AAntonio Conte may smile now, but no one was smiling then. Even less him. The Tottenham manager is preparing for Sunday’s Premier League game at home to Burnley, where everything will be on the line for him and his players in terms of finishing in the Champions League. Spurs know they must win to keep the pressure on fourth-placed Arsenal, who travel to Newcastle on Monday night.
But it’s impossible to consider Burnley without remembering Turf Moor and what happened on that miserable night in late February. On the heels of the stunning 3-2 victory at Manchester City, Conte and Spurs had traveled with optimism, a strong sense that a turn had been turned. When it all came crashing down in a lackluster 1-0 defeat, it was the prompt for the final collapse of Conte’s Spurs.
As he burned with anger, saying he couldn’t go on like this and wondering if he would be able to improve the situation, he looked like a man who had passed the point of no return. It was possible to think he was close to quitting, although the Spurs hierarchy were confident he would calm down. They know wild mood swings are a part of him, even in victory, when he can go beyond it the other way.
What about the players, who had been shot by implication? The January transfer window was closed, summer was a long way off and Conte was surely in danger of alienating some or all of those he would have to work with for the rest of the season. Had he gone too far with helplessness and resignation?
There were several difficult questions to answer. What was indisputable was that Conte had gathered his chips and shoved them all. On some level, he was the one to benefit from his future involvement with the team, the suggestion there that the players would regret it if he left.
On another it was Conte showing how much it meant, how much it had to mean; the need to go through all sorts of internal agonies to find the solutions. He always will, living and breathing the work. Players must do the same. But above all, it was a challenge to their professional pride.
The results were eye-catching – eight wins and two draws in the 12 league matches that followed; the last, the 3-0 at home to Arsenal in Thursday’s high-stakes derby. To continue the poker analogy, it’s as if Conte had caught his card on the river. But really, he played the shrewdest hands, taking control with a devastating mix of bluffing and aggression.
“I understand very well that I took a risk [after Burnley] because a lot of people didn’t understand,” Conte said. “I read that it only took two months for Tottenham to drive Conte crazy! I remember very well that I was the madman [one].
“Sometimes coaches have a strategy and it’s the stick or the carrot. Back then, the whole midfield needed the stick. I myself was the first person and I hit myself. And then the others. Because before you say something bad about the players or the situation, the first to blame has to be the manager. At the time, I thought it was right to go hard to try to change the situation.
“No one thought then that with two games to go, Totttenham could challenge for the Champions League. Instead, we are there now and from this stage we have improved a lot. There are times where everyone has to take responsibility. The manager comes first, then the players, the club and all Tottenham employees. Because we win and we lose together.
Spurs moved within a point of Arsenal with the derby victory and, if the momentum is with them, they must hope it backfired on Arsenal; that their rivals will err at Newcastle or at home to Everton on the final day. Spurs end with a trip to Norwich.
It was interesting to see Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta take a different approach after his side lost at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. They had been well beaten but he insisted – at least publicly – that the blame was not on them, but rather on the referee, Paul Tierney, who awarded Spurs a 22nd-minute penalty for 1 -0 and expelled Rob Holding soon after. Arteta seemed determined to protect his players from self-doubt at all costs, even if it meant he looked irritable. Tierney’s decisions had been correct.
For Conte, it has been a process of mutual understanding at Spurs and the signs have turned positive. He generated a huge following from the fans, who took up his name in chorus towards the end of the derby and were delighted when he acknowledged it with applause. Players, meanwhile, have more clarity.
“It was important for me to get to know my players better and for them to get to know me better and understand sometimes when I’m angry, why I’m angry,” Conte said. “The loss to Burnley made me very angry. But now they are improving in many ways – not only on the pitch, but mentally they are getting strong.
“I totally go with my heart, my mind and my head. I am a passionate person. Seeing me then sometimes on TV, it’s not easy to see me like this. I totally enter the club where I work and, in this way, I am able to give everything and, also, to receive everything from my players, my club and the supporters. If I’m the first person to give 200% then I can definitely claim that [in return].”