It was always going to end this way. This was the Faustian bargain that Tottenham Hotspur agreed to when it signed Antonio Conte to be its next manager a year and a half ago — good football, but a mercurial, perpetually cranky, demanding head coach who would ask for the world and throw a tantrum when he didn’t get it. It always seemed like a matter of time before Conte exploded in a puff of pique and brimstone.
But what we didn’t expect was that we wouldn’t even get consistently good football out of the deal. Conte’s Tottenham, which had very high expectations heading into the season, has sputtered. And although Spurs still have a realistic chance of finishing in the top four, it sure doesn’t feel that way.
And now that the results have turned sour and there’s a general agreement that this isn’t working out and it’s best for everyone if the two sides part company, the veil has been removed. Conte’s most recent comments to the media have been, well, tetchy.
First, let’s look at the quotes from his press conference, held prior to tomorrow’s home match against Nottingham Forest. Conte normally wears his heart on his sleeve, but his messaging up until now has been fairly consistent: we’re working, we are making progress, I’m happy here. Today, his comments had a barely-concealed sense of disdain, even as he trotted out the same basic talking points as before.
“In this moment I think the most important thing is to be focused on the league. You know which is my opinion, you know which is my desire and I say to you a lot of time during the press conference that the situation I have found and we are far to aspire to be competitive to fight to win. I am repeating this for a long time. I say it we need time, we need patience. I see that here the environment [the fans] has no patience, no patience or maybe the environment doesn’t want to understand the reality. If no one wants to understand this and for sure I don’t speak about my future because the club knows very well which is my situation, which is my thoughts.
“But if I have to become (for) the people to take as a target? No. I am not this person. You understand? The reality is this. We need time and patience. I understood that here the patience is finished for the fans, for the environment and then we will see what happens in the future. I repeat I am not so stupid to kill myself. For sure this has to be clear. If you ask me now are you ready now to die for this club? Yes. Until the end I am ready to die for this club and then we will see because I am not so stupid to continue to kill myself.”
Conte was then pressed about his future, considering his contract expires in three months and he had still yet to decide whether he would accept a new contract to keep him longer. His response was... well, not great.
“You know with the club we signed a contract, a strange contract - one-year-and-a-half. Usually you sign a contract for three years but I think it was for the club and also for myself to see the situation.
“For the club to understand my personality, my capacity as a coach and for me from my side it was also the same. To understand if we were on the same page and if we wanted to do something important.
“Now after one year and a half, the club knows me, I know the club and it is clear this situation. For this reason I repeat, we have to finish the season and then we will see. The club knows very well what are my thoughts. I am ready to die for this club until the end of the season. Then if you ask me, we’ll make the decision with the club and the club knows very well my thoughts. I hope, I hope please until the end I don’t want to speak about my future, because I think it would be very difficult to be more clear than today.”
None of that is especially encouraging coming from a manager who has always seemed to express a sentiment that it’s he that’s doing Tottenham a favor by being here. But it somehow got worse. In embargoed comments that were released to the public late on Friday evening in the USA, Conte acknowledged that Spurs supporters were fed up with the team’s perceived underperformance, but had a number of excuses at the ready, none of which included his own failures.
“It’s not on me to say if the atmosphere is good or not good, and for sure and I continue to tell you that here the patience has finished for the fans. The fans want to win trophy. Stop.
“And then you have to find the right solution to make the fans happy and to win trophy in the future, because the patience of the fans has finished, and we feel this. I feel this. The players feel this. For sure this does not help the situation because there are many players in this moment, also young players that are playing, and they need to improve and go step by step to grow.
“We facing a difficult situation also with the injuries – important players that stay out. Lloris, Bentancur, Sessegnon is out, Bissouma is out for the rest of the season. If we undervalue this situation... I think that in every moment, we have to try to create the right atmosphere to help the team, to help the players.
