Welcome to Spurs, Conte. Hope you survive the experience.
Not excitement on the pitch, mind you, because as last night’s (SGT) drab goalless draw with Everton showed, Spurs’ current football is the equivalent of watching an art movie about paint drying – you know there may be a twist in there somewhere, like how the paint is drying over a wall used to hide a dead body, but man, getting to the reveal is a literally an FDA approved cure for insomnia.
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Spurs fans could argue that in the match against two out of form clubs, Tottenham had created the better chances, with Sergio Reguilon missing a gilt-edge change right on half-time when he wildly volleyed a clear chance from a great cross from Harry Kane, while substitute Giovanni Lo Celso also hit the upright late into the second half. But Everton fans could make similar claims, with VAR overturning – probably rightly so – an awarded penalty for Hugo Lloris’ dive which brought down Richarlison, as well as Demarai Gray sidefooting a cross wide with the goal gaping.
But really, it was two hours that one could have better spent watching Dune (now out on HBO Go!).
Off the pitch, however, the past week has been Fast and Furious for Spurs. Not only was Nuno Espirito Santo sacked after the dreary performances the club has had since he took over, culminating in the 3-0 home loss to a Manchester United side that is only pretending to put up a top 4 challenge due to individual quality, but also the appointment of Antonio Conte just 24 hours later, which is really probably the key star signing for a club such as Tottenham for this season.
Much was expected of the serial winner, especially after the midweek win against a technically competent Vitesse in the European Conference League, though, as Spurs were wont to do, they had to make a meal out of a 3-0 lead and cling on just to celebrate the hire of one of the world’s best football managers.
Whatever expectations arose out of that match, the Everton game quickly highlighted to Conte the work he has to do if Spurs are to challenge for the top-four and/or win a trophy this season. While the result wasn’t what Spurs fans had hoped for, given that they were playing against a team that had lost three in a row prior to this, and was missing their entire spine through injury in players such as Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Yerry Mina, it did give Spurs a clean sheet – something as rare for the North London club as me getting a reply on WhatsApp from Emma Stone.
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Hence, there is some excitement, or rather expectation, that Conte can finally make a decent defender out of Eric Dier – many have tried, none have succeeded.
However, while the conventional view is that all Conte has to do is shore up Spurs’ defence and their attacking talent will take care of scoring, what Conte will have realised from this match is that Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min and Lucas Moura, for all their past heroics, aren’t exactly tearing up defences on their own – something they will have to do if Conte is to field seven outfield defensive players in his starting line-up.
Sure, one could make the point that Emerson Royal and Reguilon are attacking wing-backs, but such a strategy requires firstly, good end product from them, which they have yet to show consistently. Secondly, you need players who know how to move off the ball to meet crosses into the box.
Kane, for all his talent, isn’t exactly known for cutting ahead of defenders to meet a cross, like Sergio Aguero used to do for Manchester City. Nor is he a big physical player that can harass defenders when challenging aerial balls, like Michail Antonio of West Ham.
The system does work, as Conte has shown at Chelsea and Inter, but it requires the players to be able to deliver what is asked of them, and I’m not sure Spurs have them. Kane, Son and Moura are the most dangerous with the ball at their feet, and it’s no surprise that Spurs are at their attacking best when they play direct counter-attacking football.
On at least two occasions last night, Spurs had such opportunities to put that to the test, but failed each time with simple balls failing to find the open man to initiate the counter.
That lack of incisive passing, sometimes so simple that you wonder why players on multi-million contracts can’t do it with their eyes closed, has been Spurs’ bane even back during Mauricio Pochettino’s time.
Every now and then, Kane, Moura and even Pierre Emile Hojbjerg will produce a Hollywood pass, which gets fans and pundits excited about the talent they possess. But more often than not, it’s the simple pass into open space for a player to run into that they simply cannot get right – mind-boggling, really, given the fact that they produce a defence splitting pass every three games or so.
For about half-an-hour against Vitesse, Spurs opened up the Dutch defence like Moses parting the Red Sea, though you could say that it was down to the quality, or lack thereof, of the opposition. Against a well organised Everton side, they had to put up “missing” posters all around the stadium for attacking passes, and despite a stadium-wide manhunt, none could be found.
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And of course, even if Conte does somehow improve Spurs’ precision passing, a point he noted in his post-match comments, he still has to solve the problem of winning the ball. Spurs players often lose out on 50-50 balls, and also don’t seem to anticipate the second ball, or even the presence of their opponents, be it Everton, West Ham or Vitesse.
Conte said this was down to a winning mentality, and even though he is right, it’s nothing new. Jose Mourinho said exactly the same thing, but he used R21 language instead, and despite some stellar performances under Mourinho, Spurs’ players hardly showed that winning mentality over the course of the season.
Will this change under Conte? Indeed, if Conte can somehow instil a Gandalf-like mindset of “you shall not pass”, Spurs would have beaten Everton last night and now be sitting just four points shy of fourth, and more importantly, above Manchester United in sixth.
Of course, it’s still early in the season and who’s to say he can’t instil that in the next fortnight, even with a bulk of players going away for international matches. Just look at how Arsenal shot up the table after we all laughed at them after three games.
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Still, Spurs would probably be Conte’s biggest challenge in his managerial career. And given Chairman Daniel Levy’s penchant for hiring and firing, one can only hope he survives the experience.