Antonio Conte delivers message to Mikel Arteta on and off pitch as Tottenham display ruthless edge
In one of the great post-match performances, Conte told Arteta to “stop complaining” and focus on his team following Spurs’ 3-0 win over their rivals in one of the most one-sided episodes of this fixture in the Premier League era.
If Areteta’s post-match comments about referee Paul Tierney — “If I say what I think, I am suspended for six months” — were a transparent attempt to distract attention from Arsenal’s implosion and create a siege mentality ahead of their final two games, Conte’s riposte was designed to undermine his opposite number and may have the effect of further unsettling the Gunners for the crucial run-in.
Conte’s measured take-down of Arteta should not, though, distract from his own team’s landmark display on a memorable night. The Italian has previously admitted the pressure got his players against Brighton and Brentford last month, when they squandered their hold on fourth with two flat displays, but last night they dealt with the occasion with a maturity and ruthlessness befitting of their boss.
Conte praised the way his players handled the pressure, as a game that began in daylight amid palpable tension, and with Arsenal clearly in a position of strength, ended after nightfall as a stress-free procession.
He has urged his side to go for the jugular of vulnerable opponents, and his players clearly sensed blood after Rob Holding was sent off for a pair of reckless challenges on Heung-min Son after barely half-an-hour and with Spurs already a goal up.
In true Conte fashion, Spurs went for the kill, and Harry Kane scored his second before the interval, before Son added their third moments into the second half.
From thereon, Spurs managed the game masterfully, holding Arsenal at arm’s length, conserving energy and reducing the away end to commendable chants of “We’ve got the ball” on the rare occasions the visitors mustered a spell of possession.
After their impressive management of Liverpool’s late onslaught on Saturday, this was a different but no less impressive way for Spurs to see out the game.
Before this week, there was a case that Conte had only really achieved par so far at Spurs, with the Brighton and Brentford games suggesting he had still had not cracked their historic problem of breaking down defensive teams.
In taking four points from Anfield and Arsenal, however, Conte has demonstrated what a world-class coach can do for a club. Last night, Spurs were the embodiment of their manager’s core principles: ruthlessness and street-smartness.
This team is still not as complete as Mauricio Pochettino’s, nor as thrilling, but rarely did the Argentine’s side feel this in control of such a seismic occasion. Again, that is what a proven winner like Conte can bring to a club.
He is also starting to foster a powerful sense of togetherness, and the atmosphere was the best yet at Spurs’ magnificent home. The noise rang in your ears and, as a record crowd chanted their manager’s name, there was a sense that Conte is helping to restore a thread of unity to a club which has been beset by rifts since Pochettino’s departure.
Conte also used his post-match press conference to call for another big push from players and fans alike against Burnley on Sunday.
In sharp contrast to their hosts, Arsenal melted in the pressure-cooker atmosphere, and without wishing to go too hard on Arteta, their performance may also have been a reflection of their young manager.
There has been plenty to admire in Arsenal’s own game-management and deployment of the dark arts in recent weeks, but in enemy territory they were undone by friendly fire.
Cedric Soares’ push on Son gave Kane the chance to open the scoring from the penalty spot, and Holding’s dismissal was more careless yet.
The centre-half had initially provoked a reaction from Son, who threatened to lash out with an elbow in their first coming-together, but appeared to become too fixated with roughing up the forward. Son cannily began to run at Holding, drawing two quick fouls between Kane’s first and second goals.
If there was perhaps a case that all the big decisions went Spurs’ way, Arteta at least had to acknowledge that his players gave the referee decisions to make and, as good as Spurs were, Arsenal ultimately felt like the makers of their own misery.
Having lost control of the match, Arsenal still remain in control of their destiny. They are still fourth, a point ahead of Spurs, and can seal Champions League football by avoiding further slip-ups against Newcastle and Everton.
Thursday’s game, however, suggested that Spurs are the team with the mentality and killer instinct to handle the pressure of the run-in after this Conte masterclass.
The last week has offered a tantalising glimpse of what is possible for Spurs under Conte, surely making it all the more likely he will commit his future to the club, even if they end up winning the battle but losing the war.