Why Antonio Conte can’t pin Tottenham’s downfall entirely on the club and his players
Stay out of the spotlight or raise merry hell. With his inevitable departure from Spurs the worst kept secret in football, Antonio Conte had two choices in terms of how to approach his divorce. And the Italian has never been fond of half measures.
Daniel Levy knew exactly who he had married back in 2021. Conte arrived at Tottenham a serial winner, both abroad and in the Premier League, and Spurs were in desperate need of trophies. He needed an elite coach to convince Harry Kane to stay and had to get the fans back on side after the disastrous appointment of Nuno Espirito Santo. There’s every chance he’d make the same mistake again.
But Conte’s arrival was not without its dangers. Levy knew he was impulsive with the media and stubborn in his tactical approach. If anyone was going to delve deep into Tottenham’s issues and lay them bare to the world, it was Conte.
After Spurs squandered their two-goal lead to draw 3-3 against Southampton, the manager had reached the end of his tether, out of solutions and dry on patience.
Bemoaning his players’ ‘selfishness’ and the club’s defeatist mentality, Conte proposed that losing was simply part of Tottenham’s DNA – after he steered the north London outfit to yet another season without silverware.
Antonio Conte unleashed a furious rant at Spurs’ players after they drew with Southampton
Tottenham capitulated late on from 3-1 up to draw 3-3 with the Premier League’s bottom side
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy knew the type of character he was getting when appointing Conte
No doubt there is some truth to the Italian’s claims. Jose Mourinho, who brought the Europa League to Manchester United during their barren spell without trophies and has since won the Europa Conference League with Roma, failed to lift silverware during his stint at Tottenham.
Even during the glory years under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs squandered countless opportunities to win trophies, falling short in the 2015-16 title race to Leicester, the 2015 League Cup final to Chelsea and the 2019 Champions League final to Liverpool.
Another narrative seeping out of the cracks at Tottenham is that Conte has not been supported in the transfer market. It’s a hard sell, considering Levy has shelled approximately £235.8million on transfer fees alone since 2021, but not every player was lured at the manager’s wishes. Conte urged that it was the ‘club’s decision’ to sign Djed Spence, for example, last summer.
The 53-year-old may well have elite clubs across Europe queuing out the door to sign him once he inevitable departs Tottenham, but it won’t change the fact that Conte made a glut of avertable mistakes throughout his tenure in north London.
His first error, in many ways, was failing to grasp the fragility of Tottenham at the time of his takeover. Beaten and bruised following the fruitless spells of Mourinho and Santo, Spurs needed encouragement rather than tough love. His critical nature from the outset only made the club feel further away from their dream of lifting a trophy.
Just three months into the job, Conte publicly pointed the finger at his players after their lacklustre 1-0 defeat against Burnley. He opened up on the size of the job he was facing, claiming that Spurs’ level had ‘dropped a lot’ in the last few years and describing them as a ‘middle’ team.
‘If players want to improve, it’s important they listen every time to the truth. My players know very well that I’ll tell them always the truth because with the truth you can improve. With good lies, you don’t have a long time to live,’ he said.
Conte may have a point with his rant, but he also cannot continue to absolve himself of blame
Harry Kane is one of the few players under the Italian who hasn’t suffered a large dip in form
Frankly, aside from a few anomalies such as Kane, Dejan Kulusevski and Cristian Romero, his public outbursts – however true – have hampered the form and confidence of his squad, with a sincere lack of players kicking on in terms of their development.
Hop over to the red side of north London, and Arsenal’s young stars have exploded into a star-studded team of title chasers, thanks largely to Mikel Arteta’s tactful approach to man management.
Conte publicly doubting his chances of success at Tottenham right out of the gate set the platform for failure, and he can’t have helped matters by continuing to speak in riddles to the media about his long-term future. His cryptic nature with the press continued to plague the squad and irritate former Spurs stars such as Jamie Redknapp, who lambasted his approach in January.
