Watching Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel square off at the final whistle following Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Spurs on Sunday, the mind went back to another handshake gone bad involving Conte at Stamford Bridge.
It was October 2016 and Conte was in charge of Chelsea, who had just thrashed Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United 4-0. Like on Sunday, Conte was looking for a quick shake of the hands, nothing more, and like on Sunday, the opposing manager wouldn’t let go until he had given him a piece of his mind. Mourinho told Conte, who had celebrated long and hard after each goal, that it was inappropriate to behave like this after such a big victory — advice of the “act like you’ve been there before” variety.
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Unlike on Sunday, Conte simply looked nonplussed and a little confused. But it was the first spark in a what would turn into a nasty, needling feud that would degenerate into Mourinho saying he “did not need to act like a clown” on the sideline, Conte suggesting his rival was suffering from “senile dementia” ( Chelsea would later suggest he meant “amnesia” instead), Mourinho referring to Conte’s four-month ban for failure to report match-fixing (even though he was later acquitted) and Conte saying Mourinho was “a small, small man.”
That felt like real aggro — genuine bile between two men who don’t like each other. In wrestling parlance, this was no work, but a genuine shoot.
Tuchel and Conte? Not so much, which is why it would be silly if the Premier League were to follow up with a touchline ban after both men were sent off. It’s not as if their anger at the final whistle wasn’t real, because it was; it’s just that this is unlikely to devolve into anything like the Conte-Mourinho feud. It came and it went. These two guys are too laser-focused and not calculating enough to play mind games via the media or mess with each other’s heads. They are more alike than they care to admit.
It’s true that they’d gotten in each other’s faces earlier in the game, and that Tuchel was equally furious at the officiating and gutted that his team had conceded an injury time equalizer. Conte gives off the impression that he treats the postgame handshake the way he treats the nod you might direct at the doorman of a hotel as you walk inside. Sure, it’s polite and what’s expected, but you don’t know the guy, he doesn’t know you and deep down, neither of you care if you exchange nods. But that’s what society — or, in this case, the Premier League — expects, so he’ll play along. Just don’t ask him to pretend it means anything, that it has anything to do with respect, or even that it is somehow a chance for him and his opposite number to share a laugh and their thoughts on the game.
That’s where the breakdown came. Tuchel was emotional; he had things to get off his chest and felt slighted when Conte gave the most perfunctory of shakes without even looking at him. To Conte, it was about going through the motions. It’s not a form of respect when everybody does it.
Conte knows who he respects and who he doesn’t. (My guess is he has a ton of respect for Tuchel, both as a man and as a coach, and the question of showing it via a postgame ritual performed after every single game doesn’t even cross his mind.) Nor for the post -handshake melee, we can probably take Conte at face value. He sensed aggression when Tuchel wouldn’t let go and he hit back because when you’re aggressive with him, he’s aggressive back.
Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte admit they enjoyed their heated exchanges following Chelsea’s draw with Spurs.
And Tuchel? Well, he’s been wound tighter than a drum for the past six months. From Chelsea’s battle for a Champions League spot at the end of last season, to the sanctions imposed on the club, to Roman Abramovich (and Marina Granovskaia and Bruce Buck and Petr Cech) leaving, to the uncertainty of this summer’s transfer window when it’s basically been him and Todd Boehly running the show, he’s had a ton on his plate, which may explain why he looks more gaunt than usual.
(Lest we forget, Boehly — for all his goodwill, financial savvy and learning-on-the-fly smarts — is a guy who, until the spring, thought of a dugout primarily as a place where guys in spikes and baseball caps chew gum … that’s how steep his learning curve is.) So yeah, if Tuchel does get emotional and boil over a little, I think we can be a little bit understanding, no?
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Besides, the Premier League walks a fine line here. On the one hand, it wants managers to maintain decorum and respect. On the other hand, these types of flashpoints fuel interest and are part of the show. It’s not just the ex-pros-turned-pundits waxing about the passion of the best league in the world, and how brilliant the Premier League is as it approaches its 30th birthday (yes, some do lay it on a bit thick), but it’s the simple fact of seeing two middle-aged men acting like teenagers outside a high school dance that reminds us: For all their professionalism, these guys really, really care.
It doesn’t matter that they’re multimillionaires many times over or that in a few years, they’ll be coaching somewhere else. Right here, right now, they are as invested as any of the players or fans. And that’s what drives the show.
There’s no reason to do that. Both are big boys who know they have nothing to gain from a feud. It ends once.
And if it doesn’t? Well, then that’s when you can throw the book at them. But a touchline ban now would simply be performative from the Premier League. You could say it would be as performative as a postgame handshake.