Tottenham’s marriage of convenience with manager Antonio Conte is over. The story of his 16 months as head coach is one of perpetual internal tension, an awkward alliance founded on a mutual desire to win silverware urgently yet never in agreement about how to actually achieve it.
Spurs thought they knew what they were getting themselves into. Conte does not stick around long — the 53-year-old has never stayed for more than three years in any managerial post — but he is a serial, bona fide winner with five league titles in Italy and England. It almost always ends in acrimony. That was true at Inter Milan, Chelsea and Juventus, his past three club jobs, where his relationship with senior executives frayed to the point of collapse. With Conte the trajectory is clear: trophies then turmoil. Except at Spurs, where he skipped the first bit.
Inevitably, each side blames the other. Conte felt Spurs failed to go far enough in their transfer spending to overhaul the squad; Spurs believed they made a series of concessions and should have got more for the money they did commit to his cause.
– Stream on ESPN+: FA Cup, LaLiga, more (U.S.)
Sources have told ESPN that Conte was expressing privately for some time what he ended up saying publicly after his final match in charge, at Southampton, where the players reinforced his most disparaging assessments by allowing a 3-1 lead to slip in the last 15 minutes to draw 3-3 against a team bottom of the Premier League.
“Tottenham’s story is this — 20 years there is this owner and they never won something — why?” It is a question he has asked internally. Conte branded the players “selfish” and suggested the owners are willing to accept mediocrity and hide their own shortcomings behind a succession of managers (seven permanent appointments since Juande Ramos won the League Cup in 2008.) He grew tired of not being listened to. Spurs had had enough of the broken record.
There were many supporters willing to chant Conte’s name until recently, those who believe the failure to take that final step and lift a first trophy since the 2008 League Cup is symptomatic of an ownership prioritising finance over football. Yet the club have been so difficult to watch for the vast majority of the season, prioritising functionality over flair in a manner fundamentally at odds with the club’s “To Dare Is To Do”‘ mantra, that fans gradually shifted their focus to Conte. Their ire was most obvious in an insipid Champions League round-of-16 exit to AC Milan, which epitomised the worst of Spurs under the Italian: sterile, stagnant and soulless.
As Conte’s anger grew louder, something had to give. Sunday night’s confirmation that he had finally left the club was inevitable. It couldn’t go on like this.
Tottenham wanted an elite-level manager capable of delivering what the club believed was the small level of improvement required to finally start winning major honours. The talent was pretty much there, they felt, but the winning mentality was not.
It was the same thought process that led Spurs to replace Mauricio Pochettino with Jose Mourinho in November 2019, five months after reaching the Champions League final. Mourinho’s appointment did not work out, but the desire to find another candidate with a proven track record of success and, preferably, knowledge of the Premier League, led them to Conte in the summer of 2021.
The Italian initially turned Tottenham down. Conte was reported to be more critical in his assessment of the squad, believing significant investment and a sizeable turnover within the playing squad was required. Spurs would not give him those assurances and as Conte harboured doubts about taking on a club that had not won a league title since 1961, no agreement was reached. Tottenham instead embarked upon what quickly became a protracted and farcical managerial search which took in multiple candidates including Hansi Flick, Pochettino, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso, before arriving at Nuno Espirito Santo.
Nuno lasted four months and 17 games before being sacked in November. The team had drifted in that time, falling to eighth in the Premier League and the concern over such a drop in performances led Spurs to return to Conte with a reduced gap between their assessment of the squad and his. It is unclear how firm any commitments were but Spurs indicated to Conte they would give him an influential voice in transfer policy and squad building, accompanied by a lavish salary, reported to be as much as £15 million-a-year including bonuses.
The one thing missing from Tottenham for all their progress under Pochettino was silverware. The Argentine took Spurs to a League Cup final during his first full season in 2015, the Champions League final in 2019 and in between, transformed a side aspiring to join the elite into established top-four regulars. All this was supplemented off the field by the development of a state-of-the-art training ground and a new £1bn stadium rightly regarded as one of the best in the world, yet the trophy cabinet continued to gather dust.
Conte’s appointment was confirmed a day after Nuno was sacked. Team sources told ESPN that he was alarmed at the level of conditioning he witnessed upon arrival. A notoriously gruelling trainer, the Italian implemented an extremely disciplined regime, featuring multiple double sessions each week in which the players would be pushed far harder than they were used to under Nuno. Sources said the squad reacted positively to this increased focus, believing that standards had been allowed to slip, and accepted regularly exhaustive physical sessions and relentless team shape work as he drilled the players in his preferred — and so often unchanged — 3-4-3 system.
