In a sports hall next to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Ben Davies is sitting on the floor, desperately trying to avoid becoming collateral damage in one of the most frenetic, loud and competitive games of ‘Bench Ball’ imaginable.
As the pandemonium plays out, it brings to mind the chaos — albeit a more smiley, joyous kind of chaos — that accompanied the end of last weekend's game between Spurs and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Then, Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel's handshake spat led to a melee, and both managers being shown red cards. It was a remarkable scene, reminiscent of a bygone age, and Davies cannot resist smiling at the memory of seeing his manager in the middle of it.
“It’s not something to laugh about but it’s a situation he gets into because he cares," he says. "It’s contagious to have someone like that fighting your corner. I don’t want to get myself in trouble here, but you can see that everyone is together. Everybody is backing the manager, backing the other players. It’s all you ever want from a group, knowing that everyone – whoever was right or wrong – was sticking up for the man next to you. That’s what you have to do.”
This is the Conte effect writ large, the manic intensity that the Italian brings to the touchline being replicated by the players he coaches. It was true at Inter and Chelsea, and now it is true at Tottenham.
“He’s built that in us," Davies agrees. "He is so passionate, so driven. He has got his way and you want to work for him. The way he speaks… if he says ‘run there’ then that’s what you are going to do.”
It all makes Conte sound a little scary. Is he? “I am sure for some people,” Davies says, laughing. “But it’s clear. It’s black and white. The message always has a reason and it is to make things better.”
That message is not just delivered in rousing dressing room speeches - it also comes in the form of individual meetings with players after every single game: win, lose or draw.
“There is no tip-toeing around the facts and there are some harsh truths,” Davies adds. “The standards are incredibly high. It’s not like we do a meeting if we lose and we don’t do one if we win. We do a review of every game. It’s that constant ethic of trying to improve that has been put into us as a team.”
'A chance to make my mark'
There is certainly a fascination about Conte and the impact he has had on Spurs, who have been widely hailed as the team most likely to break the established 'big two' of Manchester City and Liverpool this season.
But this is a coach whose work can also be measured in the progress of individuals. Take Davies, for example. Before the Italian’s arrival last November the Welsh international was part of Nuno Espirito Santo’s controversial ‘B’ team, relegated to only playing cup matches.
His one Premier League appearance came in Nuno’s last game – the humiliating 3-0 loss at home to Manchester United – but when Conte arrived it was clear how much he rated the 29-year-old and immediately told him he would be used on the left of his three-man defence. “I felt instantly it was a chance for me to make my mark,” Davies says.
It boosted his confidence even further that Conte said he had seen him perform well there for Wales and since then Davies has played in 37 of the Italian’s 38 games in charge. The one game he missed was because of Covid.
Before Conte, Davies was not sure he had a future at Spurs under Nuno, and he admits to having "assessed the situation", but now he has signed a new three-year deal and is settled.
“I had no qualms, no reservations,” he says about agreeing the contract. “I am in as good a place as I can be right now. It really is an exciting season, we have got some good players in, players who can make a difference. And I am incredibly grateful to have a man like Antonio Conte come in and believe in me.”
'We fear nobody'
Spurs snatching fourth place in May has also fuelled belief, not least because they pipped Arsenal in the process. Indeed, it was the two north London derbies last season that offered the most compelling evidence of the difference between the two managers. The 3-0 victory which virtually sealed Champions League football under Conte was a riot of energy and conviction; back in September, the 3-1 defeat at the Emirates under Nuno had been insipid.
“That game was a low point. I was on the bench and it was a tough feeling with the squad. A really horrible day,” Davies says. For the re-match, he observes, "there was belief we were going to do it. We had that authority.”
In pre-season there were the infamous images of Spurs players, including captain Harry Kane, vomiting by the side of the pitch as they were put through their paces in South Korea. Davies admits the work was "intense" and "the hardest I have been through" but there was a moment at the end of the Chelsea game last week which underlined why the suffering was worthwhile.
“Look at the pictures of that last corner – you have four boys flying at the ball in the 95th minute,” he says, describing the moment Kane headed home the equaliser. “We are going into every game not fearing anybody.”
'You can tell Conte is a good person'
Tottenham, who face Wolves at Saturday lunchtime, may not boast the squad depth of City and Liverpool but there is no doubt that this is still a significantly stronger squad than in previous seasons, with the likes of Richarlison, Yves Bissouma and Djed Spence all offering Conte strong new options.
“I think there is probably a bit more expectation but we have done that to ourselves with the way we played at the end of last year and with the signings we have made,” Davies says. “The expectations are going to go up if you want to be a top club we have to be good enough to deal with that pressure.”
It is what Conte, too, has demanded. Otherwise he would not have stayed at Spurs. But what is he really like? “The inside scoop!” Davies says. “Hmm… something that would surprise you?”
There is another pause. “What I have seen is an ability in him that I have never seen in anyone else," he says. "He is so focussed in the moment. Every single day. But he can also see the difference between a football situation and a life situation. You can tell he’s a good person, a very passionate person, a very driven person and all with the intention of winning. And then to be able to switch off from that and be just a good person, someone who is personable, who is approachable. But in the moment I don’t think I have ever seen someone who can focus on one thing so much.
"It’s incredibly intense. He doesn’t miss a thing and, for a player, that is really engaging. And his message to us is: if we work hard, if we buy into what we are doing, then anything is possible.”
Ben Davies was speaking at the Summer of Spurs – a free activity programme delivered by the club throughout August to keep local young people engaged during the school holidays, promoting health and wellbeing and reducing levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.