Antonio Conte introduced a couple of old friends to his post-match briefing on Tuesday.
They were Eugenio Fascetti and Carlo Mazzone, Italian coaches whom the Tottenham Hotspur manager played under in the 1980s. Conte’s Spurs had just lost to Championship Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, and, in a reflective mood, he rolled back the years to cite Fascetti and Mazzone for what they had taught him.
In the short time he has been in charge of Spurs, the Conte press conference has become a must-watch event.
Six days before the Boro defeat, after a 1-0 loss at Burnley, he made headlines by asking out loud if he was the right man for a Tottenham job he accepted only four months ago. “I came in to try to improve the situation, but maybe in this moment, I’m not good to improve the situation,” he said.
Following hard on the heels of an interview he gave to Sky Italia, criticising Spurs’s work in the January transfer window, it sounded like a clear signpost towards the exit door come the end of the season.
After the Cup elimination at Boro, though, he was contemplative, almost mild in his tone. Which was where Fascetti and Mazzone, admired Italian coaches but not superstars of the profession, came in.
Fascetti gave Conte his senior debut, at Bari, at 16; Mazzone coached him at the same club before Conte went on to build a career in the midfields of Juventus and the Italy national team.
“My old coaches in Italy, especially Fascetti and Mazzone, taught me that the coach sometimes has to use the carrot, sometimes the stick,” said Conte.
He went on to describe how he had used both tools, anger - the stick - and encouragement - the carrot - within the previous week. “After Burnley, I used the stick,” he explained. "And the result in the next game, against Leeds United? We won!"
Burnley vs Tottenham player ratings
“After Leeds? The carrot. Then we lost,” said Conte with a thin smile, referring to the 1-0 loss at Boro three days after a 4-0 win at Leeds. “The coach has to always try to find the best solution, [whether] you’re upset, frustrated or disappointed.”
Stick or carrot? It’s a choice Conte has to make with alarming frequency. Since the turn of the year, Spurs have lost seven and won six. In their last five Premier League matches, they have been defeated by Burnley, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton and yet also beaten league-leaders and champions Manchester City.
They have exited two Cup competitions and one outcome of 19-year-old substitute Josh Coburn’s extra-time goal for Boro is that Tottenham will end a season, for the 14th campaign on the trot, without a trophy.
For Conte, that is a significant landmark. In the last decade of his managerial career, the very least he has achieved at the end of a club season is a silver medal. In three years coaching Juventus, he won three Serie A titles.
In two seasons at Chelsea, he won a Premier League and then the FA Cup. In two seasons at Internazionale, he reached a Europa League final and then won the Italian league. Granted, he took over at Tottenham 10 games into the current season after the sacking of Nuno Espirito Santo, but the genuine signs of greater Spurs purpose and verve on his watch have not translated into sustained momentum.
Spurs were ninth in the Premier League when Conte joined and in contention for three possible Cups. They have since exited the Europa Conference League in the group phase, the League Cup at the semis and the FA Cup in its fifth round.
The pursuit of a top-four finish in the Premier League is now the sole target. With 13 games left, there is a five-point gap between their seventh place and Manchester United, who have played two matches more than Tottenham, in fourth.
Conte would back himself to make up that gap. Fascetti, who spotted Conte’s “will to win and intelligence” when he was still a schoolboy, and Mazzone would doubtless back him as well, and by the end of March, a month which includes fixtures at United and at home to fifth-placed West Ham, the target of fourth spot could look very achievable.
But this is not a Spurs side that Conte can yet trust. “Too many ups and downs,” as he put it, “If we want to become competitive, then we have to be a stable team.”
As he begins preparations for Monday’s meeting with Everton, the manager will again decide between stick and carrot. By the end of the season, the choice will be stick or twist. And Conte gives no strong impression he has yet decided one way or the other.