Siao Mates Dec 29

Southampton 1 Spurs 1: Away win still eludes Antonio Conte, but he's getting closer

If there’s one criticism one can have of new Spurs boss Antonio Conte, it’s that despite the massive improvement to the team, he’s yet to clock a win away from the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.


In the 10 games in charge, his Tottenham Hotspur side has only had three away games, twice in the league against Everton and last night’s (SGT) match against Southampton, both ending in draws, and that defeat at Lion City Sailors NS Mura that hopefully will be somehow wiped from everyone’s memory like Spider-man’s true identity.


At St Mary’s Stadium, he had a great chance to smash that record, but a combination of dubious refereeing, an inspired performance by Saints’ custodian Fraser Forster and some poor decisions in the final third by the Spurs attackers meant that the home team held on to a point, despite playing the entire second half with 10 men.


WATCH: Conte reflects on Spurs' 1-1 draw with Southampton


But this was always going to be a tough fixture, with Southampton having only lost once at home the whole season in all competitions, and the way they started the first half hour of the match showed exactly why only Wolves have come away with three points the whole season. 


They closed down Spurs high up the pitch, prevented the back three from playing out the ball and quickly won back the ball in midfield. So, it was really just what they deserved when in-form James Ward Prowse scored a beautiful long-range effort in the 25th minute, and threatened to end Conte’s fine start to his Spurs career.


Yet, gone are the days that the visitors would just collapse after being so dominated and going behind as slowly but surely, Spurs’ new mentality under Conte began to show, obviously inspired by Conte making the Spurs players rewatch Rocky 4 before every match, probably with matchsticks holding their eyelids open so they don’t miss the part where Ivan Drago, after battering Rocky Balboa for most of the match, said, “He's not a human. He's like a piece of iron.”


And Iron Men Spurs were, as they fought back to get a foothold in the game. In a beautiful move in the 39th minute, where Harry Winks channelled Kevin De Bruyne and sent a gorgeous through ball to Son Heung-Min, the South Korean not only won Spurs a penalty, but got Saints defender Mohammed Salisu sent off for his second yellow card. 


Harry Kane, of course, doesn’t miss penalties, except for the 8 he missed out of 48 for both club and country. Bah, details.


But just like Tony Stark, sometimes being Iron Man isn’t enough, as Spurs struggled to break down a well-organised Saints defence who not only parked the bus, but took it home, showed it a good time, and then gave it breakfast the next morning.


Spurs did have the ball in the net three times in the second half, but were twice ruled offside, and once for a foul on the keeper leading up to the disallowed goal. The most contentious of those three disallowed goals came in the 53rd minute when De Bruyne Winks once again made light of Spurs missing Christian Eriksen and sent a peach of a pass to Kane for the England striker to slot home, but VAR drew lines and determined that Kane’s shoulder was behind Saints’ last man. Setting aside that this season, the rules have changed to allow the benefit of the doubt to the attacking player in tight decisions to prevent a repeat of “armpit offsides” as seen frequently last season, it’s really a crime in itself not to allow a goal of such pedigree to stand.


Still, there were a lot of positives Spurs fans can take away from the match. Despite the scoreline, Spurs looked and played like a top four side, this despite Conte resting the previous man-of-the-match Lucas Moura and man-of-the-season Oliver Skipp.


WATCH: Conte wants to strike balance between offence and defence


Winks, who stepped in for Skipp, produced yet another stellar performance following his heroics against Liverpool, despite a calamity moment early in the first half where he gave the ball away in a dangerous position. Other than that, almost all of Spurs’ creative forward movement came through the Tottenham man, as he outshone all of his more illustrious compatriots on the night. I don’t know what Dr. Strange-esque spell Conte cast on Winks, but more and more, he’s looking like he should be starting matches ahead of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who is increasingly proving that he’s lacking the range of passing when Spurs are chasing a goal. 


Even Dele Alli, who came in for Moura, and had a poor game overall, was making the kind of runs into the box that saw him dominate English football for a couple of seasons, though he’s nowhere near the giddy heights he reached when he was a teenager. Still, there’s an obvious attempt to nurture him back to his best by reminding him what he needed to do to capitalise on his strengths and by giving him game time. If Conte can bring back Alli, it would be a mightier resurrection than The Matrix (yes, that’s a pretty low bar though).


On the night, Spurs didn’t get the result they deserved, but it was very far from the type of performance under Nuno Espirito Santo where Spurs players looked like they were auditioning for The Walking Dead rather than playing football.


However, it does show a few things that Conte still needs to do.


The biggest task in front of him is getting Tanguy Ndombele to a level where he can make a difference in tight games such as this. That Conte sent on Bryan Gil, who’s hardly had a kick in Premier League football, to try and get a goal instead of Ndombele, speaks of Conte’s confidence, or lack of, in the talented midfield man. There is very little doubt that Ndombele does things with the football that very few others can, yet, he’s consistently not shown the kind of intensity that would tip him over from being a good player to a great one. Were this the 1980s, Ndombele would be a star in any team, but the level of physicality required today seems to be his biggest obstacle to achieving greatness.


WATCH: The best of Ndombele at Spurs so far


There’s also very little doubt that Spurs’ attack cannot depend on Kane, Son and Moura alone. On that day, the trio are unplayable. But both Son and Moura, when he came on, had poor games last night, and there were very few options on the bench who could come in and make a difference, hence the punt on an unproven EPL player in Gil.


Would January see Spurs splash out the cash on a player such as Dusan Vlahovic, who would make a fearsome strike partnership with Kane? One can never tell with Daniel Levy, who I’m told by reliable sources such as my imagination, has framed a picture of Scrooge on his bedroom wall.


But some reinforcements are surely required for Spurs if they are serious about making the top four this season. Not much, and that’s thanks to Conte having already improved many fringe players, but some for sure.


It was a disappointing night for Spurs, but it won’t be too far away before Conte gets his first away win under his belt, if his Spurs can keep playing like the Avengers.




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