Even by Antonio Conte’s standards, it was a remarkable outburst that leaves his position as manager at Tottenham in even greater doubt.
The fiery Italian, who will soon be out of contract, has long been expected to leave his post at the end of the season. But after publicly criticizing his players and the Premier League club’s ownership following Saturday’s 3-3 draw with last-place Southampton, he might not last that long.
“They don’t want to play under pressure. They don’t want to play under stress,” Conte said Saturday. “Tottenham’s story is this. Twenty years there is the (same) owner and they never won something.”
Conte is a serial winner who has also developed a reputation for conflict. While he has been unable to deliver trophies in his 16 months at Tottenham Hotspur, the conflict has come.
After months of speculation about his future, Champions League elimination by AC Milan in the round of 16 this month appeared the be the beginning of the end for Conte.
Afterward he claimed his players were “soft,” fan patience was “finished,” and that it would take a “miracle” to win a trophy.
The 53-year-old coach, who has just returned to the touchline after recovering from gallbladder surgery, also said he would not “kill himself” in pursuit of success at a club that has not won a major trophy since the League Cup in 2008.
Conte’s criticism of his players is unlikely to improve his relations with them after Brazil international Richarlison complained about his lack of playing time this season.
Meanwhile, his withering assessment of Tottenham Hotspur’s owners could prompt chairman Daniel Levy into action at a time when Champions League qualification is still a possibility.
The risk is that Conte’s erratic outbursts could see the team’s challenge for a top-four finish unravel if it leads to unrest within the squad.
Some have interpreted Conte’s actions as evidence that he wants go now.
“Conte wants to be sacked in this international break,” TV commentator Jamie Carragher wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Spurs should just put him out of his misery and do it tonight.”
If these are Conte’s final days at Tottenham, they echo the end of his Chelsea reign in 2018.
Despite winning the Premier League title and FA Cup in his two seasons in charge at Stamford Bridge, he was openly critical about the club’s transfer business and fell out with striker Diego Costa.
Conte has developed a reputation as a demanding manager.
Amid links with Manchester United last season, the club’s former captain and now TV commentator Gary Neville urged against hiring him despite his stellar reputation.
“I wouldn’t bring Conte in to United,” he said at the time. “He’s not a fit for United.”
Conte went on to lead Spurs to a top-four finish and into the Champions League, while United endured its worst ever Premier League campaign.
It appeared to be further evidence of Conte’s golden touch after winning five league championships and numerous other trophies with Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan.
But there was always the possibility that he would grow frustrated if Spurs could not match his own ambitions and provide him with the players to seriously challenge at the top of the Premier League.
Spurs spent about $140 million since his arrival, including $73.5 million on Richarlison.
While they are currently in fourth place, both Newcastle and Liverpool can overtake them if they win their games in hand.
The loss to Milan felt like a missed opportunity to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League, having avoided Europe’s best teams — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Napoli — in the round of 16.
There was also the embarrassing loss to second-division club Sheffield United in the FA Cup at the start of the month.
Conte has had to contend with personal trauma following the deaths of three close friends over the past five months — Tottenham fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone, and former players Sinisa Mihailovic and Gianluca Vialli.
He then had to deal with his own health issues when undergoing gallbladder surgery in February.
Still, the season is far from a lost cause, and back-to-back top-four finishes would be considered a success for many teams — especially one that has not won a major trophy in 15 years.
For a serial winner like Conte, however, it doesn’t appear to be enough to satisfy his relentless ambition.