Conte burns his relationship with his players and sets Tottenham on fire

Antonio Conte looked like a man who knows his time at Tottenham is almost up and doesn’t mind risking hastening his departure by a few weeks. He spoke like a man who has given up on his players, his relationships at the club and the whole idea that he is the manager who would take Tottenham to the next level.

He even sounded as if he has given up fourth place, the only goal he has left. All Conte wanted to do was defend himself and take almost everyone else with him.

Does anyone remember another press conference like this?

Conte entered the small room downstairs at St Mary’s stadium after 6 p.m. 18 on Saturday night, long after all the fans and most of the staff had gone home. He spoke with virtually no need for questioning for nearly 10 minutes. And then he walked out knowing he had set fire to his relationship with the Tottenham squad and possibly his entire position at the club.

It is unheard of to hear a manager from any side at any level talk about his players in this way. Conte hammered them as “selfish”, for only wanting to play “for themselves” and refusing to ever take responsibility for what goes wrong. Even more tellingly, he said three times that until last Saturday he had tried to “hide” the situation, but that he could no longer keep up the pretense. He finally had to tell it like it is.

Usually when managers lose the dressing room it’s because the players give up on him. This is a rare example of the opposite – the dressing room loses the manager. These words can never be unsaid.

Conte is no stranger to post-match outbursts. It was only a year ago, after a 1-0 defeat to Burnley, that he suggested he was unable to turn Spurs’ fortunes around and that he might have to leave. Rocking the boat like this never goes down well internally, but to some extent these moments are ‘priced’ with Conte.

But this was another level to Turf Moor or anything else we’ve seen from Conte at Spurs. His target on Saturday was not himself, but everyone else.

As with the Burnley outbreak, your immediate reaction to it pulls you in two different directions. Was he emotional and unable to contain how he really felt? Or was he being political and trying to exploit the situation for the benefit of his own reputation?

In this case, both elements felt true.

Conte was certainly emotional; You could feel that by being in the room with him, looking into his eyes and hearing his voice. There is no doubt that this is what he authentically felt. There was a lot of pent-up frustration there, not just in the dismal final 16 minutes in which Spurs threw away a 3-1 lead against the bottom side, but against the whole of this miserable season in which Spurs have never got off the ground. . Conte’s comments on the FA Cup exit to a much-changed Sheffield United side suggested this was something he had wanted to get off his chest for a while.

But there was clearly a political element here as well.

Conte knows his Spurs contract is about to expire and he has at most 10 games left. He must paint his time at the club as a success under very difficult conditions. That’s why he has described last season’s fourth-place finish as a “miracle” and repeatedly talks about what an achievement it would be to repeat it this year. The Italian must know that by making the players sound unmanageable and by linking to the struggles of his predecessors in the job, he can cast himself as yet another victim of this dysfunctional club. If he can tie himself to the toil of Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino and the rest, at least there is strength in numbers there.

Some of what Conte said was extremely self-serving. He spoke of the importance of “playing for the brand”, even though the whole mood at the club is contingent on him running out his contract. If Conte had signed a new deal – or even said an honest word about his future – it would have given clarity to fans and players who have a right to know what next season will look like. When this was put to Conte, he stated that it was just finding an “alibi” or an “excuse” for players who are always willing to take them. Maybe, but Conte can’t pretend he’s the only man with the club’s best interests at heart.

Likewise, some Spurs fans have found themselves agreeing with elements of what Conte said about the players. That they are less than the sum of their parts as a team, that they have regressed this season, that they cannot handle pressure or stress well, that there is a culture of excuses and underperformance at the club. But whether what Conte said is true is far less significant than the fact that he would say all this publicly, knowing the consequences it would have.

The most potentially explosive part came when Conte was asked why Tottenham continue to have these problems.

He pointed out that the club never “plays for anything important” and that the players do not like to play “under pressure” or “under stress”. He mentioned that Tottenham have never won anything under Daniel Levy and wondered whose fault this was. At the time, this sounded like a criticism of Levy himself, of a culture set by those at the top of the club that does not require Spurs to win. Others have interpreted it differently, saying that Conte’s target was only the players themselves.

Conte’s contract expires this summer (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps Conte will get a chance to clarify those comments, but Spurs don’t play for another 15 days.

He needs to know that making comments that even sound like criticism of the board is playing with fire. But he still seemed happy enough to throw lighted matches around like this. When Mourinho made his infamous comments that there were “problems I can’t solve myself” when Spurs lost to West Ham in February 2021, he knew he had to put the brakes on rather than go into details. He survived another two months on the job.

But Conte has less self-control than Mourinho. And it was impossible not to wonder if he dared the board to fire him now rather than give him the last 10 league games of the season.

That was not what Tottenham wanted to do. They want a strong end to the season and then an amicable parting with Conte, where everyone saves face. A smooth transition to Conte’s replacement is far preferable to another highly publicized fixture like in 2021. But this depends on Spurs finishing fourth and it is hard to see how they can do that when the most important relationship in the club – between the manager and the players – is clearly broken beyond repair.

When Conte spoke at the end of his press conference about finishing “seventh, eighth or 10th”, it sounded like he was burning the possibility of a positive end to his time at the club.

No one knows exactly what will happen next. Tottenham have room to breathe as they don’t play again until April 3 at Goodison Park. Conte has survived before when it looked like his departure was the only option, not least after the Champions League exit to AC Milan 11 days ago when the home crowd vocally turned on him. You’d have to be an extreme optimist to expect this to spark a rebound like the Burnley breakout did last year.

Right now it feels like it’s going in one direction, towards one decision. The dynamics are clear.

And Conte is happy to speed things up.

(Top photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

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