Antonio Conte started with an apology. The Tottenham manager was an hour late for his unveiling on Friday and he wanted his Zoom guests to know that it was because a video analysis session had overrun.
“I’m sorry,” Conte said, steely-eyed and stony-faced. But he wasn’t, really, because his new club is in a mess, he has joined mid-season, with no proper run at instilling his philosophy, and the time is ridiculously tight.
It is rare that a new manager has his presentation to the media after his first game, Conte having arrived on Tuesday to succeed Nuno Espírito Santo, waited for his work permit until Thursday morning and gone straight into the Europa Conference League home tie against Vitesse that night. After Sunday’s Premier League match at Everton, he will lose the bulk of his squad to international duty.
And so every meeting counts, every training-ground drill, every minute of work. Because if there was one thing that leapt out from Conte’s opening address to the media, it was that there is so much to fix.
“We need to work a lot to try to improve this team,” Conte said. “There are many, many aspects – not only tactically but also physically. It’s for every single player. This squad has to work to improve their physical condition to go into my idea of football; to have more order on the pitch and to not be so emotional during the game; to improve their capacity also to suffer.”
Tactical, physical and mental. It felt like the full bingo card. Conte has seen enough already to indicate that the players do not possess sufficient fitness levels to produce the non-stop running that is a non-negotiable part of his approach.
“I know my parameters and I know that I want to have a type of football that is aggressive and intensive,” he said. “To do this, you need to stay in good physical condition otherwise you can follow this plane for 20 to 30 minutes and then you go down.”
The Vitesse game also shone a light on the skittishness of the collective mentality. Three-nil up after 28 minutes, Spurs turned a stroll into a stress, conceding twice before half-time, then having Cristian Romero sent off on the hour. Conte’s team did hang on to win 3-2 after Vitesse had two men dismissed in the closing stages but for many long-time Spurs observers it underlined a problem that has been obvious for a while – that Tottenham’s biggest barrier to success has been psychological.
“For sure, this aspect we have to work [on], to improve,” Conte said. “It’s not easy because you have to work every day and you have to breathe a winning mentality every day. And you don’t invent this. It’s impossible to pay [for]. I think you have to take the right people, to bring this into the club.
“You have to start every day with this type of mentality. You have to start to think about football for many hours of your life to improve results. To think: ‘OK, I want to win but I know that it means sacrifice, it means to suffer, it means to work very hard.’ If you start to think in this way, it means that you want to become a winner. Otherwise you continue to stay at your medium level.”
Conte drew a clear distinction between the level of the club’s facilities and that which they have shown on the field. At one point he described the stadium and training ground as “fantastic, great … maybe too much”. Did he mean there had been too much emphasis and investment on the facilities at the expense of the playing squad?
“You must have vision,” Conte said. “This club had a great vision outside of the pitch. Now we have to start to have a vision also on the pitch, on the football topic. This is important if we want to win. On the pitch, we need to change many, many things.”
With time, Conte believes he can get there, he feels he can turn the players into winners, into ruthless killers. Back to the issue of time. “We don’t have much,” Conte said. “This is my only worry, that we don’t have much time to work and reach the level that we need now. I don’t like to tell you, ‘Slowly, slowly’, but I need to go slowly.”
Conte has only a 20-month contract, albeit with the option to extend, but he does not appear worried by this. “It’s not a problem; we decided and I understood also the sacrifices this club did for me,” Conte said, with a nod perhaps towards his £15m salary or the robust backroom staff that he has been permitted to assemble.
Conte has been boosted by support from Harry Kane, who said he was excited to work under him, describing the move to bring in the former Chelsea manager as showing “great ambition|”. And so what is Conte’s realistic target?
“In the Premier League, there is a gap with at least four teams,” Conte said. “At the moment, honestly, I can’t tell you that this team is ready to fight for the title. But this situation must be an incentive for us to work harder, to start to think that we have to be competitive and then to fight for the title. I always work very hard to reach the target and enjoy with the club a title. At the same time, we have to know the reality.”