“Because I repeat – in my opinion, also against Milan, they [the players] tried to give everything. Then you weren’t able to go to the next round against a team that won the league last season.
“We are trying to go step by step and to build something important but if you don’t have patience and it is not useful, this. You understand? It’s un-useful, this. In my opinion. For this reason, we have to try to stay together until the end for this season, and to help the players to stay together, to fight, to try to make the best possible position and then, for sure … I don’t know what happens. I don’t know what happens.”
I’ve given Conte a lot of slack over the past 18 months, because while we know he has his personal foibles, he was as close to a sure thing as Spurs were ever going to get. And yet, his comments above, given when Spurs haven’t scored a goal in its past three matches and has been bounced out of the FA Cup and Champions League, are infuriating because they are seemingly devoid of any personal introspection about what he might have done wrong, or how Conte could’ve done things differently to achieve a different result.
Conte’s comments expressed a frustration that he’s not being given enough time to get his team into a winning position.
“I said the club knows very well the situation. The situation is not simple. It’s not easy. I repeat because the environment [the fans] wants to win and in this moment we are not close to do it, in my opinion, ok, yes? This is the reality.
“There is no patience. I ask for time and patience but I see that the patience has finished. Maybe the fans are right, but you don’t build the win in one day, in two days. It’s difficult for me to realise this situation. It’s difficult because I am putting everything, me and the staff, to help the club, to try to build something, but at the same time I understand that maybe it’s not enough.”
“The problem for me is only one - that every club where I coached, I won. Expectation has always been very, very high,” he said. “I remember very well when I arrived at this club everybody said, ‘Now we have Conte - he won in the past, so now we are going to win!’
“But we have to win together. We have to create the right situation. I can teach you the path to win, but you have to follow me, and have patience. I need time and patience and I understood I had that. Maybe I do have time, because the club can give me that, but I think there is no patience at the club.
“I repeat that makes the situation really, really difficult for me. Maybe my past penalizes me, you understand? If I was a coach who was a good coach but without a win in my career, I think it would be the perfect situation to enjoy working and growing together.
“But my past is different. My past brings expectation, high expectation. Then if I understand it, I will become the first person to [target]. I don’t want to kill myself. I am really happy to work here and stay here, but at the same time, I have to take all the considerations, also for myself. If I have to put the stress and pressure only to myself, it is not right.”
And this is perhaps what bothers me the most — Conte is essentially blaming the fans for not giving him enough time and “patience” to turn things around, but Conte has never been willing to put skin in the game himself. He’s delayed, and prevaricated over a contract extension, demanded player signings that he seemingly doesn’t favor and will not play, and then has the temerity to chide journalists and fans when things don’t go according to plan.
I’d like to think that if he had committed to Spurs long term, had continued his (honest?) exhortations for patience and time, and had shown a willingness to be flexible and adaptable, that he might have found a lot of grace from supporters. But he hasn’t. While the club is clearly not well run from the front office side, it’s been equally poorly run by Conte this season, and trying to pass off last spring’s achievements as a “miracle” and continuing to insist that the team isn’t good enough while refusing to commit to being the solution just means everyone gets frustrated.
The worst part is he’s not necessarily wrong about needing more time to turn things around. But even that rings a little hollow. Sure, the team needs a refresh, but can anyone say with a straight face that Conte hasn’t been financially backed? Spurs are instead playing the same turgid, defensive football on a side that is returning the best front lines in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Conte has now dismissed two of his recent signings, Djed Spence and Arnaut Danjuma, as “club signings,” and has arguably mismanaged the likes of Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane, and Dejan Kulusevski.
Conte’s quotes paint a picture of a manager who is as frustrated with the way things are going as the fans are, but his statements about his illustrious, winning past “hurting him” run in contrast to his demeanor since joining the club that have seemed to suggest he’s better than Spurs and knows it. Is it any wonder why his players are giving up, the fans want him out, and it appears extremely likely he’ll return to Italy in June?