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ANTONIO Conte appears to find pleasure in the pain of others. There’s an element of gleeful masochism, like a lonely boy pulling the legs off spiders, or a middle-aged manager pinging the hamstrings of traumatised Tottenham Hotspur footballers.
And we love to see it.
Of course, we say otherwise because we must. With a collective, rueful shake of the head, we look aghast at the sight of Son Heung-min collapsing on the pitch in a pre-season training session in Seoul. Our thoughts are with Harry Kane after he throws up behind the goal, his body finally rejecting the endless running drills.
But really, it’s a bit of a laugh. It’s kismet. It’s overpaid, preening professionals getting their just deserts, a small price to pay for their obscene salaries, a little vomit for a lot of cash seems more than fair.
And it’s hard not to warm to Conte, with his brooding good looks and glowering stare, a kind of Italian Tom Cruise with miraculous hair, a top gun masochist among effete English Premier League aristocrats. He’s just what the new season needs.
And the fact that elite management’s Ming the Merciless has stopped off at Spurs makes him all the more welcome, a deliciously ironic working relationship lost on no one because … altogether now … Lads, it’s Tottenham.
Remember Tottenham? The pristine Lilywhites of North London, capable of producing frilly dandies like Hoddle and Waddle, which sounded like a pop act – so they became one, naturally – but never seriously threatening to win anything important.
Spurs were the Tom Hanks of the EPL. They were popular, but inoffensive; entertaining, but rarely physical. And even Hanks has a couple of Oscars on the mantelpiece. As Paul Merson is often quick to point out, what have Tottenham ever won?
Well, under Mauricio Pochettino, they won hearts and minds, a patronising accolade that might quell the voices that Kane is destined to hear after retirement, in the small hours, when he recalls all the trophies that got away.
Of course, Conte cares about hearts and minds in the way that Hannibal Lecter cares about hearts and minds. He doesn’t. He’s in the profession of winning, here and now, scarcely hiding his contempt for archaic notions of playing traditions and club styles.
And he could be onto something, again, even at Spurs.
Kane’s efforts to produce a full-throated Jackson Pollock on a South Korean football pitch felt strangely symbolic, cathartic even. This is Conte’s Tottenham going through an internal cleansing, a kind of psychological irrigation, clearing out all the old crap and starting again.
Conte wants to leave nothing behind except guts and glory, lean muscle and gritted teeth. He carried no one to league titles at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan. He isn’t about to start now.
And Tottenham need him, whatever whimsical fantasies some may still harbour about Conte’s suitability to certain clubs. Erik ten Hag may eventually be a success at Manchester United, but Gary Neville’s previous assertion that Conte isn’t a coach that befits the status or traditions of the Red Devils sounded a tad idealistic.
Conte represents a quick-fix in an impatient workplace that offers time, space and unlimited goodwill to no other manager outside of Manchester City and Liverpool. The Italian is a proven, reliable Band-Aid in a hysterical league where the first cut is always the deepest.
Indeed, his quick turnarounds are so efficient and expected that they are generally undervalued. Tottenham were in eighth position and spiralling when Conte took over. They finished fourth, returning to the Champions League for the first time in two years, after collecting 17 wins and five draws from 28 games.
His coaching template is no secret either. Utilise the wing-backs and press hard and high. Ryan Sessegnon and relative newcomer Dejan Kulusevski benefited from the emphasis on width and pace last season. Lucas Moura may be utilised as an extra right wing-back in the coming season and Ivan Perisic has been signed to offer cover and experience.
But the risk-averse Conte recognised the problem of losing possession high up the field and signed Yves Bissouma to provide midfield cover and restart faltering attacks. At Brighton and Hove Albion, Bissouma’s average of 4.8 tackles and interceptions per game was the fourth best in the EPL last season.
For the first time since Mousa Dembele left in 2019, Spurs have a dependable ball carrier. In attack, Richarlison adds a street toughness that Conte typically looks for in forwards.
Everything else is speed and fitness.
Overseeing the pre-season training sessions in South Korea, Conte played the pantomime villain, absorbing the stunned silence around the Seoul stadium as local hero Son collapsed on the turf.
The videos have since gone viral. After the rondos and short-sided games for the cameras, there were the running drills for Conte. According to reports, the Spurs players ran 42 lengths of the pitch before the grimacing, collapsing and vomiting started.
After South Korea’s beloved Son went down, Conte was only one step away from drowning puppies, at serious risk of losing his audience with a needless act of public cruelty.
Conte didn’t care.
Instead, The Marine drilled them harder. Spurs’ fitness coach and Conte’s tormentor-in-chief, Gian Piero Ventrone, enjoys being called The Marine. He enjoys having a “bell of shame”, too, which players must ring if they quit one of his drills.
None did. Son and Kane recognise the value of Conte’s short-termism. His relentless approach usually implodes, after a season or two, as weary, aching limbs finally rebel and break down.
But Son and Kane only have a season or two, realistically, to do justice to their incomparable double act. Son just celebrated his 30th birthday. Kane turns 29 at the end of the month.
Conte’s impatience is their virtue.
Son and Kane only have a season or two, realistically, to do justice to their incomparable double act. Son just celebrated his 30th birthday. Kane turns 29 at the end of the month. Conte’s impatience is their virtue.
Their bodies will be pushed beyond previous limits, surrounded by willing team-mates doing likewise in a bid to end trophy droughts and tired stereotypes about lackadaisical Lilywhites floating through games, instead of dominating them.
Third place and a lengthy run in the Champions League are realistic ambitions for Tottenham, as long as their form and fitness stand up to their manager’s punishing demands.
In Conte’s team, players are only sick when they’re winning.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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