Shock therapy and a sprint finish: How Antonio Conte took Spurs back into the Champions League – The Athletic

Shock therapy and a sprint finish: How Antonio Conte took Spurs back into the Champions League  The Athletic

When Antonio Conte took over at Tottenham Hotspur in November, the club’s morale was on the floor.

Spurs’ previous game, a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United, had seen the fanbase erupt into outright mutiny. The doomed “glorified caretaker” Nuno Espirito Santo was one target, but so was chairman Daniel Levy, the board in general, and some of the players. There was anger at how far the team had fallen and at years of perceived mismanagement — Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking, the miserable Jose Mourinho era, the attempts to join the European Super League. It felt as though the soul had been ripped out of the club.

This was the environment Conte was walking into, and there have been periods when it looked like he wouldn’t even last the season.

But after weathering some pretty heavy storms, many partly of his own making, he has led Spurs back into the Champions League six months after taking the job. Conte has frequently said how absurd the idea of Spurs, ninth at the time of his appointment, finishing in the top four seemed back then. Last month he said it would be a “miracle” if they did it. As he explained on Friday, had Levy said he expected Champions League qualification when he appointed Conte, his response would have been: “Are you joking?”

Conte was drafted in following Nuno’s sacking after just 10 games (Photo: Getty)

But thanks to his ferocious commitment to extracting every last drop out of his players, Conte and Spurs have pulled off that miracle — confirming fourth spot on the final day with a thumping 5-0 win at Norwich.

It’s been a rocky road and, on the night of that infamous meltdown at Burnley in February, Conte said to the players in the dressing room that maybe it would be better for everyone if he left.

But Spurs have eventually got over the line, and this is how. From the shock therapy of the first two months, via that turbulent period when every week it felt like Conte was raging at himself or the club or both, to the sprint finish that reeled Arsenal in.

The players have evolved and improved, while Conte has also modified his approach. After the 0-0 draw at Brentford for instance, he did not berate the players but instead said nothing in the dressing room and waited until the next training session to impress upon them how they needed to react. Spurs then took 13 points from their final five games to secure fourth spot.


Phase one: Appointment and shock therapy

Going all the way back to Conte’s appointment, it was another occasion — like the sacking of Pochettino and hiring of Mourinho — when Levy acted quickly and decisively.

It was Levy who led the secret negotiations with Conte, not managing director of football Fabio Paratici, and he was absolutely determined to hire the man he had been unable to land a few months earlier. Spurs were actually only five points off the top four at this point, but performances had been even worse than the results and Levy knew that, after just 10 Premier League games, Nuno had to go.

The relatively small points gap to fourth also convinced Levy that Champions League qualification was still possible — especially with Manchester United so inconsistent and refusing to sack their own lame-duck manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Nuno had been far from Tottenham’s first-choice option when he began his ill-fated spell (Photo: Getty)

Conte himself was being told by some close to him that he should hold out for a better job than Tottenham, a Europa Conference League club in a state of disarray. But as Conte has put it recently, coaching and winning is “like a drug” to him and even after only a few months out of the game he was desperate to return. Spurs offered him the opportunity to show he was still an elite manager, and prove that he didn’t need a big budget to outwit the Premier League’s big beasts.

He had watched a lot of videos of Tottenham before starting the job, as well as some of their matches live on television — including the humiliating 3-1 defeat to Arsenal in September. He knew the big problem was the team’s defence, but he was confident that with his coaching he could solve it.

One view at the club was that appointing Conte removed the excuses from players who had fallen back on them for too long. By getting one of the best managers in the world, the players would have to start looking at themselves. They would have no one to blame if things didn’t work out.

In general, there was a feeling that the energy had left the club under Mourinho and Nuno and that standards had dropped. Conte came in and gave everyone a fresh start, keeping everyone on their toes, from staff to players. Both felt more challenged in Conte’s first week than they had done in months under Nuno.

As The Athletic reported at the time, in Conte’s first week he told staff there was a problem with food and nutrition. On his first day, he saw one first-team player eating nachos. He was very clear that there would be no more heavy foods like nachos and sandwiches. Ketchup, mayonnaise, oil and butter were all banned, with Conte feeling that a number of the squad were not in good enough shape.

