MATT BARLOW: Antonio Conte must take responsibility too
MATT BARLOW: Now the players, selfish and lacking fire, unable to perform when the pressure is on, without heart and going backwards. All the while shielded from blame by a litany of excuses. Antonio Conte is taking responsibility for Tottenham's failure to win the FA Cup against AC Milan and the culture of the club in Italy. Conte has been criticized for his lack of leadership and for his 10-minute tirade after his team surrendered a 3-1 lead to Southampton, but he believes Spurs are soft. He is a footballing philosophy forged during a playing career under Giovani Trapattoni and Marcelo Lippi, who demanded total dedication to the cause and worked marginal gains long before the expression was popularised by Dave Brailsford’s cycling team. Modern elite players on their very expensive contracts have long since figured out it is cheaper and simpler to blame and change the manager than to blame. Tottenham have not stacked their squad with the depth experienced, world-class cover Conte wants, such as Djed Spence and Arnaut Danjuma, and the board has not really got behind him and he must take responsibility for the team's performance. The need to recuperate his health concerns after an operation to remove his gallbladder at the start of the season have been reinforced by his health.
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Before he gets around to clearing his desk, Antonio Conte has been anxious to get a few things off his chest.
First about the Tottenham fans, impatient and unappreciative of the size of the task against AC Milan, and about the culture of the club, steeped in failure with its losing mentality.
Now the players, selfish and lacking fire, unable to perform when the pressure is on, without heart and going backwards. All the while shielded from blame by a litany of excuses.
'Being a team is the most important thing,' Conte fumed in the midst of his 10-minute tirade after watching his team surrender a 3-1 lead to take only a point from Southampton.
'To understand we play for the badge. We have to play to make our fans proud of us. We have to play to show desire. The first in your eyes to win. If you have this, for sure, you don’t go out of the FA Cup. Today you win.'
His comparison of choice was not the Champions League exit against Milan but to the FA Cup demise at the hands of Sheffield United, a Championship team resting several of first-team regulars as they prioritised promotion.
In short, Conte thinks Spurs are soft. Caving in against Saints was simply the latest example, the final straw.
His is a footballing philosophy forged during a playing career in the win-at-all-costs environment at Juventus, under Giovani Trapattoni and Marcelo Lippi, who demanded total dedication to the cause and worked marginal gains long before the expression was popularised by Dave Brailsford’s cycling team.
Conte has nibbled critically this season at the culture in English football. That it is not all-consuming in the way it is in Italy. That those on the executive keep quiet and the manager is the only public voice, and therefore shoulders all the responsibility.
What he did not detail was the way this has repercussions in the dressing room but modern elite players on their very expensive contracts have long since figured out it is cheaper and simpler to blame and change the manager than to blame and change the squad.
It takes a certain courage to keep the faith in the manager when the team plays twice a week, when results are so important and when millions have the means to broadcast their opinions.
Manchester City never wavered in their support for Pep Guardiola despite a difficult first season. Liverpool backed Jurgen Klopp because they were sure he was the right man and, more recently, Arsenal have trusted their instinct with Mikel Arteta.
Perhaps Chelsea are going through this process with Graham Potter. And this is a radical change because the modus operandi was very different when Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2016.
The winning attitude was already well engrained and nourished by the tacit threat of Roman Abramovich’s finger on the trigger. At Tottenham, Levy’s twitchy finger is on the trigger but the attitude inside the club is very different.
They somehow embrace the worst of both extreme.
Perhaps this is the root of his point about “fire in the eyes” and “desire”. They don’t know about winning and he does. Lads, it’s Tottenham, and all that and, by his own definition, the board have not really got behind him and said we’re all in with this guy.
They have not stacked his squad with the depth experienced, world-class cover he wants. Nor has Levy been able to kick the habit of buying players his manager doesn’t want, such as Djed Spence and Arnaut Danjuma.
Those jamming the radio phone-ins on Saturday evening were more aggrieved with the ENIC ownership than the manager, although they all accept Conte’s tenure has run its course.
His name did not ring out from the away end at St Mary’s as it did at Crystal Palace in January.
Once the World Cup break passed without an agreement to extend Conte’s initial 18-month contract, all the signs pointed to him leaving at the end of the season.
This is a feeling only reinforced by his health concerns and the need for time off to recuperate after an operation to remove his gallbladder at the start of February, and with his wife and daughter still living in Italy.
Since then, consciously or otherwise, players have settled in to go through the motions and wait for the next appointment. Maybe it will be one to suit them better. Maybe Mauricio Pochettino will return. Maybe they have all forgotten how his enjoyable reign ended sourly.
So Conte has a point and yet he is not immune from blame. He was hired at considerable expense on a contract worth £13million a year with a vast army of staff to sort all this out. Not to take one look, shrug and call it impossible, and retreat.
This team is his team. Of the 15 on parade at Southampton, six were signed under him and, with the exception of Pedro Porro, have all worked under him for the entire season.
Three came in under Conte’s predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo, with managing director Fabio Paratici in charge of recruitment.
Conte trusts Paratici’s judgment so is he is really questioning the attitude of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Pierre Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp, Ben Davies and Eric Dier?
And what if Pape Sarr had not kicked Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the 90th minute and James Ward-Prowse had not converted the penalty to make it 3-3 and salvage a point for Saints? Would he have kicked off with the same ferocity?
Has he done it to sharpen minds with 10 to play, as he did last season after defeat at Burnley? Or is it a move to accelerate his departure?
Bookmakers slashed the odds on his sacking on the basis that his future in the job is untenable after such a brutal verbal assault on his players, and there is logic supporting the drive for change during this international break if Levy is sure it improves Tottenham’s chances of finishing in the top four.
Champions League status is worth tens of millions and sacking Jose Mourinho to replace him with interim boss Ryan Mason six days before the League Cup final did not play out particularly well for the Spurs chairman.
This is where Levy finds himself again. If he has the next manager in mind, that person will prefer to start in the summer rather than step in now with the hold on fourth place looking fragile.