Siao Mates Oct 02

Arsenal 3 Spurs 1 - It feels like St Totteringham's Day already


 

It is an understatement to say that Spurs fans are sold on Antonio Conte’s reign at Tottenham Hotspur so far, and the start to this season pretty much picked up from where he left off last season, with a long unbeaten streak and keeping pace at the top of the league.

 

So much so that “In Conte We Trust” is now a catchphrase to silence naysayers about some of Conte’s flaws. But all the great results he’s managed to get have simply papered over the cracks of the team, and the comprehensive loss to their most hated rivals Arsenal exposed all of that.

 

WATCH: Mikel Arteta buzzing after derby win

 

On paper, Tottenham arrived at the Emirates in a great place, needing a win to displace the Gunners at the top of the table. Unbeaten in the league and facing an opponent whose air of invincibility got shattered two league matches ago to a Manchester United side who played the counter-attacking game flawlessly - which is also pretty much Spurs’ biggest area of strength, as one of the best counter-attacking sides in the country.

 

So everyone knew Spurs would sit deep and break with lightning speed, since they are incapable of playing the type of incisive build-up play that requires quick, accurate passing in the final third, nor it seems, can they press high up the pitch.

 

But Conte’s counter-attacking tactics had a feel of difference about them, as compared to Jose Mourinho’s. There was a defensive discipline that limited even the best of teams to very few quality chances per game, and January signings Rodrigo Bentacur and Dejan Kulusevski added a dimension of more assured passing on the counter that reduced the responsibilities of Son Heung Min and Harry Kane to click with each other every game.

 

All in, there was a pervasive feeling that Conte brought stability to the team and made them punch above their weight, something Spurs fans have not been able to witness since Mauricio Pochettino’s time, save for a purple patch during Mourinho’s era.

 

The away game at Chelsea was endemic of a Conte team - completely overwhelmed technically but somehow, having enough fight in them to scrap a draw, in part thanks to the act of hair pulling, which apparently is completely legal in a VAR world.

 

But Arsenal, and to a lesser degree Sporting Lisbon, had clearly shown how this Spurs team are not title challengers, and will struggle to get results against technically superior sides, of which there are many in the Premier League.

 

WATCH: Conte hails 'much improved' Arsenal

 

While Sporting inflicted Spurs’ first loss of the season, it was this match that showed where Spurs are already failing, despite what must still be considered as a great start to this season.

 

If Spurs are to push on from this and challenge for the title this season, and we can only talk about this season since Conte’s contract runs out at the end of it, then we need to talk about Antonio. Here are the areas where Spurs must improve, because the cracks are indeed showing.

 

Conte’s so stubborn that he might have a career as a mule farmer. There is literally no customisation of his tactics to each team, and it’s the easiest job in the world to predict how he will set up his team for every game - 3-4-3, with an out of sorts Emerson Royal at right wing-back and a centre midfield that cannot dominate proceedings.

 

Twice this season, he’s made tactical switches late in the game, going 4 at the back when needing to chase the game at Chelsea, and 3-5-2 when needing to add more defensive stability against Leicester. Those switches paid dividends, and yet, it also showed the weakness of his 3-4-3, predominantly against teams that pack the middle of the park. 

 

His formation requires a centre midfielder who can dominate, press aggressively to disrupt their opponent’s creativity from the middle of the pitch and quickly find an attacker. That midfielder literally needs to be Gandalf-like, facing every single situation with a “you shall not pass” mentality. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is not such a midfielder, and despite him making enough blocks per game that one can compile a YouTube highlights reel on him to convince one that he’s a tough defensive midfielder, he’s really not.

 

WATCH: Hojbjerg waxes lyrical over learning from Conte

 

Yes, he makes great blocks every now and then, but his positioning and ability to get tight to an opponent, and win those duels to free up his expert counter-attacking teammates, is not world class. This was very clear when he inexplicably dropped into the box where Eric Dier was already covering and allowed Thomas Partey to have all the time in the world to place his long range shot in the 20th minute to give Arsenal the lead.

 

It’s for this reason, we all had thought, that Conte signed Yves Bissouma. But 10 games into the season, Bissouma has yet to displace Hojbjerg, suggesting that either Conte is way too loyal to his starters, or that Bissouma hasn’t done enough to convince in training that he can be that player fans were hoping for.

 

Another criteria for the 3-4-3 to work is to have wing backs that grew up thinking they are more wing than backs. That clearly is not Emerson Royal, who must be the worst technical Brazilian to have come out of a nation fabled for its technical ability. Emerson simply cannot attack, and very few attacking threats ever come from the right.

 

And last night also showed that his defending isn’t all that either. Apart from the completely unnecessary tackle that led to his red card, his defending at the far post was suspect the entire game, and truth be told, has been somewhat of a feature the whole season, though he has so far rarely been punished for those brain fart moments. But brain fart moments are a pretty common sight for him, something we had thought we were done with when Spurs had shipped out Serge Aurier.

 

WATCH: Conte on Emerson's game-changing red card

 

What is more bizarre is that a more attacking minded Matt Doherty remains on the bench. Sure, Doherty has hardly been the fan favourite in his Spurs career so far, but just before his injury last season, he showed the kind of attacking impetus that made the system work, and what he was known for at Wolves. The only positive that came out of the North London Derby last night, at least for Spurs fans, is that Emerson is now suspended for three games, so Doherty, or new signing Djed Spence, must surely now be given a chance to stake their claim in the first team.

 

Many had said Spurs did great business this summer, but I was always apprehensive. None of our summer signings had looked like they could lift the team to another level, as none of them were winners in their previous teams, save for Ivan Perisic, but that needs to be discounted as he’s probably in the twilight of his career. As good a start as he’s had, Perisic was never going to be a game changer. 

 

Arsenal, on the other hand, signed two champions in Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, and their impact has been clear, adding a much needed winning mentality to a team already blessed with youthful talent and exuberance.

 

We celebrated the signing of Richarlison, but I never saw why he would cost more than Jesus, who’s strength and technical ability more than made up for his diminutive frame. Jesus was exactly what Spurs needed upfront, a player who would not lose the ball, could get away from defenders with a quick shimmy and always knows where to be when the ball comes into the box. Richarlison, for all his occasional tricks, is not that player.

 

WATCH: Richarlison recalls his journey to becoming a professional player

 

He was never going to be an upgrade of Harry Kane, Son Heung Min or Dejan Kulusevski, but admittedly, he has strengthened Spurs’ bench. 

 

And that’s the last thing which has been quite frustrating - the focus of the transfer window to strengthen the bench, rather than strengthening the starting XI. Even Conte himself admittedly repeatedly on that being the focus, saying that it was important that levels don’t drop when subs are made.

 

It’s that dogged refusal to admit that the first XI is simply not good enough, that Spurs need more creativity, more technical players, more ball winners who win their individual battles, more speed and accuracy in the final third. 

 

Certainly, Spurs are challenging for top four, but that just feels like returning to a place we had established as regulars during Pochettino’s time, and that the desire with a manager like Conte is to win the title, not just to play bridesmaid yet again.

 

Arsenal are without a doubt in the title conversation, though it would be interesting to see what happens if Jesus suffers a long injury. They have brought smartly to improve their first team and with Liverpool dropping off the race faster than Fred Kerley can run 100m, the Gunners are most likely to be the one pushing Manchester City all the way.

 

Yes, it’s early days, but it already feels like Arsenal fans will be celebrating St Totteringham’s Day for the first time in a social media century. 

 

In Conte we trust? Yes, but only if he can take away from this loss what improvements Spurs need to have for the rest of the season.

 

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