If you woke up this morning to Tottenham Hotspur fans in a meltdown over something, well, it’s a day that ends in “Y”. But this particular meltdown comes after some dramatic comments by Antonio Conte were released from embargo early Wednesday. The comments seemed to cast some doubt — again! — over Conte’s perceived commitment to Tottenham and in the minds of some also continued to move the goalposts over what his team can accomplish this season.
Many Spurs fans likely were familiarized with Conte’s most recent comments in piecemeal form, cherrypicked from the larger context by Twitter aggregators. And in that context, yeah, they don’t sound great. But are they really that bad? Let’s take a look at what Conte actually said.
First, here’s Conte on the Tottenham project and what he’s trying to build.
“At the start for me it wasn’t easy but then I think this is an important experience. I accepted to do this because I found a great club, a modern club and for this reason I’m happy to work here. I found people that want to be positive and try to create. I found people that know the reality. For this reason, I accepted this.
“Otherwise, if these people had said to me we have to win I would have said sorry but this is not the right moment to think that in one year you have to win. For this reason, I accepted this.
“Now, the task is this, my big challenge is this. To continue to work so strong with my staff and the players to improve the club, to create a solid foundation. Then if I am satisfied to continue to do this work and to one day see the result I will continue to stay. If I’m not convinced 100 per cent then I can leave my work, I can leave my work here.
“It’s a big work we are doing together. I know very well what it is and it’s important. My task is this, and if you asked me you are used to (winning), yeah but to win you have to stay in the right condition. My task with the club is to create a solid base for Tottenham to come back to be competitive and to have the ambition, but in a strong way not only with words.
A lot of people have latched on to the “If I’m not convinced 100% then I can leave my work” bit, and for good reason! Conte isn’t known as a manager who sticks at a club for a long period of time, and he has famously (and abruptly) rage-quit several jobs when his expectations didn’t line up with what the club was actually doing.
But is this any different than what Conte has been saying since the moment he set foot in Hotspur Way? Conte has taken great pains, repeatedly, to say that it’s going to take time, and several transfer windows, to transform Spurs into a team that can compete at the highest level. After Conte led Tottenham to an unlikely fourth place finish ahead of Arsenal and Champions League qualification last season, expectations for what Spurs could do this year went through the roof. The club has mostly not met those expectations, and there are plenty of reasons as to why.
The football isn’t great right now. It’s static, dull, and ineffective. There are plenty of reasons for that as well: Conte’s tactical rigidity and failure to adjust or switch gears when things aren’t working, an acute injury crisis that has Spurs without several first team players, and the regression of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min’s on-pitch performance. All of this, combined with the heightened expectations for the season and Arsenal currently running away with the Premier League title have led to a toxic brew of anger and frustration among the Spurs faithful. Conte certainly can’t hand-wave that all away or ignore his share of culpability.
But take away this context for a second. With some slightly different circumstances, Conte’s words wouldn’t land with the same negative impact among supporters. Deep down, everyone knows that Tottenham are a reclamation project that needs some work in order to be viable title contenders. Conte’s appointment was part of that project, but it feels like everyone thought that it would take a lot less time.
And for what it’s worth, Conte seems to be willing to put the work in.
“Here, I understood that my task is different. My task here is to help the club, to build a solid foundation, to create a base and then to try to improve. This is my task here, this is my challenge here. If you ask me - and the challenge for you - is to win the Premier League, to win the Champions League, this is not the task here in this moment.
“The task for me is to help the club. I found and I signed a contract in November 2021 when I found the club in a difficult position for many reasons. Now my task, I understood it very well, is to try to help the club go in the right direction or to come back in the right direction about the choices of the players, about the work, to organise and to create a foundation. Now this is my big challenge here. Now if I want to stay here, then I have to accept this. Otherwise, if I do not want to accept this then I have to go.”
Conte was also asked about the fan chants after the Villa loss that called for chairman Daniel Levy to leave the club, and the ironic cheers upon some player substitutions.
“Honestly, I didn’t hear this, but it’s important to stay together. In my life, my family also taught me that the truth is always the best solution, even if this is a bad truth. In this moment we are trying together to create a base.
“I understand that fans want to win, to lift trophies, to be competitive. I understand that very well, but to take this step, you need now to create a base, to have patience and I can’t tell you something different or I’ll have to tell you good lies and I don’t like to tell good lies.
“We’re working very hard for the best of the club. We’re working together. We’re in a position where everybody is giving 100%, the players, the staff, the medical department, the club. Everybody, but you know, now we have to try to build. It’s important to have patience. Then to win a trophy can happen, but in mind the best targets are the Premier League and the Champions League, not the Carabao Cup or FA Cup with the greatest respect for these trophies.
“We’re trying to create a base to become competitive for important targets and be strong. Now in this moment, we are not almost ready for many situations because we started from such a low point but we’re working.
“The club in this period tried to sign good players - we signed Romero, Kulusevski, Bentancur, Richarlison. The club is trying to do something to accelerate this process. We’ve started this process and we have to be compact and stay together, and to have patience.
“I understand that fans many times don’t have patience but we have to do it, stay together and continue to work in the best possible way. What I can promise is great work, to be focussed for Tottenham. I don’t sleep for Tottenham. This has to be very clear.
“I don’t sleep, because when I go into a situation I go 120% percent and I’m not sleeping for Tottenham to try to improve the situation, but if you ask me to tell you [the media] lies or to send a message or to tell lies to our fans, I’m not the right person, because my family gave me this lesson: tell the truth and with the truth you can always go forward with your head held up.”
Look: Conte is annoying. He’s a wind-up merchant, his incredible personal drive and fiery personality often are at odds with his employers, and he’s not above bending the truth a bit to take some of the heat off of his own failures. He demands a lot of the clubs that employ him, requiring massive outlays of money for the players he believes will give him the best chance to win, and not every club can do that to his satisfaction.
Likewise, his constant dallying and gamesmanship over his contract and his future at Spurs has put the club in something of a Catch-22 — should the club fully back Conte without assurances that he’s going to stay, and is Conte willing to stay without full backing? I can understand frustration from supporters, especially during a bad point in the season where the results aren’t coming and the players look disinterested.
But Conte’s also not wrong here! Take those words out of his mouth and put them in Mauricio Pochettino’s, or that of virtually any other manager, and they don’t cause nearly the same amount of anxiety. And this isn’t materially different than anything he’s said since he’s joined the club.
And moreover, this was the deal Spurs made when they signed him — they get a proven manager with a long track record of success, provided that his vision and the vision of the club he works for are aligned. Now, there’s an entire conversation to be had as to whether Conte is the right manager for Tottenham, and whether Spurs knows exactly what kind of club it wants to be, but that’s a topic for another time.
In the meantime, I have a hard time getting riled up over anything that Conte has said. All of this — the veiled references to leaving, the goalpost moving, the patience preaching — it’s just Conte being Conte. For as long as he’s here, the balancing all of those conflicting impulses and statements is a cross we’re going to have to bear.