi would have said yes. Brighton have been one of the success stories of the season and their supporters must find it annoying that they are still seen as vulnerable against bigger, wealthier and more powerful clubs. They have already lost a 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 great fun to see if they can maintain their upward trajectory.
But it’s still unclear why, despite everything, Levy seems to have concluded that De Zerbi wouldn’t be the right fit for a team with Tottenham’s needs.
Because it can’t be about the money. A compensation package would, in theory, cost around £11m, possibly a bit more. For context, that’s less than Feyenoord wanted for Slot before it became clear he would stay in the Netherlands. Let’s also not forget 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 odd, in the extreme, given the importance of the role.
No, the more credible theory is that Levy simply doesn’t share the enthusiasm for De Zerbi that prompted Guardiola to describe the former Shakhtar Donetsk manager as the Premier League’s most influential manager for two decades.
Have Spurs heard that De Zerbi has a reputation for being very demanding and for Levy that was a red flag?
Don’t rule it out. Levy had a difficult experience with Antonio Conte and is said to have his doubts about replacing an emotional, mercurial Italian with, well, an emotional, mercurial Italian. De Zerbi has mood swings. He can be valuable, demanding and temperamental, as some of the best managers often are.
Is Guardiola right about De Zerbi’s influence? And Lillo? Or Hodgson?
Perhaps it counted against him, in Levy’s eyes, that when Brighton played Spurs last month the bee in De Zerbi’s hood was in danger of spiraling out of control. He had taken offense and clashed with Tottenham’s then caretaker head coach Cristian Stellini before the game had even started. Both men were sent off after a second-half altercation. De Zerbi was happy to extend the argument at his press conference the following week. There’s no doubt about it: the guy can be a firecracker.
If that’s the gist, though, it still doesn’t add up given we’re talking about a manager whose good clearly outweighs the bad.
Does Levy imagine it was always a bed of roses for the Manchester United board when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager? Or that the directors of Nottingham Forest escaped Brian Clough’s snake-licking tongue? Or that the Manchester City hierarchy found it easy when Roberto Mancini rubbed against them like sandpaper?
These clubs sucked him in because these managers knew what it takes to win at the highest level, playing brilliant football in the process. It was worth the drama, the rough with the smooth. Levy thought the same when appointing Conte and, before that, Jose Mourinho. So what does it really matter if De Zerbi isn’t the obedient, candy-two-shoes type either?
De Zerbi’s dismissal at Spurs was preceded by a red card for a display of anger towards match officials after a game against Crystal Palace. There were four yellow cards and two sideline bans. That’s a lot, of course, considering he didn’t replace Potter until mid-September. But just look at the football, the passing, the interaction, the results, the rankings, the improvement of so many players under his tutelage. This should definitely be the most important consideration.
It’s been 60 days and counting since Conte lost his job. The mood at Tottenham is grumpy. Protesters hold signs demanding Levy’s departure. It’s the exact opposite atmosphere you’ll find at Brighton’s home games, where De Zerbi is king. Still, Levy, for unexplained reasons, seems to think he can find someone better. If so, Tottenham Hotspur’s next appointment will indeed be a very accomplished manager.
(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)