We are a few days out from Tottenham Hotspur and Antonio Conte “mutually parting ways,” but the goodbye was an especially long one. It was over a week since Conte’s infamous tirade after the draw against Southampton when he threw everyone, including Chirpy, under the bus. It’s been basically known that Conte was out the exit door since last Monday.
Plenty of time for journalists to contact their club sources and get some juicy insider background reporting. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Over the past two days, two major post-mortems have been written and posted about Antonio Conte and what exactly happened to make his Tottenham tenure explode so catastrophically — one from Sami Mokbel in the Daily Mail, and another from ESPN Senior Soccer Writer James Olley. Both reports share interesting anecdotes about what was happening this season, and while there’s some broad overlaps in themes, both writers share different, and complementary, stories that show the rot between Conte and Spurs started a long time ago.
Here’s a general summary of the main areas of complaint from the Spurs inside sources. Some of these items I had heard unsourced rumblings about over the past few months. Many of them I had not.
Literally running players into the ground
This is, for me, the most egregious. Both Mokbel and Olley write about Tottenham’s grueling fitness regime under Conte that continued well, well past the notable preseason sprint sessions in South Korea with the late Piero Ventrone. Conte apparently had his players do significant runes and training sessions far into the season, even before games after the World Cup.
Here’s Olley on Conte’s training.
Conte also often demanded the squad train on the morning of games and the sheer physical demands outside of matches became a bone of contention within the group. The pattern of Tottenham’s matches was so often familiar: start slowly, perhaps fall behind, then rally in the second half.
Mokbel gets into more detail, saying that Conte would force players into 2k runs before matches.
Meanwhile, the Italian’s intense training regime had players on their knees. Conte often had them run 2km before matches. Players wouldn’t dare moan in his earshot, but privately they were baffled. Surely, they should be reserving energy for the heat of the battle?
It’s insane! Yes, these are professional athletes, and 2 kilometers doesn’t seem like much for a footballer. Clearly they were able to successfully do this, but... why? What possible benefit is there to running before you go out and... run a lot harder? Tottenham seemed to struggle with their fitness in the first halves of matches, being decidedly outrun by their opponents before seeming to pull things together in the second half. What if they weren’t simply trying harder than the other team — what if they were just tired in the first halves, but had a baseline of fitness such that when the other team tired they were better able to compete? That’s certainly what Olley seems to think.
However, there is a view within the squad that several players have underperformed this season due to fatigue and that training should have been modified in recognition of the unprecedented demands of a midseason World Cup. Son has looked a shadow of the player who won the Golden Boot (joint-top with Mohamed Salah on 23 goals last season.) Sources close to multiple players believe Conte’s training regime is a significant factor in his decline, many citing the repetitive nature eventually alienating a group once willing to exhaust themselves if the end product was worth it.
Hindsight is obviously 20/20, but it’s hard not to read these anecdotes, look back at their insane training regimen under both Ventrone and Conte, and not think that this was the complete wrong approach in a compressed season that featured a inexplicable winter World Cup. Conte’s Tottenham teams ran a LOT in games — they covered more ground per match than any other team in the league, but were known for frustratingly falling behind in matches.
This is not to tarnish Ventrone’s reputation after his death — by all accounts, he was extremely popular with the Spurs players and they were all shattered when he passed. There’s also a strong argument that intense training at the beginning of the season can pay significant dividends during a long campaign. That said, Conte’s continued intensity might also go some way towards explaining Son Heung-Min’s form falling off a cliff — they were all exhausted! It also makes Conte’s stubborn refusal to rotate or use substitutions wisely even more baffling.
Frequently changing or delaying training times
According to Olley, some Tottenham players and staff members, especially ones with families, were left frustrated with Conte frequently changing or moving training schedules at the last minute, which had impacts on their personal lives.
Conte had a habit of revising training programmes at short notice or not releasing the next schedule until the last moment. Multiple sources suggested that staff were kept in the dark over how sessions would be timed for the upcoming week or weeks until late on a Sunday evening. Sources close to various players pointed out the complications that would have in organising their personal time, especially those with families. Players were sometimes unable to plan external commercial work or simply spending time with their children much in advance because they were unsure precisely which days off they would be given.
Mokbel had a specific anecdote about Conte using a training session as a punitive measure after a Champions League group stage loss.
His unpredictability irked many. His habit of changing the training schedule at short notice a particular bugbear. So furious with the team’s defeat away to Sporting Lisbon in September, the Italian brought forward the 2pm training session to 11am. Given the team didn’t arrive back in London until the early hours of the morning, it was not well received.
I’m a guy with a family. I understand that football is the full time job for these players and that they are paid to train. I also understand that it is the manager’s prerogative to train when he feels like it is necessary. But it feels especially unprofessional for Conte to essentially hold his team — and his staff! — hostage by his own whims in a manner that affects whether people can spend time with their partners and kids. This feels especially egregious when Conte was known for flying home to Italy whenever possible to see his family.
