Stop complaining, Conte: Inter coach out of excuses ahead of Real Madrid showdown

Antonio Conte Arturo Vidal Kolarov Inter GFXGetty/Goal

Antonio Conte was at it again last week.

While discussing his time at Chelsea, he effectively blamed the club's inability to sign the players he most desperately wanted for his failure to leave a lasting legacy at Stamford Bridge.

“I think maybe we lost momentum to bring Chelsea to the very top and then to stay for many years," the Italian told The Telegraph.

In fairness, Conte may have had a point. Had Chelsea added his top targets Romelu Lukaku and Virgil van Dijk to a squad he had surprisingly led to a Premier League title in his first season in charge, the Blues may well have gone on to dominate English football.

After all, Manchester United misfit Lukaku has re-established himself as a world-class forward under Conte's guidance at Inter, while Van Dijk played a pivotal role in transforming Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool into the best team in the world after swapping Southampton for Anfield.

However, no coach always gets exactly what, or who, he wants. It is the nature of the game. There is intense competition among elite clubs for elite players.

Conte, though, has repeatedly clashed with his employers over their perceived failings in the transfer market.

Remember, it was he who famously warned Juventus that it would be impossible to win the Champions League without spending big.

"One cannot eat in a €100 restaurant with just €10 in your pocket," the former Bianconeri boss stated in May 2014 – just two months before leaving Turin following a dispute over the club's recruitment plans.

History very nearly repeated itself at Inter this summer.

Despite transforming the Milanese outfit into genuine Serie A contenders, and leading the club to its first European final since winning the treble in 2010, Conte very nearly quit San Siro at the end of the season.

Once again, the root cause was tension over transfers. Conte had repeatedly called out his board in public, most memorably after Inter blew a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund last November.

"Some important mistakes have been made at the planning stage, we can't play both the Champions League and Serie A with such a small squad," he fumed on Mediaset Sport.

"I'm tired of saying the same things over and over again, perhaps they (the directors) could come here over and say something. I hope that this [defeat] will help them understand a few things.

"They tell me that I should smile more on television. But I always end up saying the same things, about the growth process, about taking it step by step.

"The lads are giving everything and going at full pelt, and I can't ask them for more than that.

"We are talking about players who, apart from Diego Godin, have never won anything. Who do we turn to? Nicolo Barella who has come from Cagliari? Or [Stefano] Sensi, who came from Sassuolo?"

It was a staggering outburst, a withering attack on not only Inter's directors, but also their players. That Barella was name-checked was particularly puzzling, given he was a Conte signing and has quickly proven himself one of the best young players in Italy.

Ultimately, it was a wonder Conte saw out the season, given the complaints just kept coming. As ex-Inter goalkeeper Walter Zenga recently pointed out on Radio Sportiva, "If I said the things Conte has, I'd have already been shot!"

Antonio Conte Inter GFXGetty/Goal

Conte's complaints were tolerated, though, because it was clear that Inter were improving under his guidance and, crucially, he retained the full support of the players, many of whom were clearly benefiting from his guidance: Barella, Alessandro Bastoni, Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez. 

In addition, Conte knows he is a difficult character. He knows he asks a lot of players. "I'm a hammer," he told Gazzetta dello Sport. "I admit it."

His approach has proven successful in the past, though, most notably at Juve, whom he took from seventh to the Scudetto in just one season.

Beppe Marotta worked alongside Conte in Turin and is doing so again in Milan, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the combustible coach is being given more leeway than most.

Inter president Steven Zhang also masterfully handled what was a tense situation at San Siro during the summer by reminding all of the warring factions that they remained united by a common goal: dethroning Juventus as the champions of Italy.

However, Conte was also effectively given what he craved most: greater control over Inter's transfer activity.

That resulted in the arrivals of not only Achraf Hakimi, who is ideally suited to Conte's rigid system, but also Aleksandar Kolarov and Arturo Vidal, veterans that Conte felt had the requisite experience and winning mentality to turn the Nerazzurri into champions.

The one problem with being given total control, though, is that when things go wrong, it is impossible to point the finger of blame at anyone else, and this is the awkward situation Conte now finds himself in.

Antonio Conte Beppe Marotta GFXGetty/Goal

Last season’s run to the Europa League final was portrayed as evidence of Inter’s re-emergence as a major player on the continent.

However, going into Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid, the Nerazzurri are bottom of their group, knowing that a win is imperative if they are to have any chance of reaching the knockout stage.

Elimination would place further pressure on Conte, who has never won a major European honour as a coach.

There is a belief that his gruelling style is simply unsuited to the rigours of competing twice a week – and a second successive group-stage exit at Inter would do nothing to dispel that notion.

The priority, of course, is the Scudetto, but that will be far from easy, with the Nerazzurri presently fifth in the standings, already five points behind leaders AC MIlan having won just two of their past six games.

They once again displayed plenty of heart in coming from behind to beat Torino 4-2 on Sunday – Inter have won more points from losing positions this season (seven) than any other club in Serie A – but the defence is a shambles.

Indeed, Conte's side have kept just two clean sheets in 11 matches in all competitions and conceded a shocking 18 times in the process. As top scorer Romelu Lukaku told DAZN after the comeback against Torino, "We're clearly not a great team if we always suffer so much."

They have been unlucky with injuries and Covid-19 infections – but who hasn’t? An average Madrid have their own notable absentees, chief among them captain Sergio Ramos.

The bottom line is that Kolarov has been a disaster, particularly when utilised as a centre-half in a back three, while Vidal has failed dismally to vindicate his acquisition ahead of Sandro Tonali – who went to AC Milan instead – and that is all on Conte.

As Inter prepare to face Madrid exactly a year on from his outburst in Dortmund, the Nerazzurri are entitled to expect results – not excuses. Conte’s complaints just will not cut it anymore.

If things do not improve, there really won't be anyone left to blame but himself.

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