Antonio Conte may have just delivered the most wildly entertaining press conference in Premier League history.
It was one that provided a final decisive answer to the question we posed when he was appointed Spurs manager: Would Conte be able to cure Spursiness or would Spursiness devour him? It was nip and tuck for a while there but, fittingly given the way his reign has now surely ended, Conte has been beaten by a last-minute winner. Spursiness remains undefeated.
While the emotion and rage in Conte’s response to a pitiful 3-3 draw at Southampton for which he, were he honest with himself, carries huge amounts of blame were undeniably real there is also a very obvious and very cynical side to his performance – a word too strong for his team against Saints but entirely befitting his post-match posturing. It’s been clear for several weeks now that Conte doesn’t want to be at Spurs but also doesn’t want to quit and lose a nice fat payout. Three months is a long time when you’re on £15m a year. It’s been equally clear that Daniel Levy doesn’t really want to pay Conte off and would rather end things in the summer when Conte’s contract runs out.
Conte has taken that option away from Levy by going fully nuclear. Fully Mourinho. It’s utterly unthinkable now that Levy could allow Conte to remain in place for the last two months of the season and however much it will gall him to give Conte precisely what he wants, he has to sack him. Conte has made his position untenable in two ways: inadvertently with his wretched and now utterly exposed prehistoric football; and very deliberately by going down swinging at his players, the club and most significantly Levy himself. The weakness Levy would now show by letting that stand is unthinkable. Indeed, the only reason to imagine that Spurs won’t get rid of the manager now at the start of the international break is that hanging on grimly through two weeks of negativity and unpleasantness before failing to muster a shot on target in a 1-0 defeat at Sean Dyche’s Everton and THEN sacking him is probably even more on-brand.
Because yes, Spurs are very Spursy. A great deal of what Conte said about the club on Saturday was true.
“They’re used to it here. Don’t play for something important. They don’t want to play under pressure. They don’t want to play under stress. Tottenham’s story is this. Twenty years there is the owner & they never won something. Why?”
The 2008 Carling Cup erasure aside, you can’t really argue with anything Conte has said there. But the point isn’t whether he’s right or wrong; the point is he’s made it worse. Spurs started this month in two cup competitions and as favourites to finish fourth. None of that is now true, and the key reason for all that is Conte himself. Even if it were the players, the common denominator would still be the manager.
Of course he’s got a point about Spurs’ lack of silverware. But he’s the man who, faced with seven minutes to find a goal against a bang-average AC Milan, replaced Dejan Kulusevski with Davinson Sanchez. He’s the man who decided not to even try and win the FA Cup. And he’s the man chiefly responsible for the defeat at Wolves and the dam-bursting draw at Southampton that has left their top-four chances looking bleak.
What Spurs have or haven’t done for the last 20 years wasn’t the issue this weekend. The issue was that faced with a 3-1 lead against the Premier League’s worst team who had no central defenders left on the pitch, Conte looked in his big book of tactics and decided once again that page 1 (“Just do the most negative thing possible and hope for the best”) contained all the answers he needed. Southampton were given encouragement when any decent manager, any serious team, would have offered none.
And his complaints about the players may be as accurate as they are damning. But he must see that they damn him too. If the players are selfish and interested only in themselves – which sounded distinctly like projection to us – then the manager has to bear his own responsibility for that situation.
If Conte’s football this season had been even half as entertaining or effective as his hilariously transparent attempts to force Levy into sacking him, then maybe we wouldn’t be here.
Because the most fundamental error in Conte’s assessment of the situation is of his own place within it. Spurs’ history has become Conte’s get out of jail free card. Every mistake he makes he can shrug off by saying “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” Lose with a whimper at Sheffield United? “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” Fail to land a blow on Milan across 180 minutes of tactic-free, coaching-light, joyless football? Not me, guv: Spursy, that.
Never seen anything like that Antonio Conte press conference just now. 10 minutes of trying to take everyone else down with him. It was such an amazing performance you almost had to admire it.
— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) March 18, 2023
Conte has framed his entire Spurs reign on two guiding principles, distilling them to their very essence this weekend. One, that he is doing the club a huge favour by being here. And two, that he is a passive £15m-a-year bystander as appalled and perplexed and powerless to prevent what’s unfolding as anyone else.
You can’t have both, Antonio. It’s as ludicrous as being bald but insisting you have hair. Yet by forcing Levy’s hand the way he now has with this dynamite display, he will again be able to have his cake and eat it. He’ll get his payoff, one last f*** you to a club he has held in barely concealed – and now openly hostile – contempt all along. A manager actually worth £15m a year wouldn’t whinge about the “culture” of the club while running down his contract; he would seek to build a better one. Spurs, in truth, haven’t had a culture for the last four years.
Attention already turns to the next manager, and Mauricio Pochettino’s name will ring loudest. It’s easy to see why, because he is in so many ways the anti-Conte and anti-Mourinho. Not most importantly in his football philosophy – but also that – but in his attitude towards the club.
The next Spurs manager doesn’t have to be Pochettino. But the next Spurs manager absolutely does have to be someone who doesn’t actively despise the club. This in itself rules out the entire Spurs fanbase, and therein lies the final great irony of Conte’s doomed reign. Desperate to leave and seeing no other way to achieve it, he resorted to diving in two-footed and slagging off every single element of a football club he clearly detests. And in that final moment, for the first and last time, he actually sounded like a Spurs fan.