Had Conte bowed out of north London quietly and chosen not to attack the club publicly, few would have blamed him for dropping his high standards this season. The manager has endured a torrid year of emotional turmoil, following the deaths of his close friends Gianluca Vialli, Gian Piero Ventrone and Sinisa Mihajlovic, who each passed away in the last 12 months.
Jamie Redknapp hitting out at Antonio Conte speaking in ‘riddles’
‘He talks in a lot of riddles with a lot of messages,’ the former Spurs midfielder said of Conte in January.
‘Arsenal have got a 14-point gap on Tottenham with a game in hand, it shows a development.
‘They’ve spent £120 million in that period and Spurs have spent £172 million. Surely you’d think Tottenham would be the team to progress but it hasn’t been that way.’
Partner grief with his absence to undergo gall bladder surgery last month and there’s no wonder Tottenham have crashed out of two major tournaments in recent weeks.
Rather than accepting the impact of these external factors, however great or small, Conte chose instead to hold his players entirely accountable, using the media once again as an uncomfortable means of delivering feedback to the dressing room.
Tottenham fans have yet to hear Conte deliver an honest and self-reflective assessment of his own shortcomings after a disappointing result.
Not once did the Italian take responsibility for benching Kane against Sheffield United, who are now just two wins away from FA Cup glory. While it may have been his assistant Cristian Stellini on the touchline, the decision to go without their top striker was certainly Conte’s.
Not once has he taken any accountability for Tottenham’s piteous performance in their fatal 0-0 Champions League stalemate against AC Milan.
According to serial winner Carlo Ancelotti, who steered Real Madrid to LaLiga and Champions League glory last season, tactical adaptability is the most important aspect of being a head coach. He said so very early in his managerial career.
Unlike Conte, who has rigidly deployed a 3-4-3 in favour of pragmatism and discipline at elite clubs, Ancelotti has opted for a more malleable approach, looking at the bigger picture rather than the individual shape of his formation.
At Paris Saint-Germain, he favoured a 4-3-3 to best suit his players. During his first stint at the Bernabeu, he chose to shift their 4-2-3-1 formation into a 4-4-2, feeling they needed more firepower up front.
When he came to Goodison Park, Ancelotti identified that Everton would be far too open in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 so switched to a five in defence, using a solid foundation to build up from the back.
And finally, upon his return to Real, the manager soon understood that 4-4-2 was no longer the most optimal formation and changed to a fluid 4-3-3 in order to get the very best out of star winger Vinicius Junior. Central striker Karim Benzema holds the shape in attack while the Brazilian has the freedom to roam.
Conte, unfortunately for Tottenham, is the opposite. Rarely playing to the strengths of his individuals, he expects players to mould into his structure and system.
Let’s look at last season’s golden boot winner Son Heung-min, whose form has fallen off a cliff under Conte this season, as an example.
The South Korean has struggled immensely since the arrival of Ivan Perisic – a signing the former Inter manager was desperate to secure last summer.
When Conte succeeded with his 4-3-3 at Chelsea, Eden Hazard excelled on the half turn and enjoyed receiving the ball to feet. The midfield would be tasked with firing short passes into Hazard, while the likes of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses would maraud forwards from the flanks.
Several other big-name managers like Jose Mourinho also failed to win trophies at the club
The exits from the Champions League and FA Cup within a week felt like a nadir for Conte
There’s no denying Son’s best asset as a forward is running in behind. You need only look at Tottenham’s demolition of Southampton back in 2020, when Son scored four goals by piercing the home side’s high line in defence.
Since Perisic’s arrival, the Croat has taken on more of an attacking role from left-back than the likes of Ben Davies and Danny Rose before him, stretching the pitch with runs in behind from the left flank as Alonso used to do at Chelsea.
Yet, rather than playing to Son’s strengths and shaking up his tactics, Conte has stuck with his beliefs, arguably to the detriment of his team.
If ‘Tottenham’s story’ is one of weak-minded players and misguided governance, as the Italian’s explosive rant would like to suggest, ‘Conte’s story’ is one of mulish rigidity.
Source of data and images: dailymail