IIt felt like an end, not a beginning. Internazionale had just lost 2-0 at home to Turin with half an hour to play and, as the camera moved to the touchline, Antonio Conte wore the expression of a man who had accepted a invitation to dinner to discover that the menu would be entirely vegan. His side had won three of their first seven games of the 2020-21 season and were eighth in Serie A. The prospect of taking on any type of challenge for the scudetto seemed ridiculously distant.
At that moment, something moving and strange happened. Alexis Sánchez pulled one back after a rush on goal. Romelu Lukaku netted a scruffy equalizer then converted a contentious penalty six minutes from time.
Inter ended up winning 4-2 and in hindsight – because who really knew these things back then? – that was when all the pieces started to fall into place. Propelled by the raw fumes of that comeback, Inter secured a further seven straight wins that would put them on course for their first title in 11 years.
This is one of the characteristics of Conte’s most successful teams: the moment when they seem weakest is when they draw their greatest strength. At some indeterminate moment, whether by circumstance or epiphany, everything clicks into place. The origins of Conte’s 2016-17 win with Chelsea came during a famous half-time tactical change in a 3-0 loss to Arsenal. It was a 4-1 loss to Germany that convinced Conte to try the 3-5-2 system that eventually led Italy to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
With Conte’s Tottenham claiming a remarkable 3-2 win at Leicester on Wednesday, it was tempting to wonder if we were witnessing another such moment. Trailing 2-1 five minutes into stoppage time, Tottenham unlikely stole all three points with two goals from Steven Bergwijn, sparking uncontrolled celebrations away from home, on the pitch and on the touchline.
For a club that has spent much of the last three years in a kind of waking sleep, it felt new and invigorating. Do we want to look back on those crazy two minutes as the moment the Conte revolution finally started to take off?
The first thing to say is that Tottenham have been playing decent football for a while now. It can be difficult to unravel all the different narrative threads: the Covid hiatuses, the humiliation at NS Mura, the elimination from Europe, twice outclassed by Chelsea in the Carabao Cup, Conte grumbling about transfers, the slow exit of club record signing, Tanguy Ndombele.
But in a parallel universe, Tottenham are yet to lose in the Premier League under Conte. Only Manchester City have earned more points per game since joining. Even before the Miracle of King’s Power, the foundations for a resurgence were being laid.
But all good uprisings need an origin story, a moment of growth, and that’s where Conte comes in. For all his reputation as a fast-paced shock therapy coach, his methods rarely carry over. immediate fruit. Indeed, the early days of a Conte stewardship are often rich in conflict and reluctance, the sound of an expert Italian bullshit detector sniffing around the place and deciding who should stay, who should go and who needs help. a double dose of yo-yo testing and a strict keto diet.
“Better to create a deep wound that will lead to an even deeper healing,” said Conte’s fitness trainer Giampiero Ventrone. FourFourTwo in 2017. “The bigger the disruption, the better the results. At first, the impact is severe: the players react badly. But after two or three months, the situation changes. While the player is complaining, there is a change in him that will eventually lead to improvement. The results are coming. »
The sight of Ventrone yelling at Tottenham’s fringe players as he subjected them to a series of grueling post-match sprints at the start of Conte’s reign offers just a glimpse of the divisive leadership the team has already experienced. been submitted. But the process of remodeling goes beyond mere physical coercion and is far more dialectical than is often assumed.
Tactically and psychologically, Conte tries to instill in his players a habit of winning at all costs. But it’s only when that improvement materializes into tangible results that it really starts to make sense. Until then, he’s just a very angry middle-aged man screaming about spaces and desire.
That’s why the Leicester game felt like such a turning point. Back and forth – and with the caveat that they still look shaky defensively – Tottenham have shown a vigor and purpose that was sorely lacking during Nuno Espírito Santo’s miserable tenure. The sight of Harry Kane on 10 shots – many admittedly silly efforts from range – was nonetheless a sign that the England captain may have just started defending again.
Tottenham visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday. This is the third time these teams have met in the space of three weeks and the first two times the chasm between them was starkly evident. At the same time, these are two clubs with very different trajectories: one who doubts themselves, the other who believes in it.
Are Tottenham still imprisoned by their flaws or have they really moved on? Sunday afternoon seems the best time to find out.