Tottenham Hotspur let a 3-1 lead slip on the road against the worst team in the league today, giving up a late — and extremely controversial — penalty that resulted in a 3-3 draw against Southampton. And strangely, that wasn’t the most interesting thing about that match.
Under-siege Tottenham manager Antonio Conte blasted the performance, his players, the club, and even obliquely chairman Daniel Levy in an emotional and unprecedentedly explosive press conference after the mask, calling his players “selfish,” questioning the culture of the team over the last two decades, all while trying to evade any personal culpability with the team’s less-than-stellar performances.
Conte essentially dared Daniel Levy to fire him. He might yet get his wish.
Conte was first asked about the penalty, which saw Pape Sarr harshly penalized for a high kick on Ainsley Maitland-Niles after the Arsenal loanee jumped in front of him during an attempted clearance. Replay showed that Sarr didn’t even seem to make contact with Maitland-Niles, but the decision was not overturned after a VAR review.
But Conte had no interest in talking about the penalty. He directed all of his vitriol squarely at his own players.
“I think that it’s the right moment to speak because I think that after this performance, for me this is unacceptable. We are winning 3-1, in control of the game and you are able to concede two goals and to risk, because also Fraser made a fantastic save in one situation. I think it’s much better to go into the problem, because the problem is that for another time we showed that we are not a team.
“We are 11 players that go into the pitch. I see selfish players, I see players that don’t want to help each other and don’t put their heart.”
“Before today I prefer to hide this situation and to try to speak, to try to improve the spirit, the situation, with the words, With a lot of situations. Because about tactical or technical aspect, this is one situation. The most important thing if you want to become a strong team, if you want to become competitive, if you want to fight to win, is the desire, the fire that you need to have in your eyes , in your heart, and you have to show this in every moment. In every moment.
Conte conceded, in his way, that the results haven’t been as good as they were last spring after he took over. But instead of any critical self-analysis about why things have taken a turn for the worse, especially after a summer in which Tottenham made significant financial investment to get him players that were supposed to better suit his style, he threw his players under the bus, calling them, essentially, selfish, weak-minded, and shallow.
“If i have to compare last season and this season, we have to improve, but now we are worse in this aspect. When you are not a team, anything can happen, in any moment. Today is the last situation. Don’t forget that in FA Cup we lost to Sheffield United, who played with young players. We were able with a strong team, to be dropped from the FA Cup. And then a lot of situation, I repeat, that we are not going to improve. And I am not speaking about tactical aspect or technical aspect.
“About being a team, being a team, being a team, it is the most important thing. To understand that we play for the badge. We have to play to make our fans proud of us. We have to pay to show desire. The fire in your eyes to win. If you have this , for sure, you don’t go out in FA Cup. Today you win.
“We have to play to make our fans proud of us, we have to play to show desire. The fire in your eyes to win. If you have this, for sure, you don’t go out in FA Cup. And today we’d win. Maybe previously in the other games something can change. But here we’re used to it for a long time. The club has the responsibility for the transfer market, every coach that stayed here has the responsibility. And the players? The players? Where are the players? In my experience, I can tell you that if you want to be competitive, if you want to fight, you have to improve this aspect. And this aspect, I can tell you, in this moment is really, really low. And I see only 11 players that play for themselves.”
Here’s the thing: Conte isn’t wrong. He can’t play the matches himself, he can only train them and tell them the way he wants to play. And he’s right — several players have taken steps backwards this season, including stalwarts like Eric Dier, Son Heung-Min, Dejan Kulusevski, and the injured Hugo Lloris. Other players have disappointed in their first year at the club such as Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, and Clement Lenglet.
But to point this out in a vacuum completely ignores the fact that HE is the manager of this Tottenham team, and it is HIS responsibility to either train his players to play in his preferred system, or barring that, find another system that works with the players he has. And that’s been Conte’s real failure this season — his dogged insistence in sticking with Plan A with underachieving players, not trusting his bench to provide sparks, and absolutely atrocious in-game management. It’s like that old Principal Skinner meme: Am I out of touch? ...No, it’s the players who are wrong.
But I suppose it’s certainly easier to just blame it on lack of “desire”.
“You are finding an alibi, another alibi. You try to find an excuse for the players. OK, continue to do this, to find an excuse for the players. You do only this! You do only this. Excuses for the players. ‘But the players, maybe, my future, then we lost confidence, they lost spirit, they lost being a team’. Excuses. Excuses. Excuse. Try to protect them every time.
