No wonder Harry Kane is excited! Antonio Conte had Romelu Lukaku on fire at Inter Milan and brought the best out of Diego Costa at Chelsea… now the misfiring Spurs star will hope the new boss can get him back to his best
- Harry Kane is encouraged by Tottenham’s appointment of Antonio Conte
- The Spurs striker has scored just one Premier League goal so far this season
- Conte turned Diego Costa’s fortunes around to help him fire Chelsea to the title
- He also transformed Romelu Lukaku into a devastating finisher at Inter Milan
It would be difficult to find any Tottenham supporter who has expressed reservations about Antonio Conte’s appointment as their new manager, but few may be as pleased as Harry Kane.
Sportsmail understands the talismanic Spurs and England striker is encouraged by the appointment of a genuine elite coach and is excited to work alongside the Italian, who has signed an 18 month deal, with the option for a further 12 months, worth a total of £20million.
There have been few positives in truth for the 28-year-old ever since he stepped out on to the Wembley pitch to lead England in a major tournament final in July, having lost the subsequent Euro 2020 match against Italy.
Harry Kane (L) is encouraged by the appointment of Antonio Conte (R) as Spurs’ new boss
Conte has signed an 18-month deal, with the option for a further 12 months, at Tottenham
A failure to seal a £150m move to Manchester City over the summer has clearly contributed to a negative start to the season for Kane, having scored just one goal and laid on a single assist – both in the same match – in nine Premier League games.
Sportsmail highlighted Kane’s struggles under Conte’s predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo earlier this week. The Spurs star has had fewer shots than Man City full-back Joao Cancelo this term as well as the worst minutes per goal ratio of any Premier League centre forward to have scored in 2021-22.
It is obvious therefore that the Three Lions captain was in need of a boost given his current nadir in form, and that appears to have come in the sacking of the Portuguese and the hiring of his Italian counterpart.
Nuno did admirably at Wolves to raise the profile of the likes of Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota and Pedro Neto. But the forwards – especially central strikers – that Conte has helped excel over the years belong to a whole other level of the football stratosphere.
Kane has endured a difficult start to the season, scoring just once so far in the Premier League
Diego Costa was undeniably attracting the attention of Europe’s best for the two seasons prior to his £32m move from Atletico Madrid to Chelsea, having scored 20 goals and 36 goals across all competitions in his final two seasons in Spain.
But his first major struggle since that breakout came in his second season at Stamford Bridge.
Having led Jose Mourinho’s Blues to the 2014-15 Premier League title in his first with 20 top-flight goals in 26 games, he scored just 12 Premier League goals from 28 appearances in 2015-16, and managed just 16 in 41 across all competitions as his side finished tenth in the league.
But then entered Conte, who reassured Costa he was his main man, and saw the rewards as the Brazilian-born forward scored 20 goals as the Blues once again lifted the title in 2016-17.
So what did Conte change? Well, perhaps an emphasis on the importance of his all-round game and not just the goals he sticks away may have left him feeling less burdened.
Conte’s predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo (L) raised the profile of Raul Jimenez (R) at Wolves
‘It is fantastic for us that he has now got six goals but I think that Diego has the opportunity to score in every game,’ Conte said about Costa after a 2-0 win at Hull in October 2016. ‘It’s important for him not only to score but he is working for the team and for me at the moment this is the most important thing.’
Conte also seemed to be interested in Costa expressing his human side when playing, rather than just a robotic figure whose job was to score goals and nothing else.
The duo were involved in a reported training ground bust-up after he was refused a move to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian and amid the striker’s dry run in front of goal which by early April had seen him three times in nine league appearances
But asked what qualities Costa brought when goals were proving elusive, Conte said: ‘His character. His personality. That’s very important for us and the team.’
But the forwards Conte (L) has helped to excel – including Diego Costa (R) – were at a different level
Those traits of course had threatened to land Costa in plenty of boiling water. He was never sent off in 89 Premier League appearances, with his only red card in English football coming in an FA Cup defeat at Everton in March 2016.
But he received 26 yellow cards in the top-flight and more importantly, players knew they could rile him up, especially after he was also retrospectively banned by the FA for violent conduct in games against Arsenal and Liverpool in his Blues career.
