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Conte tries to temper expectations after Aston Villa loss

Are his comments long-held pragmatism? Or is Conte attempting to move the goalposts after a bad loss?

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Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Antonio Conte had a tough job ahead of him after today’s dispiriting 2-0 home loss to Aston Villa. The Tottenham boss faced the media in his post-match press conference and attempted to explain why his team had an anemic six shots and 0.66 xG at home against a team 12th in the table coming into this match.

After a fantastic spring where Conte’s men ran a string of positive results together to finish fourth over arch-rivals Arsenal, Spurs have been struggling, now losing four out of their past seven league matches and dropping out of the top four.

Asked whether supporters came into this season with unrealistic expectations of the season, Conte tried to re-establish control over the narrative.

“I continue to repeat that last season we made a miracle, I continue to repeat. It happen why? Because we played only one competition and we play with 12 to 13 players and they didn’t have injuries in the last 15 games and we played with best players every game because, I repeat, we played only the league. Don’t forget three games to go Arsenal were four points than us and that we finished 20 points less from Manchester City and we did a miracle, but I knew which was the situation.

“Then I was very clear with the club because in this moment and before to become a title contender, because I remember very well in the summer, at the start, people talked about Tottenham as title contenders but in my experience it was a bit crazy to read this. To become a title contender, to become a team ready to fight to win something you need to have a solid foundation. That means to have 14 or 15 strong players, quality and the other young players to develop.

“And every season you can add two players but two players to invest £50m, £60m, £70m and in this way it means you are signing important players that improve quality and the level of your team but this is a process guys. It’s a process.

“People think you arrive and you win. This can happen for a team that are used to winning in the past. But if you are not used to it it means you have to create this situation and for this reason you need time and patience. I understand that the fans are disappointed because they can say ‘but we’ve been patient for a long time’, I understand it but the situation is this. If you want the truth I can tell you the truth.”

It’s hard to know how to unpack these comments. On the one hand, if you take a long term view of Tottenham’s development, then this can be construed as positive. If the expectations were that it would take time for Conte to come in and transform the club into title contenders, then what Conte is saying is that he has known all along that the team would struggle for a few windows until he had time to bring “his” players in. I think that’s what he’s trying to allude to here with the “£50m, £60m, £70m” comment. He’s trying to say that he’s known all along that this was a long term process, that the struggles Spurs are experiencing are part of that process, and that fans need to be patient.

But that confuses me, because everyone knows Conte is not a project manager. He’s never lasted longer than three years at any club he’s managed. It feels ludicrous for Conte to try and say these things take time and that managers don’t come in and immediately win, because that’s exactly why Tottenham hired him! He’s the ultimate “win now” manager! Conte inherited a team with peak-level Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min; it was clearly an attempt to capitalize on what was left of their careers and to win something now before the wheels fall off. If Daniel Levy wanted a project manager, he would’ve hired one of those instead — there are plenty of them kicking around England and Europe right now.

So is this Conte expressing a long-held pragmatism, or is this him moving the goalposts in the face of a bad loss? I’m starting to think it’s the latter. Spurs are in a bad place right now and certainly Conte is playing with a full deck — he’s been hit with a double-whammy of some significant injuries (Richarlison, Rodrigo Bentancur, Dejan Kulusevski today) and doesn’t have anything close to the deep bench that he wants. In addition, both Kane and Son have regressed this season from the manic heights of last season — somewhat for the former, significantly for the latter. I’m fairly certain starting Bryan Gil, who was full of energy but not what most people would call good today, was not part of the plan.

That’s not to say that he’s wrong. He probably isn’t! Tottenham have an aging squad that still hasn’t felt properly turned over since Mauricio Pochettino left the club, and perhaps expecting Conte to pull a rabbit out of his hat every week isn’t realistic. But again, that’s exactly what we hired him, isn’t it? And we’ve seen it work before when Conte’s Patterns™ combined with scintillating form from Kane, Son, and Kulusevski somehow magicked Spurs into fourth place last spring.

But man. It sure feels galling to read that when Spurs have spent about £130m over the past 1.5 years to set up a team that Conte can do something with, only to watch them lose to Aston Villa and concede first in ten consecutive matches. On the one hand it does seem to imply that Conte would be happy to stay, but if this style of football — plodding, slow, boring, and defensively suspect enough to spot opponents at least one goal — is what we’re getting out of Conte’s tactics, is it even worth maintaining the fiction that he won’t bolt for a better opportunity at the earliest possible convenience?

And Conte went even further — in comments to the BBC, he seemed to suggest that this Tottenham team’s ceiling might be fifth place.

“We have to try to recover all the [injured] players and then we have to know that in every game we have to fight and show that we are strong,” said Conte after his team failed to regain their place in the Champions League positions at the top of the table.

“The league will be very difficult for us. I want to be honest, I want to be very clear. I have said this to the club, I have said my opinions. The fans deserve the best. Maybe to stay in 5th is the best. Maybe 6th, 7th, 5th or 4th is the best.”

Every team has poor patches during a season. Tottenham are in the midst of one right now, and there’s a long way to go in this season. But Spurs have now dropped to fifth in the table, 13 points behind Arsenal with a game in hand. They’re demonstrably worse than they were last spring when they catapulted to fourth on the penultimate matchday of the season. And Spurs do have a transfer window that has opened today where they can attempt to reinforce their depleted squad, hopefully to good effect. Maybe things will turn around in the near future.

Even so, it all begs the question — is this what we really want?