Conte torches his relationship with his players and sets Tottenham ablaze

Antonio Conte looked like a man who knows his time at Tottenham is almost up and does not mind risking bringing his departure forward 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 of him being the manager who would take Tottenham to the next level.

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

Can anyone remember another press conference like this?

Conte came into the small downstairs room at the St Mary’s stadium after 6pm on Saturday night, long after all the fans and most of the staff had departed home. He spoke with barely any need for questioning for almost 10 minutes. And then he walked out knowing he had set fire to his relationship with the Tottenham squad, and possibly his whole standing at the club.

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

Usually when managers lose the dressing room it is because the players give up on him. This is a rare example of the opposite — the dressing room losing 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 at Burnley, that he suggested he was not able to turn Spurs’ situation around, and that maybe he should leave. Rocking the boat like this never goes down well internally but, to an extent, these moments are ‘priced in’ with Conte.

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

As with the Burnley outburst, your immediate response to it pulls you in two different directions. Was he being emotional and unable to contain how he truly felt? Or was he being political and trying to leverage the situation for the good of his own reputation?

In this case, both elements felt 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 question that this is what he authentically felt. There was a lot of pent-up frustration there, not just at those dismal last 16 minutes, when Spurs threw away a 3-1 lead against the bottom-placed side, but against this whole miserable season when Spurs have never got off the ground. Conte’s comments about 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 too.

Conte knows that his Spurs contract is up soon and that he has — at most — 10 games left. He needs to paint his time at the club as a success in very difficult conditions. This is why he has described last season’s fourth-place finish as a “miracle”, and repeatedly talks up 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 himself 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 toils of Jose Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino and the rest, there is at least strength in numbers there.

Some of what Conte said was self-serving in the extreme. He talked about the importance of “playing for the badge” even though the whole mood at the club is conditioned by the fact that he is running his contract down. If Conte had signed a new deal — or even said one candid word about his future — it would have given clarity to the fans and players who have a right to know what next season will look like. When this was put to Conte he snapped that this was just finding an “alibi” or an “excuse” for players who are always willing to take them. Maybe, but Conte cannot pretend that he is the only man with the club’s best interests at heart.

Equally, some Spurs fans have found that they agree 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 cope well with pressure or stress, that there is a culture of excuses and under-performance at the club. But whether what Conte said is true is far less significant than the fact that he would say all of this in public, knowing the repercussions it would have.

The most potentially explosive part came when Conte was asked why Tottenham keep having these problems.

He pointed to the fact that the club never “play for something important”, and that the players don’t like to play “under pressure” or “under stress”. He mentioned that Tottenham have never won anything under Daniel Levy and speculated about 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 demand Spurs win. Others have interpreted it differently, saying Conte’s target was only the players themselves.

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

Maybe Conte will get a chance to clarify these comments, but Spurs do not play for another 15 days.

He must know that to make comments that even sound like criticism of the board is to play with fire. But he still looked happy enough to throw lit matches around like this. When Mourinho made his infamous comments about there being “problems I cannot resolve by myself” when Spurs lost to West Ham in February 2021, he knew he had to put the brakes on rather than going into specifics. He survived another two months in the job.

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

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

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

Nobody knows exactly what will happen next. Tottenham have room to breathe given that they do not play again until 3 April at Goodison Park. Conte has survived before when it looked as if 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 against him. You would have to be an extreme optimist to expect this to spark an upturn, like the Burnley outburst did last year.

Right now this feels like it is heading in one direction, towards one decision. The dynamic is clear.

And Conte is happy to speed things up.

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

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