Antonio Conte believes he can end a 13-year trophy drought at Tottenham. He has not said so publicly just yet, but this is a man who has described the pursuit of victory as “an obsession, a drug”.
When Conte joined Internazionale in 2019, he told the Italian edition of GQ magazine: “I can accept having only a small chance of winning at the start, even just 1%, but there has to be at least that much.”
The Nerazzurri were nine years removed from their last Serie A title. Conte needed only two to put them back on top. In his first season at San Siro, Inter improved by 13 points and reached the Europa League final. A year later, they were champions of Italy, sealing their title with four games to spare.
Even that was slow going by the manager’s standards. At his two previous clubs, Conte won at the first attempt. Juventus finished seventh in consecutive seasons before he arrived in 2011 and led them to the Scudetto without defeat. Chelsea were the Premier League’s 10th-best team under José Mourinho and Guus Hiddink in 2015-16, then champions with Conte in 2016-17.
This is the Italian’s brand: a man who just wins, wherever he goes. A “guarantee”, as he has often been defined by pundits in his home country, even though such terms make him bristle. As the one lifting the trophies, Conte is always quick to remind any interviewer that no victory is inevitable, and every result hard-earned.
Winning at Inter was, in his perception, most difficult of all. The club’s identity seemed to exist in direct opposition to his own, and not only because he had spent so much of his career working for Juventus, a great rival. One of Conte’s first acts was to ban the playing of Pazza Inter before kick-off, a beloved anthem which calls on fans to embrace the “craziness” and unpredictability of their team.
That trait was always overstated. Inter had won 18 league titles before Conte arrived – a figure only Juventus could better. They had underachieved heavily in the decade since winning the treble under Mourinho, however, routinely finishing outside the top four despite one of the highest wage bills in Serie A.
Throughout his tenure, Conte repeated that his first objective was to make Inter “credible” again. Perhaps that would be an appropriate starting point at Tottenham. In the past two years the club has gone backwards, from a Champions League final to the Europa Conference League, via an Amazon Prime documentary series and a 3-0 humiliation in Zagreb.
Those unfamiliar with Conte’s mindset might ask why he would consider taking on the team in their present state. A man who has won league titles in five out of his past seven seasons of club management could doubtless have landed a more comfortable position if he had chosen to wait.
The prospect of a year out will not have daunted him. Conte took a sabbatical in 2018-19 after he parted company with Chelsea. Although “the need to work hard is in my DNA”, he confessed to enjoying the opportunity to be with family and swim in “my sea” where he grew up in Puglia. This summer his social media was awash with pictures of him revisiting those waters.
If anything, it may be the scale of the challenge at Tottenham that has intrigued him. “I like putting myself in play,” Conte has said. “Inter were the extreme limit of this approach. I had a lot to lose. But I have a hard head, so I press forward, ready to knock down walls with this head of mine.”
Equally, though, he is not a man to charge in without assessing the scale of the challenge. The fact that Conte was available is testament to his unwillingness to work in conditions he considers unfavourable. He left Inter because he did not believe he could build on his successes while the club sought to slash 20% from its wage bill.
What assurances has he received from his former Juventus colleague Fabio Paratici, the managing director of football at Spurs? It is easy to imagine Conte being enticed by the opportunity to work with Harry Kane, whom he described in 2017 as “one of the best strikers in the world”. Yet the player has struggled for form this season after being denied a move.
Tottenham may view Conte as a good bet to help the striker get back to his best. The manager found the right buttons to press with another brilliant No 9, Romelu Lukaku, who produced the best football of his career at Inter, piling up 47 goals and 13 assists in two Serie A seasons while adding almost 50% to his market value.
That was not his first success story with a tall and physical centre-forward. Graziano Pellè went beyond the limits that most imagined for him while wearing an Italy shirt under Conte, and Diego Costa scored 20 times to fire Chelsea to the Premier League title in 2017, even if the relationship did break down immediately afterwards.
Certainly, it is easy to imagine how Kane and Son Heung-min would dovetail well at the top of Conte’s preferred 3-5-2. The summer loan signing Cristian Romero could also benefit from returning to such a system, playing between two other centre-backs as he did at Atalanta.
What guarantees, though, have Tottenham offered to Conte? He has always demanded that clubs who employ him match his ambition with investment. He left Juventus after infamously suggesting that nobody should expect to eat in a €100 restaurant for €10. He blamed a disappointing second season at Chelsea on the club’s failure to deliver him Lukaku and Virgil van Dijk.
His critics will accuse him of always wanting more, pointing out the many players signed to support his vision at both clubs. In Italy it did not escape anyone’s attention that Inter found their best form last season after a January in which financial constraints prevented them from making any moves. The manager was obliged to work on getting the most from players who had been marginalised, including the former Tottenham man Christian Eriksen.
What Conte wants and what he needs to succeed may be two different things, yet it seems inconceivable that a man with his CV and personality would take any job on somebody else’s terms. He believes he can win trophies at a club where Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino and André Villas-Boas failed to do so. The least that Conte will expect from Spurs is to share in his vision for how that can be achieved.