We needed that break. I always sigh as international breaks disrupt the ebb and flow of Spurs’ season, but it was all getting a bit much, if I’m honest. Games hurtling past without a chance to take stock, players running hard but only intensity without quality, repetitive patterns yet lacking shape or style. One match merging into the next, another game over and done with, and nothing was special or something to look forward to.
It must have done some good, because it took a while on Boxing Day before it slowly came back to me that we don’t play in the first half, that we can’t defend and that another mistake is just around the corner. That optimism soon disappears as reality bites.
Before this round of fixtures began, there was much speculation about the impact of the World Cup on players. Would they be tired or would they come back match-fit as opposed to those left behind? After the first half, the answer at Spurs was obvious – nothing’s changed. And so I can lift a few sentences from previous pieces this season. Predictable build-up, two in central midfield easily outnumbered by Brentford’s formation, so we are last to every second ball and regularly caught in possession. Sitting back. The defence vulnerable because it lacks protection. Dier’s error when under no pressure. Zonal at a corner (I have deliberately avoided using the word ‘marking’ because it was not appropriate in this case) and unthinkingly following instructions without responding to the fact that their main goalscorer was unmarked and unchallenged, a repeat I think of two other goals we’ve conceded from corners this season. My son missed the game as he was working. I told him simply that he’s seen it several times already this season.
Einstein is quoted as defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. He never actually said that, by the way, it’s one of those quotes that is frequently repeated because it has the ring of truth, so add Einstein’s name for a greater cachet than if, say, Alan Fisher had said it. I strongly suspect it’s not one of those motivational quotes beloved by coaches and pinned up on the wall of the Spurs dressing room.
Conte won’t change, however mystifying the reasons for this approach appear to supporters, and it’s wrong to make judgements solely on the basis of this game. The return of Bentancur and Romero makes a significant difference, and Kulusevski is fit again. My admiration for Perisic grows game by game. His fitness, experience and application is why we pay him so much, and he’s delivering. Emerson should remain on the bench. And Harry is scoring, despite it all. Was it my imagination or did he look more relaxed, the burden of captaining England lifted from his shoulders. We fans can show him he belongs at the Lane with us, and we will care for him.
But I don’t understand what Conte sees when we sit back and get overrun. Opponents sussed us long ago, yet we carry on. The only explanation I can come up with – you may have others – is that he wants us to keep it tight early on. But we don’t, especially if we sit back and get overrun, and we can’t, because we can’t defend. Simply, we can’t do what he wants us to do. Many fans are crying out for more exciting football. I don’t think Conte’s formation is intrinsically boring, after all, he prefers three in advanced starting positions, it’s dull because we’re not playing well or doing what he expects.
Which begs the question, what can improve matters? We need better players – simplistic but Conte knows that. But there are three problems restricting development. First, at the start of the season, it looked like squad depth had improved compared with the recent past, and Kulu, Romero, Bentacur and Richarlison are good buys, while Bissouma will develop if he gets minutes. However, several of the covering players have been found wanting. Also, Conte appears largely disinterested in bringing players through. Skipp, Tanganga, Sarr and Spence have not had a look-in, while Sessegnon has been favoured but his undoubted talent remains undermined by a sense of fragility, which could prove fatal in the long run.
Then, it’s all very well talking about building on what we already have when the foundations show signs of crumbling. Conte’s style relies on reliable defence and the absence of mistakes, yet Dier and Lloris are wobbling on a regular basis. Not so long ago I spoke of having a solid spine. These are the experienced players to rely on, yet their current uncertainty visibly spreads though the side if things aren’t going smoothly. Dier in particular, a player I like despite his limitations, looked good as the lynchpin of the central defence. He was becoming a leader, a strong organising voice that every successful side requires. It’s worrying, although I hope with Romero back things will start to improve.
And finally, there’s Levy. There’s always Levy. He’s made money available, and now he needs to commit more. It’s not about throwing money at the problem, rather it’s a fundamental question about deciding what sort of club we are. Get Conte, and get the players he wants. Or, build a team of developing players and get a manager suited to that task.
Decide if we want to hang around the top four, and watch as floundering giants like United or the nouveau riche like Newcastle get their acts together to overtake us, never mind AFC who have well and truly sorted themselves out, damn them, or commit the funds to get the players ready to fit straight in. If Paratici does his job, it may not have to be a fortune, but it may have to be more than Spurs usually pay and decisions have to made without dithering.
There’s growing frustration around the fanbase at the moment. Fans are right to think we should have made more progress, but the real frustration comes from the fact that this question has largely gone unresolved in the past twenty years. What sort of a club do we want to be? We’ve heard this all before, but if anyone can make the board listen, it’s Conte, plus Levy will be looking over his shoulder at our rivals. He’ll also be looking at the balance sheet, which with the income from the ground and the CL must reassure him.
Conte’s press conferences have become Mourinhoesque, and I don’t mean that in a good way. He is contradictory and chucks stuff out there about the future, contracts and what-ifs, so best to ignore it all. So with that caveat, the manager has said it will take three windows before he can get things together. That leaves me with the feeling that he could do more with what he has, and he may have to because January windows are rarely transformative. Let’s start with a RWB and another central defender, and don’t be afraid to pay for quality.
A happy and peaceful New Year to one and all. Sincere thanks for reading and commenting, and for still dropping in after all these years. It’s warmly appreciated.