‘I think he gets targeted by defenders. They know him and sometimes they try to provoke him,’ Conte said after a high-octane 2-2 draw against Swansea in September 2016.
‘It is a normal situation. Diego is a player with good patience and they try to provoke him, but this is football.’
But that retrospective action by the FA came before Conte arrived, after which Costa appeared to play the role of peacemaker rather than rabble rouser.
The Brazil-born Spain forward scored 20 goals under Conte as the Blues won the Premier League in 2017
But Costa’s discipline was always a concern at Chelsea, getting sent off at Everton in 2016
‘Diego is showing he is using his passion in the right way and I’m very happy about that,’ Conte said after Costa tried to calm the situation down when tempers flared at the end of a 3-1 victory at Manchester City in December 2016.
After the aforementioned Swansea game, the Italian said: ‘I was asked about the patience of Diego Costa and I can tell you he behaved fantastically well to control the situation because he took a lot of kicks from the first minute until the end.
‘It is difficult, but he showed me and his team-mates that he has fantastic behaviour and it was not easy for him.’
Costa’s greatest challenge in terms of discipline came when he was booked just 17 minutes into a hard-fought 2-1 win against Stoke in March 2017, unsurprisingly for dissent.
Conte sent back-up striker Michy Batshuayi to warm up after Costa’s booking as a precaution, but Conte would be left impressed rather than disgruntled.
‘Diego is showing in all this season, not just this game, great discipline, great commitment,’ Conte added.
He was never sent off in the Premier League but opposition players knew they could rile him
‘He showed me [his ability] to think for the team and not for himself and I want this from my players, this type of behaviour. He was great, he played a difficult game but he always showed danger for the defensive line for Stoke.
‘I know in the past sometimes he has received two yellow cards and not finished the game, but this season I have to be pleased for him and for his behaviour.’
There was yet more praise from Conte, with Costa finally listening to his calls to forget the fighting and to channel that energy through a focus on football.
‘Diego is showing the right part of him, now,’ Conte said. ‘I think Diego is a real warrior. He’s good for the team, because it’s important to have many warriors during the game.
‘Every game is a battle – a sporting battle – and it’s important to have warriors in your side. Diego is showing his great passion, and that he can put his passion into the team in the best way.
‘It’s fantastic for him and for us, the team, the club and the fans. He’s playing very well and we’re working a lot to involve him in our play. He’s improving a lot, Diego.’
But under Conte, Costa (not pictured) largely kept his cool and often played peacemaker, most famously at Manchester City
However, the praise was not all coming from one half of the striker-manager relationship.
‘The manager has come, he’s applied his ideas, and things are going well,’ the 28-year-old striker said in January 2017 after their then record-equalling run of 13 consecutive victories.
‘The truth is the manager is good with the players, every time making more jokes with the players.
‘That’s good for us, to have a manager who is not just a boss, but like a person we can talk with, someone whose support we can count on in difficult moments.’
Unsurprisingly, the tune from Costa changed after he was told he was no longer in the manager’s plans in the summer of 2017, all via a simple text message.
Conte was keen to highlight the personality Costa brought to Chelsea even when not scoring
He accused Chelsea of treating him ‘like a criminal’ and refused to rule out legal action when Sportsmail spoke to him in Brazil. He said he would always keep Conte’s text message on his phone and claimed the Chelsea manager ‘lacked charisma’.
But despite the war of words which has ensued, there was no doubting the ex-Italy boss’ credentials, even for an ally now turned nemesis.
‘[Conte and I] had problems off the pitch, but I think he is a really good manager,’ Costa told ESPN last year.
‘I have no hard feelings towards Conte, but to be a top, top manager, he needs to change the human side of his management.
‘He is very suspicious. At a team like, say, Real Madrid, he would never last a season.’
In fact, except at Juventus, Conte has rarely lasted more than two seasons. His latest stint as a manager was brought to an end after 24 months this year, but of his own accord rather than by the club, as was the case when he was sacked by the Blues in 2018.
