Conte ruins 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 want to risk delaying his departure by a few weeks. He spoke like a man who had given up on his players, his relationships at the club and the whole idea of ​​him being the manager who would take Tottenham to the next level.

He even sounded like he had given up on fourth place, his only remaining goal. All Conte wanted to do was defend and take almost everyone else with him.

Can anyone remember another press conference like this?

Conte arrived in the small ground floor room at St Mary’s Stadium after 6pm on Saturday night, long after all the fans and most of the staff had gone home. He spoke without any need for questioning for almost 10 minutes. And then he left knowing that he had burned his relationship with the Tottenham team, and perhaps his entire position at the club.

It’s unheard of to hear a manager of any side at any level talk like this about his players. Conte called them “selfish”, that they only want to play “for themselves” and refuse to take responsibility for what goes wrong. Moreover, he said three times that until Saturday he tried to “hide” the situation, but he could no longer endure the pretense. He finally had to tell it like it was.

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

Conte is no stranger to outbursts after the game. Only a year ago, after a 1-0 loss to Burnley, he said that he was unable to turn Spurs’ situation around, and that perhaps he should leave. Rocking the boat like this never goes well internally, but to a certain extent these moments are ‘at a price’ 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 outing, your immediate reaction to it pulls you in two different directions. Was he emotional and unable to control what he really felt? Or was he being political and trying to use the situation for the benefit of his own reputation?

In this case, both elements were true.

Conte was certainly emotional; you could tell that simply from 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 hidden frustration, not only in those sad last 16 minutes, when Spurs took a 3-1 lead against the last placed side, but against this whole miserable season when Spurs never got off the ground. Conte’s comments about leaving the FA Cup for a much-changed Sheffield United side suggest it is something he has wanted to get off his chest for some time.

But obviously there was a political element here as well.

Conte knows that his contract with Spurs is about to expire and that he has – at most – 10 games left. His time at the club should be portrayed as a success in very difficult conditions. That is why he described last season’s fourth place as a “miracle” and repeatedly says what a success it would be to repeat it this year. The Italian must know that by making the players unmanageable and by associating himself with the travails of his predecessors in the job, he can portray himself as another victim of this dysfunctional club. If one can relate to the travails of Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino and others, there is at least strength in numbers.

Some of what Conte said was extremely self-serving. He spoke about the importance of “playing for the badge” even though the whole mood at the club is conditioned by the fact that his contract is expiring. If Conte had signed a new deal – or even said one 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 said it was just finding “alibis” or “excuses” for players who are always ready to take them. Maybe, but Conte can’t pretend he’s the only man who has the club’s best interests at heart.

Equally, some Spurs fans 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 don’t handle pressure and stress well, that there is a culture of excuses and failure at the club. But whether what Conte said is true is much less important than the fact that he would say all this publicly, knowing the repercussions it would have.

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

He pointed to the fact that the club never “plays for something important”, and that the players do not like to play “under pressure” or “under stress”. He mentioned that Tottenham never won anything under Daniel Levy and speculated whose fault it was. At the time, it sounded like a criticism of Levy himself, of a culture put in place by those at the top of the club that does not require Spurs to win. Others 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)

Maybe Conte gets a chance to clarify these comments, but Spurs don’t play for another 15 days.

He must know that making comments that even sound like criticism of the board is playing with fire. But he still looked happy enough to be throwing lit matches like this. When Mourinho made his infamous comments about there being “problems I can’t solve myself” when Spurs lost to West Ham in February 2021, he knew he had to hit the brakes rather than go into detail. He survived another two months at work.

But Conte has less self-control than Mourinho. And it was impossible not to wonder if he was challenging the board to sack him now instead of giving him the last 10 league games of the season.

That’s not what Tottenham wanted to do. They want a strong end to the season, and then an amicable parting with Conte in which everyone will save face. A smooth transition to Conte’s replacement is far preferable to another highly public row like 2021. But that relies on Spurs finishing fourth and it’s hard to see how they can do that when the most important relationship at the club — between manager and players — is clearly broken beyond repair.

When Conte talked about finishing “seventh, eighth or tenth” at the end of his press conference, he sounded like he was glowing with 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 considering they don’t play until April 3rd at Goodison Park. Conte has survived before when his exit seemed the only option, not least after the Champions League exit against AC Milan 11 days ago when the home crowd loudly turned against him. You’d have to be an extreme optimist to expect this to produce the kind of turnaround that Burnley did last year.

This now looks 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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