He told the players this after his first match in charge, a 3-2 Europa Conference League win against Vitesse Arnhem, and explained that although he was proud of their efforts he would not tolerate having players who were in anything other than peak physical condition. He told the team they had to be stronger, suffer together and make sacrifices.

Being willing to “suffer” is one of Conte’s mantras, and there was lots of suffering in his first week. On his very first training session, one player’s physical output was so high that it was measured as being around 75 per cent of what he would normally have done in a match.

The day after beating Vitesse, Conte sat the squad down for a 75-minute video session to analyse the match in forensic detail. There was also lots of 11-vs-zero “shadow play” to ram home some of his messages about how the team needed to be set up. Conte always possesses a manic energy, and never more so than in these early weeks. The characterisation from those at Hotspur Way was of a man consumed by the sense that without a pre-season he had so much to do and so little time to do it.

The players were exhausted after his sessions, describing themselves as “dead”. One observer said they looked like they’d just run a marathon.

Conte immediately set about improving the Tottenham players’ fitness levels (Photo: Getty)

For Conte to get the kind of buy-in that Nuno, and to an extent Mourinho, never did it was essential the players saw the benefits from their considerable exertions. Thankfully the results were instantly obvious — in Conte’s second league match in charge, Spurs outran Marcelo Bielsa’s notoriously fit Leeds United team. After a few games, the team had gone from covering the least distance per game in the Premier League under Nuno to the most. It was a remarkable turnaround that also led to a big uptick in results — six wins, three draws and one defeat from Conte’s first 10 matches in charge in all competitions.

That sole defeat did foreshadow some of Conte’s stickier moments later on in the season, though, as it precipitated an extraordinary press conference after the 2-1 loss at NS Mura. “For sure, the level of Tottenham is not so high,” was one of many withering soundbites from the shellshocked-looking new head coach.

Spurs had been warned by some they spoke to at Chelsea that this sort of thing is all part of the Conte package (as one former colleague put it: if you thought Mourinho was bad…) but it was still eye-opening to see him talking so frankly.

Generally, though, the progress in those early weeks was clear. Conte arrived at Spurs with plenty of ideas about how he could improve the defence, and although Cristian Romero’s injury was a big blow, his three-at-the-back system instantly stabilised things. Eric Dier and Ben Davies in particular were revitalised — the latter full of praise for Conte’s methods in an interview with The Athletic in early December.

There were similarly eye-catching improvements up front. Conte had arrived in the midst of Spurs’ humiliating Premier League shot-on-target drought that lasted almost four hours, and quickly oversaw some big improvements. Lucas Moura was a big beneficiary, selected partly because he was in good physical condition and Conte didn’t think Kane and Son Heung-min were ready to press by themselves. It was felt that Spurs needed Lucas’s energy in the attacking third.

As well as pressing from the front more aggressively, Conte instantly set about introducing his famed attacking patterns to the team. In his first game against Vitesse, Moura scored a goal that former colleagues of Conte’s later told The Athletic was straight out of the Italian’s playbook (Moura dropping deep, then spinning in behind after exchanging passes with Kane).

And as early as the 2-0 win over Brentford at the start of December, staff were marvelling at how they were already playing Conte football and scoring Conte-type goals. Son’s goal on the counter that night was a perfect example.

In an attacking (and wider) sense, one of Conte’s biggest tasks was re-energising Kane following his heartbreak at Euro 2020 and failed move to Manchester City. Prior to Conte’s arrival, Kane had just one Premier League goal and one assist to his name.

It took a few weeks, but Conte soon had the England captain firing again. Even before the goals started to return, Kane was amazed at how quickly and the extent to which Conte had improved his fitness. This was the elite manager Kane craved, and he finished the season with 17 Premier League goals and nine assists. In fact, since Conte took over at Spurs, only Son (19) has scored more Premier League goals than Kane (16).