The duo eventually fell out after Costa was informed he was no longer part of Conte’s plans via text
Friction between Conte and Inter Milan’s hierarchy over the future of the team and plans for a firesale at the club in the summer amid their financial woes saw the former quit just weeks after masterminding their first Serie A title win in nine years.
But while Conte was the brains behind the title win, none of it would have been possible without the relentless goalscoring prowess of Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian scored 24 Serie A goals last season as a striker who appeared a completely different player from the forward who looked devoid of confidence in his last season at Manchester United. And he knew the importance of the role Conte had played in that.
‘[In] 2014 we spoke for the first time and we have had a bond ever since,’ Lukaku wrote on social media after news of Conte’s departure from San Siro emerged.
‘We had many moments to work together but only god knows why it never happened earlier. You came at the right time and basically changed me as a player and made me even stronger mentally and more importantly we won together!
‘Winning is and it’s all that matters to you and i’m glad that i have had you as a coach. I will keep your principles for the rest of my career ( physical preparation, mental and just the drive to win…) it was a pleasure to play for you! Thank you for all what you did. I owe you a lot.’
But Conte had no such falling out with Romelu Lukaku (L) in two seasons at Inter Milan
Conte had always been a huge admirer of Lukaku and wanted to bring him to Juventus in 2014, and then back to Chelsea in 2017. Neither of those moves materialised but they would eventually link up with Inter two years later.
And the bond between the duo did not take long to become established.
‘Lukaku stepped into the Inter world in the best possible way, with great humility,’ Conte told DAZN after Lukaku scored on his Inter debut against Lecce.
‘He is a gentle giant, he always has a smile on his face. He is ready to work for the team and is at the disposal of his team-mates.’
A month later, the Belgium international led Inter to a derby-day win against AC Milan, a result he believed came as a result of thriving under Conte. ‘My rapport with Conte is very strong, as he is a coach who really helps me,’ Lukaku told DAZN.
‘At the age of 26, I want a coach like this, who helps me every day and gives me motivation. I am very happy to be here and to be working with him.’
Conte left Inter in May, just a few weeks after masterminding a first Serie A title in nine years
Lukaku of course made changes to his diet in Italy, eliminating potatoes, fried food and alcohol from it. But Conte’s proclivity to deploy a system that suits his players was fundamental too.
Often on the end of a Achraf Hakimi or Aleksandr Kolarov cross, Lukaku could rely on the wing-backs in Conte’s 3-5-2 system, while also conjuring up the odd piece of individual brilliance, such as the sensational solo run against AC Milan in February.
But the period in between games was equally as critical. ‘Training is actually a warzone,’ Lukaku said earlier this year. ‘Our manager (Conte) doesn’t play, he doesn’t like when we hold it in…
‘In the first training sessions when I was there, the physical work, I was not used to this. We are talking about the Premier League being physically the toughest league, but the training sessions that we do – nobody trains as hard as us. Never. You are really at your fittest.
‘I spoke to my agent and said, ”I am suffering a lot in training because I never did this type of work.” When I was looking around me no one was moaning, everyone was getting on with it.
‘It was something special because sometimes coaches are on the sidelines making jokes because you can’t do it. But he is there wanting you to do more, encouraging you to do more. It can be as hard as you imagine, but no player will give up because he gives you that energy to keep going. That shows in the intensity on the pitch.’
But the achievement would not have been possible without the goals from the Belgium star
A post shared by Romelu Lukaku (@romelulukaku)
That energy on the pitch has now reaped the reward of bringing out the best in Lukaku, at least in his former boss’ eyes. Speaking to L’Equipe in the summer, Conte said: ‘Right now, he is one of the best strikers in the world,’
‘He already had important physical and technical skills, but in these two years we have made him progress even more. His presence in the match, his teamwork and clarity in front of goal [has improved].
‘It is too simplistic to say that he is good when he has open space,’ said Conte in a separate interview. ‘Lukaku or Lautaro [Martinez], I don’t think they are a joy for defenders in the box.
‘Lukaku is an unusual footballer. He is a centre-forward, he acts as a target man, and he is very fast. He is like an American football player.
