For an insight into the mindset of Antonio Conte, the survival mode that he has adopted during this most traumatic of seasons, look no further than when he was given his gallbladder surgery diagnosis at the end of January.
The Tottenham manager was in excruciating pain and, until he was told what was causing it, his mind ran with dark possibilities. Conte, remember, had recently lost three close friends – Gian Piero Ventrone and Sinisa Mihajlovic to leukaemia; Gianluca Vialli to pancreatic cancer.
“Previously, it happened a lot of sad news … [so] when they said to me that I had only surgery for this reason, I was happy,” Conte said, breaking into laughter. “Because you never know when you are not in a good condition what will happen.”
It could have been worse. It was an emergency operation but this particular one tends to be OK. “I discovered after my surgery that many, many of my friends had the same surgery,” Conte said. “For me, the difference was that I had an emergency surgery, it was not programmed [planned]. For this reason, I needed more time, maybe, to recover well.”
Conte knows this now. But he did not when, having missed the win against Manchester City, he dragged himself back to the dugout for Spurs’ defeat at Leicester and the one at Milan in the Champions League last-16 first leg. He is only now preparing for his second return in the second leg against the Italian champions on Wednesday – Spurs are 1-0 down – having sat out victories against West Ham and Chelsea and defeats at Sheffield United in the FA Cup, and Wolves.
Conte wanted to be back against Wolves on Saturday only for his doctor to order him to take a few more days at home in Turin. In other words, he was still too weak. Conte added that the medics – in Italy and at Spurs – had been “really worried” about him after the first leg against Milan and what was also striking was his admission that he still had to “recover weight”. Otherwise he insisted that he was well and had “a lot of energy”.
It could be worse. It could have been worse. And the sentiment appears to chime with something broader at Spurs. The team are fourth in the Premier League and have a decent shot at the Champions League quarter-finals, which they surely would have signed for at the start of the season. So why has the glass come to feel resolutely half-empty?
There are some obvious answers – the style of play has not been great and form has been serially erratic. There is also the Arsenal factor. Spurs were ahead of their neighbours at the end of last season and so how have they been able to progress so spectacularly?
When Spurs fans look at Arsenal, they ask themselves why it has not been them. Conte’s team have done quite well but that does not cut it when Arsenal are closing in on the title. Edginess prevails. Spurs victories have been greeted with relief while any defeat has seen the glass knocked over, shards splintering everywhere.
Then there is the uncertainty over Conte, the managing director, Fabio Paratici, and Harry Kane. Conte has refused to commit beyond the end of the season, his “I’ll let you know then” line not inspiring confidence or stability. He is plainly not desperate to stay and nor are the supporters begging him to do so. It is easy to feel that the relationship is fizzling out, Conte’s impatience to fight for the biggest prizes jarring with the need to show it.
Paratici is banned from working in Italy after his former club Juventus were found guilty of false accounting and the Italian Football Federation intends to ask Fifa to apply the 30-month sentence worldwide. Which, unless Paratici wins an appeal, would end his Spurs career. Juventus have denied wrongdoing. Spurs have said nothing – they have offered zero public support to Paratici – which raises a related question: does he have a say in a potential Conte successor?
Silence is a theme. The fans believe that the board does not communicate with them, fuelling a disconnect. There is also one between Conte and the academy. Kane, meanwhile – out of contract in June 2024 – has offered nothing about his intentions for next season. The drums have started to beat from Manchester United with Gary Neville – a favoured instrument of the Kane camp – holding the sticks.
At the pre-Milan media conference, Son Heung-min was asked how good it was to have Conte back. Amazingly good, was the response. “I think this game, if we turn it around … it could be a changing of the season and give us a little bit more confidence,” the forward said.
Then it was Conte’s turn but he was in no mood for grand rallying cries, rather a series of measured reminders. Milan were the defending Serie A champions, he cautioned; a “really good team”, albeit one fifth in the table. Spurs were playing in the Europa Conference League last season, he added, apropos of nothing. Conte talked about the need for his players to better handle the pressure, to thrive off it – a common plea – and, also, to learn from defeats such as the one against Sheffield United.
After three weeks away, the big man is back. The bang needs to come.