Kane had scored just once in the Premier League before Conte was appointed (Photo: Getty)

As well as restoring Kane to his best form, Conte had other issues to contend with — some of them unforeseen. The COVID-19 outbreak that ripped through Spurs in December was a major frustration to Conte, coming as it did after the team had just drawn one and then won three of his first four league matches. Every moment with the team was precious, and so having to close the training ground for a deep clean and then seeing more and more players excusing themselves made for a very difficult couple of weeks. It also led to Spurs having to forfeit their Europa Conference League match against Rennes and with it their place in the competition.

Conte was enraged by the injustice and the anger was genuine according to well-placed sources, even though many supporters were quite happy to be out of the competition. In the end, Conference League elimination proved to be a blessing in the top-four race as it meant much more time on the training pitch for Conte with his players.

When Spurs finally returned to action after a COVID-enforced fortnight break, they produced a brilliant performance in a pulsating 2-2 draw with Liverpool. It was an afternoon that fired the senses, and as a dressing-room source puts it: “It was the first time you thought, ‘Wow Conte’s really changed the club’s atmosphere and philosophy.’”

The draw meant that, as Christmas approached, Spurs were in a position where if they won their games in hand they would be fourth. The view at Spurs was that, with United still struggling, that Champions League place might be within their grasp after all.


Phase two: Honeymoon over

If that pre-Christmas period represented something of a honeymoon for Conte and Spurs, the subsequent couple of months was very much the “oh good God, what have I done?” period.

The unease on both sides started after the 1-1 draw at Southampton on December 28. Spurs had not played especially badly and were unlucky with some decisions, and yet Conte was absolutely furious. He laid bare his anger in the dressing room afterwards and said publicly that Spurs needed to make big improvements. Some staff were concerned at the reaction, which privately was even more hostile than after the Carabao Cup defeat to Chelsea eight days later (a meltdown that in public outdid the post-Mura tirade).

In the lead-up to the Chelsea game, there was a sense internally that Conte was even more intense and edgy than usual. He was obsessed with beating his old team and spoke constantly about how good Chelsea were and the threat they would carry. When his warnings about Thomas Tuchel’s side were not heeded in a limp 2-0 loss, he once again let rip at the quality of the team. He said five times that Spurs are “in the middle” and added that, “in this moment and the last years, the level of Tottenham has dropped a lot”. Every win “would be a struggle,” he added.

Conte made his feeling about Tottenham’s underachievement publicly clear on a number of occasions (Photo: Getty)

There was unease among some of the players that Conte seemed to be regretting taking the job. The head coach spent much of the rest of the month stressing how much the club needed to bring in January reinforcements, and speaking openly about how players like Tanguy Ndombele were surplus to requirements. His honesty was refreshing but some of the Spurs hierarchy were not thrilled with the head coach speaking critically of a player they were desperately trying to flog.

Midway through the month, we also got our first glimpse of a recurring theme: Conte refusing to commit his future to the club. “Honestly, I like to live in the present and not to think a lot of the future,” he said on January 14 when asked whether he could even say if he’d still be at the club by the end of the month. “Now it is important to live in the present, to improve the situation and get the best out of my players.”

Some of the fanbase were frustrated by this element of Conte’s management, but generally there was an acceptance from his employers that he was always going to shoot from the hip and try by any means possible to force them to back him.

Among the players, the buy-in continued, especially when a week later they pulled off a miraculous 3-2 win at Leicester City thanks to Steven Bergwijn goals in the 95th and 97th minutes. It was another occasion when the players, enthused by Conte’s energy and intensity, could see that all the work they were doing on fitness was paying off, and that if they showed the determination and refusal to give up that their manager urged, then they would reap the rewards.

A dramatic late win over Leicester was evidence that Conte’s strict methods were bearing fruit (Photo: Getty)

The focus for the final week of January was solely on whether Spurs, who at this stage still knew they could go fourth by winning their games in hand, would listen to Conte’s urges and make some signings. Eventually they did so, bringing in Rodrigo Bentancur (for £16 million plus £5 million in add-ons) and Dejan Kulusevski (initially on a loan with a fee of £8.4 million but with an option to buy for £24.9m), two young but experienced players from Juventus. Never before had Spurs shown this kind of ambition in January under Levy, and it was a sign that Conte had the board’s backing. Levy also granted Conte his wish of selling or loaning players who he either didn’t want or didn’t think were ready. Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso, Dele Alli and Bryan Gil were all moved on.