The improvement did not come immediately. After losing 1-0 at Burnley on Feb. 23 last year, Conte was so despondent that he stated “if the problem is the coach, I am ready to go.” It was a test of Tottenham’s willingness to rally behind him. It was also the first major flash of volatility that hinted at the tension to come. Yet challenging the squad in this way worked on this occasion.
Bolstered further by two shrewd January signings from Juventus, in forward Dejan Kulusevski (on an 18-month loan with a €35m option to sign permanently) and midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur (€19m), Spurs won 10 of their final 14 Premier League games to beat Arsenal for fourth place and a Champions League spot on the final day of the season.
Training remained relentless and, despite the knowledge that many players would see an unprecedented physical demand due to the mid-season World Cup in Qatar, preseason for the 2022-23 campaign took things to another level. Pictures emerged of Harry Kane, one of the squad’s fittest members, being sick by the side of the pitch as they endured exhausting running drills — reports stated it was a two-hour session, their third in the space of 24 hours, with some players running lengths of the pitch 42 times at a fast pace in 30 degrees Celsius heat and high humidity in South Korea. Son Heung-Min collapsed and several others struggled.
Team sources said players remained largely supportive of Conte over the summer but gradually, training sessions became a particular source of complaint. Conte had a habit of revising training programmes at short notice or not releasing the next schedule until the last moment. Multiple sources suggested that staff were kept in the dark over how sessions would be timed for the upcoming week or weeks until late on a Sunday evening. Sources close to various players pointed out the complications that would have in organising their personal time, especially those with families. Players were sometimes unable to plan external commercial work or simply spending time with their children much in advance because they were unsure precisely which days off they would be given.
Spurs were one of the few clubs to organise a warm-weather training camp during the 2022 World Cup and sources say Conte made the decision to go so long after other clubs that all the suitable top facilities in the Middle East region were taken.
Conte also often demanded the squad train on the morning of games and the sheer physical demands outside of matches became a bone of contention within the group. The pattern of Tottenham’s matches was so often familiar: start slowly, perhaps fall behind, then rally in the second half.
Critics of the training strategy suggested their lacklustre first-halves were a consequence of starting the match with the earlier training session still in their legs. Spurs had regularly conceded goals (they fell behind in 46% of their 28 league matches this season, a much higher rate than Arsenal (29%), Manchester City (19%), Manchester United (35%) and Newcastle (27%)), but Conte’s staff defended their approach by pointing out the number of late goals they scored. Furthermore, Spurs covered the most distance of any Premier League team in the calendar year of 2022: 4,160km. That in itself was a radical transformation from Nuno’s tenure and evidence, Conte’s staff argued, they were competing on the most fundamental level.
However, there is a view within the squad that several players have underperformed this season due to fatigue and that training should have been modified in recognition of the unprecedented demands of a mid-season World Cup. Son has looked a shadow of the player who won the Golden Boot (joint-top with Mohamed Salah on 23 goals last season.) Sources close to multiple players believe Conte’s training regime is a significant factor in his decline, many citing the repetitive nature eventually alienating a group once willing to exhaust themselves if the end product was worth it.
Conte blasts Spurs in sensational postmatch conference
Antonio Conte lets loose on Tottenham in a furious postmatch news conference following the 3-3 draw with Southampton.
Conte was skeptical of many players he inherited and tried to raise standards in different ways. The signing of Ivan Perisic, 33, on a free transfer from Inter Milan was an atypical Tottenham acquisition, given he had very little future transfer value and is coming towards the end of a fine career, but it was not just his on-field experience Conte wanted around Hotspur Way. Sources suggest Perisic is one the hardest workers in the gym and conducts himself with a level of professionalism in both his conditioning and his conduct which Conte hoped would serve as an example to others.
During one meeting with a fringe member of the squad and his representative to discuss his lack of game-time, both were shown video footage of the dugouts during a home match. In the video, Conte called for a substitution. The player took 96 seconds to adjust their boots and shin pads, strip down and prove ready to be introduced. They were then shown an example where Perisic was ready in just seven seconds. This was used as evidence that the player was not yet at Conte’s required level.
Conte did, however, inherit some good practices. Team sources say Kane is consistently regarded as an exemplary performer in training, while midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is particularly diligent with his diet in the training ground canteen — an example Conte urged other players to follow having initially believed too many players indulged themselves with unhealthy meal choices.
