Not many 31-year-old managers have precise previous experience of lifting a talented but brow-beaten squad after a serial winner’s constant negging.
In no sane world should Ryan Mason be a better bet as your manager than Antonio Conte.
But this is no sane world. This is Tottenham Hotspur. Mason is still only 31 but this wouldn’t even be the first time he’s stepped in for the run-in trying to repair the damage caused by the toxic narcissism of a serial winner who inconveniently kept losing football matches.
Back in 2021, as the Super League Fiasco swirled around football, Spurs decided to bin off Jose Mourinho six days before the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City and replace him with a 29-year-old who had never managed a game of top-flight football.
It’s become just another brick in the Spursy trophy-dodging wall. They sacked Sir Winalot! In the week of a cup final! Classic Spurs! But here’s the thing. They were right to do it.
Okay, half-right. Let’s not get carried away. Let’s not pretend it was ideal preparation for a final. And let’s also not pretend a big part of it was Daniel Levy trying to score an easy win with supporters after, like the rest of the Big Six, making a great big tit of himself over the Super League.
But there were only two errors. The first was in only sacking Jose Mourinho six days before a cup final rather than far, far sooner. It was clear what was happening.
The second is the unavoidable way it allowed Mourinho (and his vast army of boot-licking acolytes) to grow the idea that he might actually have won that cup final. It’s hard to say with total certainty, of course. The unpredictability is the beauty of sport. But he wouldn’t have won that cup final. He was way into the blame-shifting death spiral by then and the players were broken. He wasn’t focusing on a Carabao final.
This was a manager who had just been outwitted and eliminated from the Europa League by Dinamo Zagreb despite a 2-0 first-leg headstart and the pesky fact Dinamo’s manager had been sent to prison that very week. Mourinho couldn’t get the better of a team picked by a manager using his one phone call; in what world was he about to get the better of Guardiola’s City?
He’d also by this point lost his last six games against the other Big Six teams, including a 3-0 defeat to Guardiola’s City, got knocked out of the FA Cup after shipping five goals at Goodison Park, and overseen a run of one win in six games before eventually getting the boot.
Mason’s Spurs lost the final 1-0 but there really is no credible reason to imagine Mourinho in that moment was going to do any better. But now it’s part of Mourinho’s self-serving legend and that, inevitably, is that.
But what Mason undeniably did do, which is more relevant to the current situation at Spurs, is demonstrably improve stuttering league form during the run-in. Admittedly Mourinho left the team in a lower on-field position than Conte will, but the sense of something broken is near identical, as is the way the departing manager made his final act a concerted attempt to drain any remaining speck of confidence from a playing staff cowed and broken and in the end just bored of playing cruddy outdated defensive football badly.
In 2021, Mason had one significant advantage that he won’t have now. He was able to simply pick Gareth Bale, one of the finest players of the era, and get him to score some goals. Mind you, it was a tactic whose obviousness had nevertheless eluded serial winner Mourinho. Spurs won four of their six league games under Mason, and Bale scored six goals in those games.
It was enough to lift Spurs into seventh and ensure another cancellation of the St Totteringham’s Day Parade. No Bale this time, and it seems pretty unlikely that Mason can prevent a first St Totteringham’s celebration since 2016, but there really isn’t any reason he can’t once again give the end of the season a more upbeat feel.
It won’t be perfect and mistakes will be made, but there is little doubt the entertainment value of the football on offer will improve – it pretty much has to – and Mason’s Spurs will feature more players asked to perform to their strengths than the manager’s dogmatic, unshifting idea of how many centre-backs (three) and how many defensive players in total (eight, very occasionally seven if you’re feeling frisky) a football team requires.
One thing Conte got entirely right at Spurs was in moving quickly to ensure Mason was part of his backroom team, and it has long been clear that Conte himself and his staff – notably Cristian Stellini with whom Mason worked closely during Conte’s recent absence with illness – rate the young Englishman highly.
The way his playing career ended after a fractured skull contesting a corner with Chelsea’s blameless Gary Cahill, was heartbreakingly unlucky, but at the time there was a manager who knew Mason would make lemonade from life’s lemons.
“He will be successful in whatever he does. He will always be a special player for me. Don’t worry, Ryan, because you are going to be a successful person in football outside of the pitch, no doubt about that.”
That manager was, of course, Mauricio Pochettino. He’s the man most Spurs fans would like to see back in the long term, and one of the main reasons is that in Pochettino, Spurs had a manager whose affection for the club was deep and genuine rather than transactional and convenient.
Mason spoke about the influence Pochettino had on him when handed the caretaker’s coat for the first time, and he’s now had the chance to learn more from Conte, who it does bear remembering is an elite coach and towards the back end of last season really did appear to be quite close to putting together a very good Spurs team indeed.
They were excellent in the Champions League-securing run-in, and the football was absolutely not as one-dimensional, predictable or dull as this season’s offerings have turned out to be.
Mason is unlikely to be Spurs manager next season whatever happens in this run-in. But he at least ticks the Pochettino box of having real (and positive) feelings about the club and an existing rapport with many of the currently disaffected players.
Despite Conte’s negging and gaslighting, this remains a squad that, while imperfect in places and stale in others, possesses a great many extremely exciting and gifted component parts.
They may not be built for Conte’s contain first, attack second if at all approach, but they can absolutely do something if allowed to play more on the front foot.
The 10-game run-in isn’t the worst, either, with a trip to Anfield and a home game against Manchester United the only Big Six dates left on the calendar, and doubts remain over the other top-four contenders. At the very least, Mason provides a decompression chamber, a chance to shift the mood for Pochettino or at least a Poch-adjacent coach to build from in the summer.
And besides, if it does go to pot then Mason can just pin the blame on everything that’s gone on in the two decades before him. If it’s good enough for a serial winner on £15m a year after £200m of squad investment in the space of 18 months, then it’s definitely good enough for a no-longer-quite-a-rookie.
READ NEXT: Tottenham slump into Premier League Mood Rankings dropzone as on-and-off-field Conte negging takes its toll
Leave a Reply