Not that Conte appeared completely satisfied with Spurs’ January transfer business. In an interview with Sky Italia in mid-February, he said: “What happened in January is not easy. Four players left in January. Four important players for Tottenham, two have arrived. So even numerically instead of strengthening yourself, you may have, on paper, weakened.”

Conte told reporters that his comments had been misconstrued, but also revealed that Spurs had banned him from giving further interviews to Italian broadcasters. A few sources joked that the club would soon ban him from doing press conferences.

Certainly, the head coach’s outbursts were becoming more and more commonplace. The previous week Conte had questioned his players after a 2-0 home loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers (their second home defeat in the space of a few days) and suggested that a battle for Champions League qualification was beneath him: “For me it’s very difficult to talk about fourth place, because I am used to playing for other targets.” A number of the players were short on confidence after Conte’s frequent complaints that their efforts were insufficient, and their lack of belief was evident on the pitch. “We are working hard with the players and there is great commitment,” Conte said after the Wolves defeat. “But it is not enough. It is not enough.”

One plus among the negativity was that Spurs’ January signings had settled very quickly, even if both found it physically difficult at first. But the benefit of Conte’s coaching is that they could learn what he was asking them to do pretty swiftly. He makes things simple for players. Both Bentancur and Kulusevski feel that they have been able to fast-track their adjustment because of Conte’s coaching. They thought they would need three months to adjust but it was only a matter of weeks, and their arrivals proved to be a critical moment in the top-four race. Especially since Arsenal signed no one in January and ultimately paid for having too small a squad. Bentancur and Kulusevski combining for the latter’s first goal against Norwich on Sunday felt fitting.

Only a couple of weeks after making their debuts, both were excellent in the superb 3-2 win at Manchester City. It was another statement win that made believers of the players and everyone at the club. Once again they had gone toe-to-toe with one of the Premier League’s Big Two, and once again they had outlasted their opponents to score a late winner. From January 1 to the City win seven weeks later, Spurs picked up eight points with stoppage-time goals — a crucial difference-maker in the race for the top four, and a testament to the players’ improved fitness levels.

By the time of his next press conference, Conte’s morale appeared to be much improved. He smiled and laughed throughout, and said proudly that Tottenham’s was “the best squad he has worked with”. It felt a long way from the negativity of the previous few weeks.

But it quickly all came crashing down again. Four days after the City win, Spurs lost 1-0 at Burnley, prompting Conte’s most furious reaction yet and questions over whether he, or anyone at the club, could cope with such violent swings in mood. “I have to talk to the club,” Conte said. “I am too honest to close my eyes and continue in this way, and also take my salary. But it’s not right in this moment.

“No one deserves this type of situation – the club, me, the players and fans. I came in to try to improve the situation but maybe, in this moment, I don’t know, I’m not so good to improve the situation.”

A defeat at Burnley provoked the most alarming response from Conte of all (Photo: Getty)

Conte repeated the message to the players in the dressing room, suggesting that maybe he wasn’t the right man for the job. The mood on the flight home among Conte and the directors was extremely tense.

The consensus was that Conte would be gone by the summer. Those close to him said that, even by his own volatile standards, this was an extraordinary response. It was hard to believe he didn’t regret taking the job or wasn’t seriously considering his future. Conte claimed his response wasn’t an emotional one but instead a calculated attempt to get a reaction from his players and employers. This is viewed with a lot of scepticism by well-placed sources.

What’s undeniable, though, is that Conte’s Turf Moor monologue did have the desired response. The players are said to have been fearful afterwards that maybe they were going to waste this exceptional opportunity to work with such a proven manager. And that while the constant uncertainty and volatility wasn’t easy, they had to do their best for a manager they were enjoying working under and knew was willing to make sacrifices for them.

Levy, meanwhile, was desperate for this appointment to be a success, especially after such a bruising few years, and Paratici also sided with the head coach. He blamed the losses to teams like Mura and Burnley on the lack of commitment and mentality among the players and club more generally, rather than failings of the chairman or Conte.

