Antonio Conte looked like a man who knows his time at Tottenham is almost over and isn’t afraid to risk bringing his departure forward by a few weeks. He spoke like a man who let go of his players, his club connections and the whole idea of him being the manager who would take Tottenham to the next level.
He even looked like he had given up fourth place, the only goal he had left. All Conte wanted to do was defend himself and drag almost everyone with him.
Can anyone remember another press conference like this?
Conte entered the small downstairs venue of St Mary’s Stadium after 6 p.m. on Saturday night, long after all the fans and most staff had left their homes. He spoke with barely any questioning for nearly 10 minutes. And then he walked out knowing he had set his relationship with the Tottenham team on fire, and possibly his whole position at the club.
It’s unprecedented to hear a manager from any side at any level talk about his players like that. Conte hammered them as “selfish”, only wanting to play “for themselves” and refusing to ever take responsibility for what went wrong. More tellingly, he said three times that until Saturday he had tried to “hide” the situation but could no longer pretend. He had to finally tell it like it is.
Usually, when managers lose the locker room, it’s because the players give up on it. It’s a rare example of the opposite – the dressing room losing the manager. These words can never be left unsaid.
Conte is no stranger to post-game outbursts. Only a year ago, after a 1-0 loss at Burnley, he hinted he was unable to turn Spurs’ situation around and perhaps he should leave. Rocking the boat like that never goes well internally but, to some extent, those moments are “counted” with Conte.
But it was another level than Turf Moor or anything we’ve seen from Conte to Spurs. His target on Saturday was not himself, but everyone.
As with the Burnley explosion, your immediate response pulls you in two different directions. Was he emotional and unable to contain what he really felt? Or was he political and trying to take advantage of the situation for the sake of his own reputation?
In this case, both elements seemed true.
Conte was certainly emotional; you could tell just by being in the room with him, looking him in the eye, and hearing his voice. There’s no doubt that’s what he felt authentically. There was a lot of pent up frustration there, not just in those dismal last 16 minutes, when Spurs lost a 3-1 lead against the lowest-ranked team, but in that whole miserable season where Spurs never took off. Conte’s comments about exiting the FA Cup to a very different team from Sheffield United suggested it was something he had wanted to get off his chest for a while.
But there was clearly a political element here too.
Conte knows his contract with Spurs is coming to an end soon and he has – at most – 10 games left. He must paint his time at the club as a success in very difficult conditions. That’s why he described last season’s fourth place finish as a ‘miracle’ and repeatedly said what a feat it would be to repeat it this year. The Italian must know that by making the players look unmanageable and linking himself to the struggles of his predecessors in the job, he can present himself as another victim of this dysfunctional club. If he can link up with the efforts of Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino and the others, there is at least strength in numbers there.
Some of what Conte said was selfish in the extreme. He spoke of the importance of ‘playing for the badge’ even though the whole mood at the club is conditioned by him running out of contract. Had Conte signed a new contract – or even said an outspoken word about his future – it would have made it clear to fans and players who have a right to know what next season will look like. When it was presented to Conte, he said it was just about finding an ‘alibi’ or an ‘excuse’ for the players who are always ready to take them. Maybe, but Conte can’t claim he’s the only man with the club’s best interests at heart.
Likewise, some Spurs fans found they agreed 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 do not tolerate pressure or stress well, that there is a culture of excuses and underperformance at the club. But the question of whether what Conte said is true is far less important than the fact that he would say all this in public, knowing the repercussions it would have.
The most potentially explosive part came when Conte was asked why Tottenham continue to have these problems.
He underlined the fact that the club “never plays for anything important”, and that players don’t like to play “under pressure” or “under stress”. He mentioned that Tottenham had 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 established by those at the top of the club that does not demand victory for Spurs. Others interpreted it differently, saying that Conte’s target was just the players themselves.
Maybe Conte will get a chance to clarify those comments, but Spurs don’t play for 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 throw lit matches like that. When Mourinho made his infamous comments about there being ‘problems I can’t fix on my own’ when Spurs lost to West Ham in February 2021, he knew he had to put the brakes on rather than go in. in details. He survived another two months in labor.
But Conte has less self-control than Mourinho. And it was impossible not to wonder if he dared the advice to fire him now rather than give 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 split with Conte in which everyone saves face. A smooth transition to replacing Conte is far preferable to another very public scramble like in 2021. But that hinges on Spurs finishing fourth and it’s hard to see how they can do that when the most important relationship of 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’, he looked 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 given they won’t play again until April 3 at Goodison Park. Conte has survived before when it looked like leaving was the only option, especially after the Champions League exit to AC Milan 11 days ago when the home crowd turned on him. It would take an extreme optimist to expect this to spark a recovery, like Burnley’s outburst did last year.
Right now it seems to be going in one direction, towards a decision. The dynamic is clear.
And Conte is happy to speed things up.
(Top photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)