1. Conte’s Rant
I must confess that a good deal of what you might call the specifics of Conte’s rant escaped me. This is certainly not a pop at the fellow’s English, which is a dashed sight better than any other tongue in which I’ve dabbled (when it comes to asking for a cheese sandwich in DuoLingo Spanish, I’m your man; when it comes to discussing the merits or otherwise of my colleagues in a foreign vernacular, I demur to Conte).
But still, this was not one of those systematic jollies, in which each point is clearly labelled and unpacked, leaving the listener in no doubt about the way of things, before moving on to the next item. First listening to his words, and then poring over the transcript, it seemed to me that Conte had about half a dozen different ideas swirling around, and they all oozed out on top of one another.
Nevertheless, one got the loose gist. “Angry man ranting” was the nub of it. Whatever calm and considered plan he might have prepared before strolling out to meet the assembled press, once he had taken his seat and got down to business he seemed not to be able to contain himself. Nor did the passage of time soothe the savage beast, and by the time he had finished ten minutes later the whole thing reminded me of that scene in Predator in which Arnie and chums unleash their heavy artillery and spend a good minute or two of screentime just mowing down every tree in sight.
So while the small print of his frustration was a little mysterious to me, it was pretty clear that one or two things had got up him. Most notably, he seemed at pains to communicate that he was less than entirely enamoured of his beloved players. If I understood him correctly, I also fancy that he aimed a swipe at the board and owners; and for good measure he then veered down a side-road into the theoretical and peeled off a strip or two at the club generally, as an entity. At that point a few questions from my undergrad days about personal identity came swimming back to mind, but they swam off again sharpish.
The underlying feature seemed to be that Conte had just about had enough of the current state of things. And, indeed, the state of things for the past twenty years. So what to make of it all?
2. Conte On The Players
His principal target was the playing personnel, and here he has a point. Whether or not one also drags in the board, the manager or both is pretty racy stuff, but as starting points go this is actually pretty straightforward. That the players repeatedly foul things up on the pitch is difficult to dispute. I doubt there’s a lilywhite in the land who hasn’t at some point this season wanted to grab various of our heroes, give them a pretty violent shake and then smack them across the face with a wet fish.
“Selfish” seemed to be Conte’s word de jour yesterday, but more generally the notions of our lot being unable to cope with pressure and offering little more than half-hearted shrugs in the face of trouble certainly rang true. Far too often this season and for several previous seasons, the players have stunk the place out.
3. Conte On The Board
The board – I think – were next in the firing line, but at this point the mood darkens rather. This seems to be a matter that turns family members against each other, if you follow my thread. Some are ‘yay’, and some are ‘nay’, but everyone seems to voice their point with gusto.
Those who side with the owners can point to the large sacks of cash flung around to bring in such luminaries as Sanchez, Ndombele and Lo Celso in recent years, the argument being that money most categorically has been spent.
More pertinent to the serving monarch, Messrs Kulusevski, Bentancur, Perisic and Porro each seem to have Conte’s personal seal of approval emblazoned across their foreheads. Added to which, Richarlison and Bissouma, whilst each having so far had much about them of the damp squib, nevertheless seemed to receive from the Big Cheese a satisfied nod of approval upon arrival last summer, as if to say, “Precisely the squad member needed for a campaign on several glorious fronts.” Conte, the argument runs, has had his wish-list pretty handsomely indulged.
However, no sooner would the Defence nestle back into its seat than the Prosecution would leap up and start raging that Conte wanted but two things last summer, viz. a right wing-back and left-sided centre-back. On the RWB front he has had to wait half a season for one shiny new Porro to arrive. As for the left centre-back, the whole sorry episode reminds me of that gag from the Good Book, which asks what sort of fellow would hand his lad a stone if he requested bread, or a snake if he requested a fish – both of which suddenly seem pretty rosy deals when compared with receiving Clement Lenglet, when asked for a world-class left centre-back.
A messy old business then. The AANP take is that the players certainly deserve stern words; the culture of the club has indeed been severely lacking in the Winning Mentality department; and that while the board has chipped in with cash it has made various howlers in other areas.