Alienating players, individually and collectively
One of the currents that carries through both Ollie’s and Mokbel’s reports are how Conte would use negative reinforcement or baffling criticisms as “motivations” that often served the opposite effect. Mokbel tells the story of, at the end of January, Conte called a team meeting to hash out what was wrong with Spurs’ form, only to leave the meeting when the team had fully assembled, basically telling them to sort out their own shit.
Among the squad, there was a sense that performances and results had been hampered by Conte’s rigid and defensive tactics. When senior players reported back to Conte after the crisis talks, they pleaded with him to release the shackles and be more expansive in their attacking play.
Spurs won five of their next six domestic fixtures before the FA Cup loss at Sheffield United that not only signalled the beginning of the end for Conte’s reign, but also for the team’s new-found openness.
Olley noted one report where Conte used a recording of a bench player as justification to keep him off of the pitch.
During one meeting with a fringe member of the squad and his representative to discuss his lack of game time, both were shown video footage of the dugouts during a home match. In the video, Conte called for a substitution. The player took 96 seconds to adjust their boots and shin pads, strip down and prove ready to be introduced. They were then shown an example where Perisic was ready in just seven seconds. This was used as evidence that the player was not yet at Conte’s required level.
It was pointed out in the Carty Free writer’s room that the unnamed player probably could’ve gotten ready faster and it’s not especially unreasonable for a coach to get miffed about that. However, considering Conte’s predilection towards late subs, it seems just as likely that the player in question was likely going in for a 4-5 minute cameo at the end of a match at a time when there probably wasn’t much of an expectation that they’d play. Also it feels like this could’ve been handled a lot differently than by showing the player a video and accusing him of “not at the required level.”
We could also mention Richarlison’s frustration boiling over after not being selected for the home draw against Inter that bounced them out of the Champions League. He was clearly unhappy and dissatisfied with Conte’s communication and made no secret of it.
Constant clashes with Daniel Levy, backroom staff
This is probably the least surprising of all. Both Olley and Mockbel go into detail about how there was a disconnect between Conte’s evaluation of the squad and what was needed to improve and the amount of backing he had from the club. There are numerous anonymous anecdotes of Conte bad-mouthing the club in private and in public, with Daniel Levy and others increasingly frustrated by Conte’s intransigence over signings and commitment, when the club felt as though they had made significant concessions to appease him.
According to Olley, Conte used his own contract as a power play to force Levy’s hand over the course of his tenure.
Conte effectively tried to leverage pressure on chairman Daniel Levy and the club’s owners by casting doubt over his future at the end of last season, even after securing fourth place on the final day of last season. Sat in the news conference room at Norwich City’s Carrow Road stadium, Conte pointedly refused to commit himself to Spurs, despite having a year remaining on his contract.
Mokbel suggested that all of this led to a serious degradation of his relationship with Daniel Levy to the point where at the end the two were barely speaking to each other.
Indeed, sources have indicated that Conte’s relationship with Levy was so strained that Paratici was effectively acting as a conduit between the two during the final months of the head coach’s tenure.
This is, of course, a pretty one-sided article. That’s the advantage I have of writing on a fan blog — I get to have an opinion and a platform with which to express it! Those Spurs fans who believe, and there are more than a few, that Conte’s failure at Tottenham comes down to the actions of a pampered group of players that had “quit on three other managers”, or those who believe that the totality of Tottenham’s problems over the years fall squarely in the lap of Daniel Levy, will be quick to explain away much of the criticism of Conte above. They may even have something of a point — for all that Olley and Mokbel lay at the feet of Conte, there’s certainly plenty of criticism that can be levied (pun intended) at club ownership, and Tottenham’s first team squad does have a history of becoming disgruntled with management after a couple of years. I definitely don’t agree with these opinions in totality, but it’s tough for me to say that they’re entirely wrong.
What I can say with some certainty is that it was always going to end this way. Antonio Conte and Tottenham Hotspur were never a good match, even if we supporters tried to convince ourselves otherwise. The mercurial Conte was always going to demand a certain style of football, with a certain kind of player, and a LOT of financial backing in order to win things HIS way. To be fair, he’s got an excellent track record of doing just that!
But this was never a long term relationship, and Tottenham is simply not a club that can accede to his demands fully and completely. It was doomed from the beginning, and much like the tenure of Jose Mourinho a few years ago, we got the Full Conte Experience... just compressed to 18 months and minus the silverware.
The devil, however, is in the details. And now that the details are coming out more and more in the aftermath of Conte’s departure, it doesn’t paint a very good portrait of the man, one ugly enough that I’m extremely glad he’s now gone. Eventually we’re probably going to get Conte’s story, likely in the Italian media, and it almost certainly won’t be very rosy towards Levy either. But what Mokbel and Olley’s articles tell me is that Conte bears more than his share of the blame for the way things didn’t work out.
It’s also okay to be mad about that. I certainly am.