Antonio Conte can smile about it now but nobody was smiling then. Least of all him. The Tottenham manager is preparing for Sunday’s Premier League game at home to Burnley, when everything will be on the line for him and his players in terms of a Champions League finish. Spurs know that they have to win in order to maintain the pressure on fourth-placed Arsenal, who go to Newcastle on Monday night.
But it is impossible to consider Burnley without remembering Turf Moor and what took place on that miserable night towards the end of February. Hard on the heels of the stunning 3-2 win at Manchester City, Conte and Spurs had travelled with optimism, the feeling pronounced that a corner had been turned. When it all came crashing down in a lacklustre 1-0 defeat, it was the prompt for Conte’s definitive Spurs meltdown.
As he burned with anger, saying that he could not go on this way and questioning whether 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 that he was about to quit, although the Spurs hierarchy were confident he would calm down. They know that the wild mood swings are a part of him, even in victory, when he can go over the top in the other direction.
What of the players, who had been savaged by implication? The January transfer window had closed, the summer was a long way away and Conte surely risked alienating some or all of those he would have to work with for the remainder of the season. Had he gone too far with the helplessness and resignation?
There were several hard-to-answer questions. What was indisputable was that Conte had gathered his chips and shoved them all in. On one level, it was him leveraging 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 has to mean; the need to go through all manner of internal agonies to find the solutions. He will always do this, living and breathing the job. The players must do the same. Above all, though, it was a challenge to their professional pride.
The results have been eye-catching – eight wins and two draws in the 12 league matches that have followed; the latest the 3-0 home thumping of Arsenal in Thursday’s high-stakes derby. To continue the poker analogy, it feels as though Conte has caught his card on the river. But really he has played the shrewdest of hands, taking control with a devastating mix of bluff 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 make Conte crazy! I remember very well that I was the crazy [one].
“Sometimes coaches have a strategy and it is the stick or the carrot. At the time, all the environment needed the stick. Myself, I was the first person and I hit myself. And then the others. Because before saying something wrong about the players or the situation, the first to take the blame has to be the manager. At the time, I thought it was right to go strong to try to change the situation.
“No one thought then that with two games to go, Totttenham could fight for the Champions League. Instead, we are there now and from that step we improved a lot. There are moments when everyone has to take responsibility. The manager is the first, then the players, the club and all the employees of Tottenham. Because we win and we lose together.”
Spurs closed to within one point of Arsenal with the derby win and, if the momentum is with them, they have to hope it has turned against Arsenal; that their rivals will slip up at Newcastle or at home to Everton on the final day. Spurs finish with a trip to Norwich.
It was interesting to see the Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, take a different approach after his team’s defeat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. They had been well beaten but he insisted – publicly at least – that the responsibility did not lie with them, rather the referee, Paul Tierney, who awarded Spurs a 22nd-minute penalty for 1-0 and sent off Rob Holding shortly after. Arteta appeared determined to protect his players from self-doubt at any cost, even if it meant him looking petulant. Tierney’s decisions had been correct.
For Conte, it has been a process of mutual understanding at Spurs and the signs have come to look positive. He has generated tremendous buy-in from the fans, who chorused his name towards the end of the derby and were delighted when he acknowledged it with applause. The players, meanwhile, have greater clarity.
“It was important for me to know my players much better and them to know me much better and understand sometimes when I’m angry, why I’m angry,” Conte said. “The defeat against Burnley made me very angry. But now they are improving in many aspects – not only on the pitch but mentally they are becoming strong.
“I go totally with my heart, mind and head. I’m a passionate person. To see me afterwards sometimes on TV, it’s not simple to see me in this way. I go totally into the club where I work and, in this way, I’m able to give everything and, also, to receive everything from my players, my club and the fans. If I’m the first person to give 200%, then for sure I can ask for this [in return].”