Antonio Conte addressed the media following Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup. The loss can easily be construed as an embarrassing one, considering the difference between the two club’s position in the Premier League table — Tottenham are currently in fourth, while Forest are dead last. Tottenham looked listless and exhausted during the match, and was repeatedly carved open by Forest’s attackers, especially in the second half.
The match, however, comes at the end of a grueling death march of a schedule that saw Spurs play 12 matches in less than two months. In his comments to the media, Conte acknowledged that the performance was not up to Spurs’ standard, but offered a robust defense of his team, considering Spurs’ recent injuries and the brutal match schedule.
“The performance, I have to be honest. I think maybe tonight the energy was really poor for us. Don’t forget it was the 12th game in a really short period. The games we played in the past, every game was really really difficult and we lost a lot of mental energy in the Champions League and in the Premier League physical energy. In our minds and hearts we came with the desire to overcome the opposition and for this reason if you ask me if something was wrong about my playersI tell you not… because I have only to say thanks to my players.
“They are really tired. I tried to manage the situation, for example in midfield with Hojbjerg in the first half and Bentancur in the second half because they were really tired with the risk of injuries. The same with Harry Kane and with Harry, until this morning we waited to see if he could start or not. But in this situation he was the only striker for us. For this reason I can only say thanks for the availability they show me. In our hearts and minds was the desire to go ahead in this competition. But the difference was the energy. It was really different between us and Nottingham Forest.”
Conte really stressed the idea that his players were exhausted in his post-match comments, and it was a full-throated defense of his squad. Conte really hammered home that the super-compressed schedule, done to accommodate a ridiculous winter World Cup in Qatar, was having a detrimental effect on the health and fitness of Spurs’ squad. Harry Kane may have started the match, but was subbed off midway through the second half, and Conte said it was because he was exhausted.
“It was a problem of tiredness. [Kane was] really, really tired and yesterday we had a soft training session and at one point he stopped himself to recover energy. But he’s okay, it’s only fatigue but it’s normal because Harry played every game. When you have a player like him it’s difficult to decide you don’t play with him.
“When you have a player like him it’s really difficult to decide you don’t play with him. In this situation, also if I wanted to start with another player it was impossible because of injuries to Richarlison, Kulu and Lucas Moura, from the start of the season. We’re not having Lucas Moura from the start of the season but no one is talking about this. Then two weeks ago, also Sonny. Today honestly it was really difficult if Kane told me ‘coach maybe it’s better I don’t start today because I risk a lot to have an injury’. But I repeat it’s normal, what’s happening in his period is really strange.”
It was (repeatedly) pointed out on social media that this was the eight consecutive match in which Spurs have gone scoreless in the first half of matches, and the fifth straight match that they’ve gone behind 2-0. Conte was asked about it, and to his credit, he did not shy away from the reality of the situation.
“We know, we see the situation, and in the last period many times, maybe seven games we were 1-0 down and in some games 2-0 down. I think that can happen. In this moment, we have to stay and to find positive things because if you go to negative things, I think on one side it is okay in the right moment, but this is not the right moment because the period is really, really tough and they are losing a lot of physical and mental energy. They are losing a lot of things to be stronger with my players.
“I prefer to analyse negative and positive situations, but I think it’s better to underline the positive things in this moment. Now our target is to recover well, be focused on Saturday and show to be strong.
“On Saturday, also our fans have to play a really good part in the game. They have to push us from the start until the end because if we get a win and three points it means that we finish a really tough period with an important qualification in the Champions League and a good position in the table. I think this could be good for us.”
If anything, Conte’s comments are more circumstantial evidence that he’s been working to manage his team’s minutes from the very first match of this season, knowing that the schedule is nuts and knowing there’s a World Cup that could dramatically affect his team. It does make you wonder if we will see a different tactic employed in the back half of the season, when Spurs will (hopefully) have a little extra reinforcement from the January transfer window and (equally hopefully) superior fitness relative to its opponents.
Spurs have one match left before the World Cup break — they host Leeds on Sunday. A win will mean that Spurs remain in the top four halfway through the season with an opportunity to push for something more in the back half. Despite all of the discomfort, the dispiriting performances, the rope-a-dope first halves, everything — that’s a pretty okay place to be.