Antonio Conte was the man Tottenham Hotspur wanted all along to replace Jose Mourinho.
However, by the time the Italian was finally lured to North London in November, the list of problems to solve was even longer than it would have been had he accepted Spurs’ initial overture last summer.
It’s possible the list has grown longer still since then.
The situation has certainly become more confusing. Tottenham have an elite level manager in place and have made signings to suit his approach, yet Conte’s team have lost their last three Premier League fixtures with Sunday’s home defeat to Wolves coming just four days after another home loss to Southampton.
Not for 12 years had the 52-year-old led a side to three straight league defeats. Not since 2020 had he lost two home games in a row. Spurs look nothing like a Conte team.
Much of the discussion around Spurs focuses on the quality of the squad Conte inherited. While Premier League rivals like Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City boast depth in almost every position, Tottenham find themselves in the mist of a transition
A scrambled Spurs squad
Not only does Conte lack options, Spurs’ squad has been assembled without an over-arching vision in mind.
This, however, shouldn’t absolve Conte of all blame for Tottenham’s dreadful form of late. The former Chelsea and Inter boss is widely billed as European football’s go-to guy for instant success, but Conte’s stubbornness is currently holding back his new team from making any short-term progress.
Southampton and Wolves both exploited the same weaknesses in Tottenham’s shape and approach. The hosts were pressed high which prompted a number of defensive mistakes. In particular, Ben Davies and Davinson Sanchez were targeted, limiting Spurs’ ability to play the ball out from the back.
Davies completed just 79.6% of his total passes against Wolves, while Sanchez completed just 76.4% of his. For context, Trevoh Chalobah and Antonio Rudiger, who play in similar positions for Chelsea on either side of a back three, have completed 88.7% and 87.1% respectively of their passes in the Premier League this season.
Such vulnerability on the ball affected all areas of Tottenham’s game, with the home team too quick to launch the ball into the channels for Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and Song Heung-min to chase, bypassing the midfield entirely.
This is a dramatic departure from the way Conte’s Inter played.
So much of Inter’s success under Conte was down to their strength in the middle of the pitch. Conte has never been a ‘tiki-taka’ merchant, but demands control in and out of possession from his teams in midfield. Inter’s unit of Nicolo Barella, Marcelo Brozovic and Roberto Gagliardini gave them energy, drive and protection.
Fidgeting with formation
At Spurs, though, Conte has struggled to find the right balance in the centre.
Somewhat surprisingly, the 3-4-3 shape used against Southampton and Wolves saw Tottenham opt for a double pivot rather than a midfield trio, placing a lot of pressure on Rodrigo Bentancur and Harry Winks to provide what three men provided Conte’s Inter.
Even more surprising was that after the imbalance of this shape was exposed by Southampton Conte stuck with it for Sunday’s match against Wolves.
No lessons were learned until Wolves were 2-0 up after 18 minutes. Dejan Kulusevski was introduced for Ryan Sessegnon to strengthen the central unit as a number 10 and shift the defence into a back four. By then, it was already too late.
A lack of central creativity isn’t just hindering Spurs in the final third, but in their build-up play too. They have no outlet besides the wing-backs.
Against Wolves, Bentancur mustered just two key passes in his 90 minutes on the pitch. Winks, limited by the options ahead of him, struggled to move the ball forward – only 11% of his total passes were progressive.
Conte’s decision-making is all the more perplexing when considering Dele Alli, Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele, three central midfielders all known for their progressive drive, were forced out of Spurs in January.
If Tottenham are lacking for options in this area it’s because they have created that deficiency for themselves.
Tottenham teetering with top four
Of course, it’s still early days for Conte as Tottenham manager. Bentancur and Kulusevski are not long in the door and it’s possible they will help remould Spurs in the image of their new boss between now and the end of the season.
What’s more, Tottenham are still only seven points off the top four with faltering teams all around them in the table.
But if Conte and Spurs expected immediate results, they now find themselves in a completely different situation. The Italian is now leading a rebuild he didn’t necessarily sign up for.
Far from making an instant impact, Conte is exacerbating the problems that were already at the North London club when he arrived.
Source: Graham Ruthven