Yet others hinted at a lack of communication from Conte when not being selected, something Richarlison went public with on March 9 following Tottenham’s Champions League exit. “It was going well, in a good sequence, two wins against West Ham and Chelsea,” the Brazil striker told ESPN Brazil. “Suddenly, he [assistant Cristian Stellini] put me on the bench, against Wolverhampton he put me on for five minutes. I asked why, they didn’t tell me anything.”
By this point, Conte’s aura had evaporated in the dressing room and there was a similar feeling in the boardroom.
Conte effectively tried to leverage pressure on chairman Daniel Levy and the club’s owners by casting doubt over his future at the end of last season, even after securing fourth place on the final day of last season. Sat in the news conference room at Norwich City’s Carrow Road stadium, Conte pointedly refused to commit himself to Spurs, despite having a year remaining on his contract.
A few days later, following negotiations involving Conte, Levy and managing director Fabio Paratici, ENIC (the majority owners of Tottenham) announced a £150m cash injection to make fresh transfer funds available. By this point, Paratici — a close ally of Conte’s from their days at Juventus — had assumed greater control of recruitment following the departure of technical performance director Steve Hitchen, who had been marginalised after Paratici’s appointment in June 2021.
The club had a net spend of more than £140m on nine signings — paying fees for Richarlison (£60m from Everton), Cristian Romero (£42m, Atalanta), Yves Bissouma (£35m, Brighton, Djed Spence (£19m, Middlesbrough), Destiny Udogie (£15m, Udinese) and Will Lankshear (£2m, Sheffield United) — but there were disagreements over specific targets. The juxtaposition of Conte’s desire to spend big on finished products versus Levy’s longstanding methodology of opting for cheaper and younger talent led to inevitable disagreements over transfer strategy.
The story of Tottenham’s right wing-back position since last summer is illustrative of competing voices within their recruitment planning. Conte quickly established and repeated the pointed comment that Spence was a “club signing” after his arrival from Middlesbrough. Despite spending a considerable sum to sign Spence, who had excelled on loan at Nottingham Forest in their Championship promotion-winning season, Conte handed him a total of 45 minutes across six substitute appearances before the 21-year-old was shipped out on loan to Rennes for the second half of the season.
Another right-back, Emerson Royal, was made available for transfer last summer and appeared certain to depart — possibly for Atletico Madrid — only for the Brazilian to stay in north London, despite the arrival of Spence. Conte appreciated the hard work of another right-back, Matt Doherty, in rebuilding his fitness following a knee injury and his receptiveness to instruction, but he still pushed the club internally to sign another right wing-back in the January window.
In a head-spinning turn of events, by Feb. 1, Spurs signed Pedro Porro on loan from Sporting CP (with an obligation to make the deal permanent for €45m in the summer), Spence was loaned out and Doherty had his contract ripped up entirely to get him off the books so he could join Atletico.
Given the financial constraints Tottenham operate under compared to their richer rivals, such confused thinking is particularly costly. But it also reinforced Conte’s belief he wasn’t given the level of control he anticipated when taking the job. Too many signings felt like the product of a prolonged battle.
Sources have suggested Barcelona loanee Clement Lenglet was not Conte’s first-choice centre-back option in summer 2022, but an alternative that would not unduly stretch the club’s transfer budget. Similarly, Conte had wanted to sign Adama Traore from Wolves the previous January, but Spurs were unconvinced internally and the winger subsequently joined Barcelona on loan. Conte’s constant desire to move on unwanted players — at a cut-price if necessary to foster the right environment to succeed — while demanding spending far beyond Tottenham’s traditional levels created constant friction.
Conte tried a similar tactic this season but lost leverage in the argument as Spurs clung on to a top-four place into late March almost in spite of themselves. The turgid football became a tough watch week after week while exiting the three cup competitions prematurely, particularly in losing at Championship high-fliers Sheffield United in the FA Cup fifth round with a wretched display, pierced the idea Conte would deliver silverware before the storm clouds arrived. In essence, that defeat accelerated the changing perception of many that Conte was part of the problem and not the solution.
There was genuine sympathy at the personal issues he has faced. Fitness coach and long-time friend Gian Petro Ventrone died suddenly in October, before Conte lost two former teammates Sinisa Mihajlovic and Gianluca Villa. Last month, Conte had emergency gallbladder surgery in Italy and took longer to recover than initially expected. But the atmosphere continued to turn sour.
The irony of Sunday’s club statement suggesting Conte left by mutual consent will not be lost on many Spurs supporters. Parting ways was the only big decision they could properly agree on for months. But the most damning thing for both sides is that each leaves the union with a worse reputation than when it began. Both Conte and Tottenham are responsible for that.