The fact that Levy and Paratici were on the side of the head coach facilitated the constructive talks they had with Conte in the aftermath of the Burnley defeat. There was a sense that, in the short term at least, all three agreed that Conte’s shock therapy was the only way forward. Levy also promised the head coach that he would back him in the summer, and it’s been said that Conte has spoken to the chairman more frankly than any of his predecessors.

Following the Burnley defeat that left them eighth, with a negative goal difference and with Champions League qualification out of their hands, Spurs’ fortunes improved markedly. From then until the end of the season, only Liverpool and Manchester City picked up more points per game than Tottenham’s 2.3 (32 points from 14 games).


Phase three: One game a week and sprint finish

The game immediately after Burnley is viewed as an important one by those in the dressing room. The mood outside the club was fearful, but Spurs battered Leeds United 4-0 and the players showed they were still committed to their manager. A satisfied Conte said afterwards that Spurs’ first goal, which saw one wing-back in Ryan Sessegnon set up the other Matt Doherty to score, showed that “my system is starting to work”.

A few days later Spurs exited the FA Cup to Middlesbrough, which, although a disappointment, meant Spurs only had the Premier League to focus on. This, coupled with the backlog of their postponed matches being cleared, meant Conte was largely entering into a period of only one game a week. This was an important moment in the season, and it was telling that he didn’t hammer the players after the 1-0 loss at the Riverside Stadium. They were surprised, and a little relieved. Conte, it seemed, was slightly modifying his approach.

The benefits of a full week’s break could be seen in the 5-0 win over Everton, six days after the Middlesbrough defeat. There was a positive feeling at Hotspur Way throughout the week leading up to the game, and a real sense that proper time on the training pitch would make a massive difference during the rest of the season. Conte himself referenced this unprompted after the Everton win that made Spurs’ record in games following five or more days’ rest rest 2.7 points per game, compared to 1.4 after a tight turnaround.

Spurs followed up the disappointment of their FA Cup exit with a 5-0 win over Everton (Photo: Getty)

A week to prepare for a game has been especially important for Conte, who feels that without a pre-season, his notoriously physically demanding and information-heavy training sessions are even more important to get across how he wants Tottenham to play.

In practical terms, a week to prepare means more rest, shorter, more manageable video analysis sessions, and more days to hammer home patterns of play and shape work. Spurs have been fitter, more coherent with their attacking patterns, and better organised defensively in the weeks since the Burnley game, and much of this is down to having more quality time on the training pitch, and eating into the deficit that missing pre-season with Conte created.

The improved defensive output has been especially stark, with Spurs conceding just five goals in their last 11 matches. As The Athletic explained earlier this month, much of this is down to the hard work the squad has put in at Hotspur Way. From the painstaking research by Spurs’ analysts, to the daily defensive shape drills led by Conte and his assistant Cristian Stellini and the regular video sessions discussing defensive patterns that involve the whole group, not just the back five.

The Leeds and Everton wins made the Spurs players believe that a top-four spot was still possible and, as if he was launching a manifesto, Conte said after the 5-0 win over Frank Lampard’s side that this was his ambition. He had generally been reticent to talk about the top four before then, but now said: “You ask me in every press conference about the top-four race. I said to my players that it’s right to take responsibility about this because, from when I arrived to now, we are stronger.

“It’s important to have this ambition and it’s not right to hide our ambition.”

Kane echoed his manager, saying the same evening when asked if Spurs were in the top-four hunt that: “I don’t think we can hide away from the fact.”

Suddenly Champions League qualification seemed possible, and although Spurs lost their next match 3-2 to Manchester United, they have been very consistent since. The United defeat proved to be end of the maddening run of win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, and after that Spurs won eight and drew two of their final 11 matches. “Something had changed in everybody,” Conte said on Friday looking back at this period.

The January signings, the increased time on the training pitch, the superb form of Kane and Son have all been important factors, but there have been others as well. One has been Conte slightly modifying his approach. After the dismal 0-0 draw at Brentford last month that followed the similarly awful 1-0 home defeat to Brighton (Spurs didn’t manage a shot on target in either game), Conte was much more measured than previously. He didn’t lay into the players afterwards, but instead said nothing in the dressing room, allowing them to gather their thoughts and trusting that, by the time they returned to training two days later, they would be ready to respond in the appropriate way.