“Bah. Come on, come on, come on. We are professional. The club pay us a lot of money. The players receive money, me receive money, you understand? Not to find excuse or not show spirit or show a sense of belonging or don’t show a sense of responsibility because we are showing this. For me this is unacceptable because for me this is the first time in my career to see a situation like this. Until now I wasn’t able to change, not to change but compare to last season the situation went to become worse.
“They are used to it here, they are used to it. They don’t play for something important yeah. They don’t want to play under pressure, they don’t want to play under stress. It is easy in this way. Tottenham’s story is this. 20 years there is the owner and they never won something but why? The fault is only for the club, or for every manager that stay here. I have seen the managers that Tottenham had on the bench. You risk to disrupt the figure of the manager and to protect the other situation in every moment.
“Until now I try to hide the situation but now no because I repeat I don’t want to see what I have seen today because this is unacceptable and also unacceptable for the fans. They follow us, pay the ticket and to see the team another time to have this type of performance is unacceptable. We have to think a lot about this.”
I find this rich coming from a man who has repeatedly refused to commit to this club, even as he enters the final months of his initial contract. I maintain that had he signed a new deal and said “I’m here long term, let’s take the long view, my methods will work but it’ll take patience and some trial and error,” Spurs fans would have given him a significantly longer leash and a lot more understanding when it comes to poor results and runs of bad form.
But he hasn’t. Lately he has acted as though he is at Tottenham Hotspur as a favor to Tottenham Hotspur, that his words from on high should be enough to magically create a top team, and if it doesn’t happen, well, it’s certainly not HIS fault. Maybe he’s always felt this way but was able to keep that side of his personality buried under admonitions of caution and patience. He’s not hiding it anymore.
Conte even takes a swing, obliquely, at Daniel Levy and the entire club culture over the past 20 years. Of course I’m not succeeding here, he’s saying, nobody does and nobody ever will. In a press conference full of incendiary statements, this might be the worst of them all. I don’t really want to get into a discussion about Levy — goodness knows there’s plenty to criticize about Levy’s tenure over the past two decades, but there’s equally plenty to praise. But to use hashtag-banter that’s used by other clubs as a stick to beat Spurs with and turn it around on his own team is beyond the pale, especially after the club practically bent over backwards to support him after he lost three of his friends and had major surgery in the same season.
Thats some elite backstabbing from Conte after the club backed him in the market and personal life issues he’s faced— Kidiabaponytail (@KidiabaPonyTail) March 18, 2023
And before we forget — those players he just accused of not taking responsibility? One of them went to the media after the match and... gasp... took full responsibility. This is what responsible, elite athletes and leaders do. Maybe we should make Deki interim player-manager.
“We shouldn't be in that situation. It's completely our fault”— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) March 18, 2023
Dejan Kulusevski reacts to the draw with Southampton pic.twitter.com/JfxdXiMM8l
Conte closed his press conference with this banger:
“I said that I wanted to see the fire, not that I have seen. It is different. I said that I want to see the fire in their eyes, in their hearts. I want to see the right spirit. Ok. Not only in the training session, on the pitch. Because here you have to make the difference. And I am not saying this. And until now I try to hide the situation but now, there are 10 games to go and some people think we can fight. Fight for what with his spirit, this attitude, this commitment? What? For seventh, eighth, 10th place? I am not used to this position. I’m really upset and everyone has to take their responsibility.
“Not only the club, the manager and the staff. The players have to be involved in this situation because it is time to change this situation if Tottenham want to change. If they want to continue in this way, they can change the manager, a lot of managers, but the situation cannot change. Believe me.”
This is the Faustian deal with Conte. This is how it was always going to end. We know it because this is how it has ended with almost every club Conte has ever managed. I’ve joked for the past 18 months about how we’ll have to enjoy Conte until he gets mad and evaporates in a puff of pique and brimstone. This is probably that moment. It is obvious that he no longer wants to be here, and he’s not willing to make any accommodations to anything he does to get better. It’s just as obvious that there’s no real benefit for Tottenham to keep him around. What’s the point, even if top four is mathematically still in play? The football sucks, the players look unhappy, the coach is throwing everything within reach under the bus. What could possibly be worse than this?
The sad irony here is that Conte’s not wrong about Tottenham, not exactly. He may even be right. But to say it in this way, in this context, is outright insubordination to go along with poor job performance, and he deserves to be fired for it. As that eminent philospher The Dude once said, “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.”