As FC Salzburg, Austrian champions with an average age of 23 (22, if you exclude their venerable left-back, Andreas Ulmer, who is 36), were coming within seconds of beating mighty Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday night, Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte’s musings on the importance of experience were dong the rounds in London.
The Tottenham boss’ words, when taken in context, weren’t particularly critical of the club (certainly not to the degree the early snippets appeared to be), but they did underscore his belief in the value of experience.
“It’s inevitable that if you want to grow quickly and you want to be competitive straight away, you need players with plenty of experience, because they will then transmit this to the rest of the team,” he said. “But Tottenham want players who are young, who can grow and develop, not ready-made players. That’s the philosophy and that will continue to be the philosophy, so we’ll need a lot of patience and that’s what I continue to explain to people.”
Leave the parsing and microanalysis of Conte’s quotes to one side for a minute. (And, yeah, there’s plenty to analyse and, perhaps, question. Like when he said that in January Spurs added two players — Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski — while losing four “important” players: Bryan Gil, Tanguy Ndombele, Dele Alli and Giovani Lo Celso. Well, those “important” players made just three starts between them under Conte.)
Focus instead on experience, and how Salzburg could come so close to upending Bayern with such a young team. Check the highlights and the expected goals: This was not a fluke. Salzburg’s energy levels were through the roof, they pressed Bayern in every area of the pitch and they countered with pace and precision. Sure, they conceded a ton of possession to the opposition and Bayern created chances, too — which is what you expect when Kingsley Coman, Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski are out there — but Salzburg easily had as many quality opportunities as Bayern.
All this from a team that, in terms of experience, is rather thin on the ground.
It starts with the manager. Matthias Jaissle, at 33, is actually one of the few coaches Julian Nagelsmann will face who is younger than he is. And this is not just his first season at Salzburg, it’s his first full season in senior management. Never mind the fact that the entire starting XI was playing its first game in the Champions League knockout rounds, the majority of them are in their first season as starters, period. These guys aren’t just short on experience at this level, they’re short on experience in professional football.
They defy another myth, too, the one whereby it’s a lot easier for clubs from competitive leagues like the Premier League to play at European level because they are used to facing high-quality opposition. Well, Salzburg dominate the Austrian league: they are 14 points clear at the top; last year they won it by 18. The best sides they’ve faced this season, by far, are those they’ve faced in Europe: Bayern, Lille, Sevilla and, erm, VfL Wolfsburg. This applies on an individual level, too, by the way. Oumar Solet and Maximilian Wober are the only Salzburg players to have ever played in a Big Five European league and, between them, they managed just nine league appearances.
Obviously Salzburg’s success isn’t a fairy tale. There’s a massive company behind them, they have years of institutional knowledge in terms of scouting and analytics, they benefit from a professional farm team in the second division (Liefering) and a friendly (but unofficially affiliated) big brother in the Bundesglia in RB Leipzig, and they’re brave and progressive in so many aspects of what they do.
And while their budget is dwarfed by the other Champions League clubs, when they see the right player, they’re not afraid to throw money at him. Noah Okafor (€11.2 million), Wober (€10.5m), Brenden Aaronson (€5.4m) and not to mention Erling Haaland (€8m) and Sadio Mane (€4m) were all signed for substantial transfer fees when they were still young, unproven players.
The point, though, is that when there’s a baseline of talent, if you have energy, work rate, a strong identity and good coaching, then perhaps experience is not that important. Certainly not as important as some managers and clubs — who regularly overpay for it, because older players inevitably make substantially more money — think it is.
Which brings us back to Conte. Tottenham’s young players may not be on a par with Salzburg’s young guns, but we’re still talking about a pricey Premier League academy that can draw upon the London talent pool, one of the deepest in Europe. As for “experienced players,” Eric Dier, Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Lucas Moura and Hugo Lloris are all 26 or older and all have plenty of experience for major national sides.
His emphasis on having what he considers to be “top players” with “winning mentalities” who “know how to win” is well chronicled. It was a theme at Inter, at Chelsea and at Juventus, and it ultimately led to his departure from each of those clubs, because, well, those types of players cost money, possibly more than what they’re worth. More importantly, decision makers at many clubs aren’t as easily swayed by pedigree as they were in the past, thanks in part to clubs like Salzburg, who are exploding many of those long-held myths, year after year.
Cynics will conclude it will end the same way at Spurs and that his words are just the first sign that there’s a sequel to what we’ve seen from him before. I may be naive, but I don’t buy that.
I have to believe that Conte knew what he was getting into at Spurs: That if you throw a tantrum, Daniel Levy won’t buy you new toys; that the club’s plan is to work on a budget, seek value and grow organically. I believe that he has accepted all this, and is merely reminding us how big the mountain that he and Spurs have to climb is.