In general, the head coach and his players becoming more aligned in the way they respond to defeats has been an important step in their collective development. Earlier on in the season, Conte spoke about how much he wants, even needs, defeats to hurt his players in the way that they do him. He wants them to feel the same devastation and rage he has. Gradually this has started to happen, and Conte too has understood that part of the issue is the old adage in English football that you shouldn’t get too high after wins or too low after defeats. Conte doesn’t agree with this, and in April said that: “I’m starting to feel that the players start to hate to lose. This is very important. The process is complete when after a defeat you go to your house and you are angry.”

The response to the Brentford and Brighton disappointments reflected that Spurs’ players had toughened up mentally, especially as Conte suggested that they might have been feeling the pressure of suddenly being in the box seat for the top four after Arsenal had lost three straight matches. There was a real sense of anger and wanting to put things right after the Brentford game which, coupled with Arsenal beating Manchester United, had seen Spurs drop back into fifth.

The 3-0 win over Arsenal at home put Spurs in the driving seat for the fourth Champions League place (Photo: Getty)

Spurs have ultimately done just that, winning four and drawing one of their final five games to leapfrog Arsenal. During the run-in Conte has stressed to them the importance of small details, and in a broader sense has urged the club to become better at leaving nothing to chance. “A top club has to pay attention to the fixtures,” he said earlier this month about the short gap between the north London derby and the match against Burnley. This kind of jibe is a reminder that even with the improved results of the last few months it’s hardly been constantly harmonious, and Conte has still repeatedly refused to commit his future to the club (the latest example coming on Friday), but most have become used to it and accepted that this abrasiveness is just the manager’s way. And if Spurs could just get top four, then they would worry about his future at the end of the season. The focus of everyone concerned with Spurs will inevitably be on this topic in the coming days.

There are other factors that are seen as crucial to Tottenham’s turnaround under Conte. One is the way in which he has managed to keep the whole of the squad engaged. This is no mean feat given it’s very obvious what his first eleven is. But whereas the fringe players felt unwanted under Nuno, Conte has managed to foster a sense that everyone is in it together. He has done this partly through the daily meetings and video sessions that involve the whole squad and keep them invested and aware of precisely how Conte wants the team to play. Team meetings were very rare under Nuno, and Conte has been rewarded by some excellent performances in the run-in from fringe players like Davinson Sanchez and Emerson Royal.

Conte’s hands-on approach to every aspect of the club, from diet to patterns of play, has also given the squad a sense of clarity about what the manager wants from them. Everyone knows precisely what he’s asking, which is a huge departure from the muddled messaging that characterised the brief Nuno period.

Another big change from the Nuno era is how different the club’s backroom staff are, with many insiders stressing that Conte’s staff deserve a lot of credit for how this season has played out. They are said to have made a huge difference around the place and been a breath of fresh air. Conte’s brother Gianluca is just as intense and driven as Antonio, and he too is popular with the players. In general, the squad have a huge amount of respect for them because of what they’ve achieved in the game but also because of their decency and approachability. Nuno had a much smaller staff, who largely kept themselves to themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that approach necessarily, but the whole atmosphere at the club has been transformed under Conte, with players feeling like they and the coaches are completely united. Under Mourinho there was a feeling of “us vs them” among some of the players, and a concern that some of his staff weren’t at the required level.

This is simply no longer the case, vindicating the hope that Conte’s appointment would remove any excuses for the players. After finishing the season in style at Norwich, Conte said: “Despite not lifting a trophy, for me it is a big achievement. In a short period in a difficult situation I worked a lot with my players to bring this club to play Champions League. I want to consider this qualification (as being) like a trophy. In my mind, my heart, my head, I know what we did in these seven months.”

Perhaps “no excuses” will be this season’s epitaph: in a season that started after a humiliating two-month search for a manager, that then took in his sacking and the constant uncertainty surrounding his successor, Spurs were still able to get the job done.

Additional reporting: Jack Pitt-Brooke

(Lead graphic: Sam Richardson)