The bubbling tensions between Antonio Conte and the Tottenham Hotspur team he seems reluctant to manage have finally overflowed in acidic fashion. It took the Italian less than two weeks after his return from gallbladder surgery to utterly despair of the players at his disposal. Had he handled his disappointment privately or even tactfully, he could have been forgiven. But Conte’s public handwashing of any responsibility for Spurs’ plight sat queasily, particularly from a manager who has had one eye on the exit from the moment he signed his contract.
“We showed that we are not a team. We are 11 players that go into the pitch. I see selfish players, I see players that don't want to help each other and don't put their heart [into it].”
The words of Conte, having just seen his side draw 3-3 with Southampton, having been 3-1 up with 15 minutes remaining. It was a remarkable rebuke. The harshness of the words was not surprising, at least not as surprising as what followed. The Tottenham gaffer said, “Before today I prefer to hide this situation and to try to speak, to try to improve the spirit”. It was a bare-faced comment considering Conte’s disregard for the spirit of this team at almost every turn.
Take his public spats with Richarlison for example. The summer signing from Everton had labeled the season as “sh*t” after his lack of playing side. Conte fired back and called the forward “selfish”. There’s also the long, drawn-out matter of Conte’s contract. The fact he has spent almost his entire Tottenham tenure making overtures towards an imminent departure has not allowed anyone to get comfortable. The fans, board, staff and players have existed in flux.
This wouldn’t be the case if Conte’s intention truly was to “improve the spirit”. But those past transgressions, that uncertainty, paled in comparison to what the former Italy manager unleashed on Saturday. The most enduring, widely-reported portion of the rant was this startling statement.
Here the press conference moment via @HaytersTV 🎥👇🏻
“Tottenham's story is this. 20 years there is the owner and they never won something but why? The fault is only for the club, or for every manager that stay here? I have seen the managers that Tottenham had on the bench. You risk to disrupt the figure of the manager and to protect the other situation in every moment.”
It is hard to recall a sitting manager launching such a measured takedown of their own club’s identity before. While Manchester United have had to endure a kicking from the likes of Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho after their departures, they at least waited until their settlements had been paid. Brian Clough had a fair few words for Leeds United both before and after his 44 day stint at the club. But his most acerbic were not delivered while he was in the post, at least not publicly.
But Conte has essentially called Tottenham “Spursy” to their face. He has attempted to absolve himself of any guilt for Spurs’ failings. It is a keen piece of political spin, but one that neglects the fundamental reason for Conte’s employment. He has literally been hired to manage this football team. The function of a head coach is to improve a squad and to get the most out of them. Conte is essentially arguing against his own effectiveness.
It is this dereliction of duty that will come back to bite the former Inter Milan manager. What happens when the serial winner admits he can’t win? To act like failure is an intrinsic part of Spurs’ core values calls into question why the Italian took the job in the first place. If the 2019 Champions League finalists were always doomed to fail, why bother? Conte’s constant hints at leaving are another part of this attempt to refuse responsibility. The 53-year-old has never truly committed to Tottenham, so intent has he been at blaming the club for its own failings.
Champions League qualification is still possible for Spurs. They are fourth in the table, albeit with Newcastle United two points below them in fifth with a pair of games in hand. The Conte that lifted Serie A titles and won the Premier League would probably be able to steer Spurs over the line. But the current vintage may struggle, as he seems to be treating his season as over already. His contract is up in the summer after all. But, after brutally dissecting Tottenham in front of the world’s media, it feels unlikely that another Premier League team will roll the dice on Conte. Why would you hire a manager who basically admitted he’s not up to the job?
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