‘He is a very specific striker. Bringing Lukaku into the box, he is dangerous. However, when he starts from midfield, he is incredibly quick. It is very difficult to find a player who is both a target man, but can also run from midfield.’
‘The good thing about Romelu is that he can hurt you anywhere. If you keep him far away from the penalty area, he can kill you with his pace. If you have him in the box, he has the physicality to be a target man.’
Conte’s intense training sessions and formation helped bring the best out of Lukaku
‘I have not forgotten how a lot of people turned their nose up when we signed Lukaku and said he was overrated.
‘But I always said that he arrived here with potential and that if he worked hard he could do extraordinary things. Lukaku has made exceptional improvements and can make even more.’
Having sealed a £98m return to Stamford Bridge this summer, Lukaku was asked what had changed between the striker who left in 2019 and the one that had returned. In one word, the answer was Conte.
‘When I think about my performances with Everton, missed penalties, or United games or whatever. Or when I was here [at Chelsea] and I’d get an opportunity and it wouldn’t go well – it was always just not. Maybe it was because I put too much [pressure],’ he said.
‘When I went to Italy, it’s where, under the guidance of Antonio Conte, I learnt what it took to go and break that barrier. When we did win [the Serie A title] last year, you could see the emotions in my face.
He was a completely different striker in Italy from the one who left Manchester United in 2019
‘For me, it was ten years of hard work, with a lot of ups and downs, but in the end, it was good. Coming into my prime years, I know myself and I know what it takes. I know how to be a leader and what it takes to help my team.’
Nobody however arguably knows what his team requires more than Spurs star Kane, who has regularly rescued Spurs from the mire over the years and is now destined to become Conte’s latest project.
However, in Conte’s eyes, the England captain has perhaps already reached a level previously that Costa and Lukaku had not before they came under his wing.
‘For me, Kane, now, is one of the best strikers in the world,’ Conte said in 2017. ‘If I had to buy one striker I would go to Kane.
‘He is a complete striker. He is strong physically, with the ball, without the ball, he fights and he’s strong in the air and acrobatic on the right and the left.
‘He’s a complete player. He’s one of the top strikers in the world. If you go to buy Kane now it would be at least £100m.’
Lukaku is back in the Premier League with Chelsea and credited Conte for his transformation
Selling Kane however would be the last thing on Conte’s mind now, while his upmost concern will be how to get his main man firing again. However, his analysis during the Euros hints he has some sort of a starting point.
‘Many praise Harry Kane for his ability to go get the ball and play with the team, such as with the equaliser against Denmark,’ Conte said.
‘Of course, he’s good at that too, but it’s in the box where he’s clinical and as a coach, I would always keep him in there because he’s devastating.’
If those words are carried out into actions, it will be a relief for Spurs fans who became frustrated by Nuno’s insistence that the team’s displays were of greater concern than Kane’s position on the pitch.
Kane has had just 17 penalty area entries so far this term in the Premier League, and with 101 of his 118 top-flight goals coming in the box, his presence in the box is vital.
Just as he did with Chelsea and Inter Milan, a three-man defence could liberate the wing-backs and allow them to focus on providing chances for Kane with his head or on the end of low crosses.
Conte praised Kane after his goal against Denmark and hinted at having the answer to his issues this season
Emerson Royal and Sergio Reguilon have failed to light up the Premier League this season but the duo’s performances for LaLiga rivals Real Betis and Sevilla during the last two years demonstrate they have the ability to be useful as an attacking option.
Eden Hazard and Lautaro Martinez were Costa and Lukaku’s supporting act at Conte’s Chelsea and Inter Milan, and Conte may already have identified Son Heung-min as Kane’s perfect foil.
He will hope to revive the deadly partnership that broke a Premier League record last season with their 14 goal combinations.
Nevertheless, the greatest attraction for Spurs with Conte is that quite simply he has won wherever he has gone. Their trophy drought passed 5,000 days this week, so the desire to end that rut has never been greater, but few can imagine Conte continuing that streak without an in-form Kane.
However, his previous experiences with some of Europe and the world’s finest strikers demonstrate that if any coach can return Kane to his best form, then it is the man Daniel Levy has just appointed.
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