4. Conte Himself
Much of which, however, is for a different day. Following Conte’s tantrum, the burning question at AANP Towers was around the responsibilities of the fellow himself. Shaking an angry fist at the players, for their displays every week for the last year, is all well and good until one remembers that they set foot on the pitch each time with Conte’s own words ringing in their ears. If things have been so bad, what the devil has he done about it himself? Listening to the chap whinge away you would think that he has been barred from speaking to them for the past year.
Conte himself bleated that our lot today are worse than last season, which seems true enough. But given that he is the one running the whole operation it does rather suggest that he ought to have a solid chunk of the responsibility shoved across his shoulders.
To howl about the selected players not being up to the task (or being too “selfish”), whilst resisting any personnel changes as if his life depended upon the same XI, has a bit of a whiff about it. Which is to say nothing of the rigid tactics, or the peculiar reluctance to give things a shake mid-match with a few substitutions.
It is possible that this entire episode was part of the old psychological one-two, aimed at instilling a spot of fire in the bellies of the outraged playing personnel. I suppose I have heard wilder theories in my time.
The drearier conclusion, as pointed out by various more knowledgeable sorts, seems to be that the whole monologue was Conte’s attempt to protect his reputation. That is to say, with pastures new awaiting him, and a sorry end to the season fast looming at N17, it is in Conte’s interests to position the club as beyond saving, the players as empty-headed dullards and the managers – both present and previous – as pretty helpless innocents.
All of which might be true, I suppose. He’s laid it on a bit thick though, what?
5: The Match Itself
After all that – which enfolded, lest we forget, after our heroes had thrown away a two-goal lead in the final fifteen against the divison’s bottom team – to pop back and pick out the positives from the match itself feels a bit like coming home to find the house burnt down, but noting that the sun is shining so it’s not all bad.
Still, there were some plus points, as Conte’s dearest pals are no doubt reminding him. Pedro Porro looks a handy addition, for a start. I’ve previously given quite the salute to his crossing in the final third, and on Saturday I noted that he also possesses a mightily impressive cross-field diagonal from deep. This was unleashed a couple of times, the first of which had Sonny clean through in the opening moments, and really ought to have brought a richer harvest than a shot so wide it headed out for a throw.
On top of which, Porro showed himself to be fully signed up to this business of wing-backs appearing in the penalty area to try their luck at goal. As well as his actual goal, he treated himself to two other pops from close range, both of which, alas, sailed over. Encouraging stuff though, for the remaining ten matches in which we continue to use wing-backs.
Sonny did little to impress throughout, but his pass to create Porro’s goal was an absolute delight. It got rather lost in the tornado that followed, both on and off the pitch, but his one diagonal seemed to take out literally half the Southampton team in setting Porro free on goal.
The other fellow who caught the beady AANP eye – yet again, it should be noted – was young Master Skipp. There were, admittedly, a couple of errors that might have been more severely punished, and his usual rather harsh yellow card, but otherwise Skipp delivered a near-faultless central midfield display. As often sighted winning possession as picking a pass, he hummed away incessantly, generally taking on life’s grubbier jobs as if thrilled simply to be asked.
So much for the silver linings. Heartening though Skipp and Porro were, the lip I chewed throughout was a pretty dashed frustrated one. At no point in this match did our heroes look to be in control of things – which may be acceptable against PSG, dash it, or even AC Milan, but not against the league’s bottom side. At best, our lot threatened on the counter; but on balance it seemed the slight majority of the game was spent diligently trying to keep Southampton at bay.
Even if this had succeeded, it is a dreadful approach to life against a team in that position. And having got ourselves two goals to the good, all as one dropped deeper and deeper, chanting in unison “Backs to the wall” as more and more defensive sorts were thrown on to give it the old skin-of-the-teeth routine. As such, one understands the manager watching that and then promptly losing his sanity – but if this nonsense is still unfolding after a year and a half of Conte, either he is too dim to notice the problem or not good enough to solve it.