Antonio Conte back on familiar turf as he throws down transfer gauntlet to Spurs hierarchy

Confrontations with employers have become regular part of Italian's coaching career as Tottenham prepare for crunch clash with Manchester City

Antonio Conte has seen his Tottenham Hotspur team lose five of their last 10 Premier League games. AP
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In Antonio Conte’s strategic playbook, certain events come around like clockwork. In between the Tottenham Hotspur manager’s many successes as a club coach, there are the regular confrontations with his employers. Any student of Conte’s career can pinpoint accurately when and on what terms he will pick those battles.

Ahead of Thursday's evening trip with Spurs to Manchester City, Conte steered his pre-match press conference towards the issue of institutional responsibility, of club executives facing – or, rather, not facing – up in public.

It has been a tough task answering questions about Spurs’ form lately. They lost the derby at home to Arsenal at the weekend and have lost five of their last 10 Premier League matches, and slipping out of the top four in the table.

“I think it would be good to have the club present in the media, to speak,” said Conte. “Otherwise, there is only one face to explain a situation which is better for the club to explain.” That face, that voice is always his. “I have never seen the club, or sporting director, come to explain strategy and vision. If only the coach speaks, there are sometimes misunderstandings.”

If that could hardly be mistaken for anything other than a challenge to the Tottenham hierarchy, in the middle of a transfer window that, publicly and privately, Conte has urged his bosses to use to strengthen the squad, it also echoed remarks he has made in the past about feeling exposed.

Here’s Conte speaking in the summer of 2020, 14 months into his previous job, as coach of Inter Milan: “There’s very little protection from the club, absolutely zero,” he complained. The third transfer window of his time at Inter was just opening when he said those words. Note the timing. Conte is 14 months into managing Spurs, and in his third transfer window of his time in North London.

Rewind to early 2018, into his second season managing Chelsea, and reporters were listening to Conte pointedly saying “the club must be ready to share responsibility,” and suggesting “the club prepare a statement, a statement of support”.

Conte had guided Chelsea to the league title the previous May, in his first season working in England. But by his 14th month in charge there, with his second season not matching the same standards, he was already referring to Chelsea’s 2016/17 title as “a miracle.” The same word – “miracle” – has started to creep into how he describes Spurs’ achievement in finishing fourth last season.

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Thus the Conte calendar, where tussles with the board play out from one club to the next as deja vus. After this January window is over, the Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy and his advisers will turn their minds to how hard to push Conte into prolonging his stay beyond June.

The Italian insists he is keen to build at Spurs beyond then, but he has a famously restless history. His stints at Chelsea and Inter lasted two seasons each. He was at Juventus, where he won a trio of Serie A titles, for a year longer, up until 2014, but it was a three-year period sprinkled with spiky remarks about a perceived lack of investment in the squad compared with spending at other European superclubs.

Ahead of the trip to the Etihad Stadium, Conte described City, English football’s leading superclub, “as the best team in the world at moment”. No matter that, like Spurs, Pep Guardiola’s side are fresh from a defeat in their local derby, City the narrow losers, via a controversial goal, at the weekend to Manchester United.

It’s a fixture that, Conte must anticipate, will be taken as a measure of Spurs’s progress, year on year. Last February, Tottenham went to City and pulled off an improbable 3-2 victory, Harry Kane outstanding, and, significantly, two newcomers from last winter’s recruitment, Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski, influential in directing Spurs’s effective counter-attacks.

Kulusevski, on a long-term loan from Juventus, scored within five minutes of his first start and set up Kane’s winning goal in the fifth-minute of stoppage time, just after Riyad Mahrez seemed to have salvaged a point for City.

“We were very good and showed great resilience,” recalled Conte of a win that began Spurs’ march up the table from the minor European positions to qualification for the Champions League. “Against Manchester City, you have to try to not make mistakes. You know, for sure, ball possession will be 70 or 75 per cent for them. If you have 25 per cent you have to be very good, move the ball well and create chances.

“Also, in this type of game, you need to be a bit lucky to get a good result.”

Updated: January 19, 2023, 2:35 AM