There’s the romanticism of a return for Mauricio Pochettino. The intrigue of the possible arrival of Julian Nagelsmann. Maybe even an audacious attempt to lure the Premier League’s “Next Big Thing” — Roberto De Zerbi.
For now, though, Tottenham — in a state of flux after the departure of Antonio Conte — will be led until the end of the season, at least, by Cristian Stellini, a long-time No. 2 now going it alone for what is set to be a demanding couple of months as the team looks to secure Champions League qualification.
Most football fans knew all about Conte, the serial winner — at least before he arrived at Tottenham — known to eventually combust, pretty much as he did a week ago in a rant that marked the beginning of the end of his time in north London.
Fewer will have heard of Stellini, who has been Conte’s assistant for much of the past 13 years and has a football background just as interesting as the man he has loyally served until now.
The 48-year-old Stellini has been thrust into the limelight intermittently in recent months while leading Tottenham for certain matches in place of Conte, who had to step away briefly because of either suspension or for health reasons. He has done a good job, too, notably gaining wins at Marseille in November to secure advancement in the Champions League and against both Manchester City and Chelsea in the Premier League in February.
Still, Stellini is very much Conte’s man, which makes it all the more unexpected that he is still at Tottenham following the latest managerial change at a club without a major trophy since 2008.
Aside from an underwhelming stint in his native Italy with Alessandria in 2017 — he lasted 142 days at the third-division team — he has always been an assistant at senior level, ever since retiring as a player in 2010.
He was the No. 2 to Conte at Siena in 2010-11, with the club earning promotion to Serie A, and then at Juventus for a little over a year. Then came a dark period for Stellini when he was handed a 2½-year ban in 2012 by the Italian Football Federation following an investigation into alleged match-fixing — accusations he denied — stemming from his time at Bari as a player in 2008-09.
He returned in 2015 as a youth coach at Genoa and was eventually reunited with Conte in 2019 at Inter Milan, again taking up the role as assistant coach. They moved together to Tottenham in 2021.
Stellini stayed with Conte’s tried-and-tested 3-4-3 formation during his games in charge at Tottenham and there’s no sign he prefers a different tactic, especially given the players he has at his disposal. Pedro Porro, a January signing, and offseason recruit Ivan Perisic were brought in especially to be wing backs, for example.
He takes the helm with Tottenham occupying the fourth and final Champions League qualification spot, but under real threat by the teams below. Fifth-place Newcastle is two points back and has two games in hand while sixth-place Liverpool and seventh-place Brighton are seven points adrift having played two and three fewer games, respectively.
Tottenham’s recent form has been concerning, too, with the team having won just one of its last five games in all competitions. In the space of a week at the start of March, Tottenham lost to second-tier Sheffield United in the FA Cup’s last 16 and was eliminated from the Champions League at the same stage.
Stellini has to shore things up for the Premier League’s final stretch, starting for Tottenham with a match at Everton on April 3.
In the meantime, the club’s board will begin the search for a fourth permanent manager since Pochettino left in 2019. Here are some of the potential options:
Pochettino was fired by Tottenham when the team’s fortunes declined following its remarkable rise capped by an unlikely appearance in the Champions League final in 2019. Pochettino’s magic had worn off after 5 1/2 years at the club but, after a four-year break, he would return energized. The fans would certainly like it, though chairman Daniel Levy might have moved on. Pochettino has been without a job since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in July.
The 35-year-old Nagelsmann is available after being fired by Bayern Munich on Friday. He is young and ambitious and might have his eye on bigger jobs, potentially Real Madrid if Carlo Ancelotti leaves at the end of the season. It would be a reversal of policy, with Tottenham coming off hiring Jose Mourinho and Conte — experienced managers who were a supposed guarantee of trophies. That didn’t happen and bringing in Nagelsmann would represent a breath of fresh air, akin to Pochettino when he joined in 2014.
ROBERTO DE ZERBI
De Zerbi, an Italian like Conte, has taken Brighton to new levels since joining as a replacement for Graham Potter in September. The team has lost just one of its last 13 games after adapting to De Zerbi’s bold playing style and is in a good position to qualify for Europe for the first time. A sharp tactician, De Zerbi is unlikely to be short of offers in the coming years so Tottenham could get in first by making an aggressive appointment.
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