Spurs In For a Conte Shake-up

Context is everything. The first defeat of the season with one Champions League home victory tucked away safely, third in the Premier League table and a point off the top with only five goals conceded will do, for now. It’s something to build on, and this is a Spurs team that Conte is building, by no means the finished article despite us being named top four candidates. As I said last time, all of us, are itching for success and can see the potential Conte and his squad offer, but we can help most by getting behind the team and showing some patience.

The context of the defeat in Lisbon, though, is that we’ve had this coming for a while now. We stayed on top against Fulham, a good all-round performance, but there have been extended periods in other recent games – W Ham, Marseille, Wolves – where our football has been stilted and opponents have been able to stifle our attacking play. ‘Starting slowly’ has become ‘not getting anywhere’, or ‘letting it slip’. Conte’s strategy leans heavily on pressing home our advantage when we do get on top, yet we’ve not managed this, certainly not last night, so we’re left with the frustration of another missed opportunity to win a match that was there for the taking.

Last night we looked jaded, not physically but in terms of ideas. We played familiar patterns, in to Harry, space out wide, yet nothing came of it. I’d have liked to have seen more subs to freshen it up. Teams have sussed us, so we’ve become easy to counter. Extra bodies in midfield where we have only two. Press to force errors as we play out and restrict Kane’s time and space, then limit the options he has available by cutting off passing routes. Once again, Emerson demonstrated the futility of creating a system where he is the spare man because he cannot be relied upon for end product, be it a cross, pass or shot. Reliability is a vital ability for Conte’s style.

The problems with such predictability is that key individuals, Harry and Sonny, bless them, are off the boil, so those moments of inspiration that lift us from the workmanlike are few and far between. There’s no flow or rhythm. Breathless anticipation as we break replaced with dull resignation as the ball flies off a boot or a defender gets back because of an extra touch. We’re relying on Harry more than ever as the best striker and best midfielder all in one. That tell-tale extra touch or over-ambitious pass, he knows where Sonny is but can’t rely on his mate, Richarlison still tuning into the wavelength, although he knows how to get on the end of crosses.

Individuals not on it, but it’s a team thing, always a team thing. If Harry is being harried and hurried, it’s because too often he becomes isolated with limited options to make a pass. Teammates should do more to help out. Similarly, I like Hojbjerg and Bentancur a lot, although not everybody does, but last night they stayed in a pattern that clearly wasn’t effective rather than changing it up.

Making changes from a position of relative strength is a good place to be. We’re much stronger than when he had to do something last season – think Burnley away. I see Conte got the players in for training this morning – he really cannot tolerate defeat. But he has his way of wanting things done, with entrenched shape and patterns, so it may be more about injecting some pace and drive into what we have without losing the defensive solidity he prizes. Our squad gives options to refresh things, with players surely keen to come in and make their mark.

Also, it’s early days but this season is going to be a long haul. This is another reason for disappointment after Lisbon. Two wins or a draw and a win would have put us in a strong position early on in a group where every game presents a challenge, thus easing the pressure in the longer term. However, we have time to make that up.

Leicester on Saturday is big game, an opportunity to reassert ourselves before the break against a failing side, whose manager will be all too well aware of the way to play against us. Starting from the back, Lenglet’s passing from the back is welcome, and I would inject Spence’s pace on our right side, although Conte doesn’t seem so keen on him and Barnes on Leicester’s left is a danger, so Docherty may be a more reliable option. Bissouma in, Skippy too but again I don’t see Conte making two changes in that key position. Kulu for Son, who deserves a break to rediscover his touch. Sess may replace Perisic. That still means a lot goes through Harry, it will be interesting to see how Conte adapts, if at all, to that particular problem, or indeed where Harry can get a rest.

We’re Spurs: Let’s Suffer Together

In order to prosper, first we must suffer. So runs an essential element of Antonio Conte’s core philosophy. His total devotion to winning is intrinsic to his every word and action and his squad are undoubtedly working hard to embody his vision. After the win at Forest where the team withstood extended periods of concerted pressure, he said they are learning to suffer together.

In Conte’s world, that’s a good thing, demonstrating their resilience and spirit, and we’re all part of Conte’s world now. Therefore, we suffer too, and what journalist Raph Honigstein called Conte’s ‘sufferball’ has been a tough watch at times. We had better get used to it. That’s fine – this is the process, this is what he does, and we’re unbeaten without playing especially well coming forward and with last season’s leading scorer right off the pace. This is progress, and it’s a platform for further development. I had hoped we would be playing better at this point but satisfied in that there is plenty more to come.

It’s long been clear that if we are to get anywhere this season, it will be down to our defensive solidity. We can now see the Saints romp for what it is, the outlier rather than the norm. It’s been a tough watch, though. He’s the pro. I admire his faith in his methods and in his defenders, and I’m learning to trust them too as they drop back and block.

But here’s the difference between the pro and the fan. He and I come to this with different experiences. Conte has unshakable confidence in his system and in his defenders to implement it. I’m a Spurs fan. I expect things not to turn out as we expect or hope. He knows Forest can weave patterns in front of our defence while rarely getting in behind, where it hurts. To gain all their possession they did so by sacrificing a central focal point that a striker would offer, hence they are less dangerous. I think every shot is bound to go in via two deflections, the post and a header off the ball-boy unaccountably missed by the ref, his assistants and 37 cameras.

So judge sufferball under Conte’s terms, and thereby suffer less. I understand what he’s doing and appreciate the advances made by our defenders. The central back three have been good, by and large. We defend well in the box. Ben gets his toe in more often than not, Dier is a sound defensive pivot and Romero is a fine defender. We are less good if pulled out of shape. Sanchez has defended stoutly in the box since he came into the side but pull him out of his safety zone, as W Ham targeted our right side, and he becomes shaky, as well as restricting our play out from the back. Hojbjerg divides opinion: I think he’s been excellent this season, tireless and focussed, covering at the back and scavenging for loose balls in the middle of the park. Bentancur’s status rose in his absence against W Ham where we sorely missed his calm, unfussy (and often unnoticed) interventions, reliable passing and smooth work on the ball.

Conte’s method depends on reliability. On Wednesday, Hugo celebrated his decade at the club with the sort of wobbly performance he seemed to have eradicated from his game since Conte arrived. It spread uncertainty whenever we tried to play out, which became worse as the game went on. His crass error gifted the ball to the Hammers, which they duly and deftly exploited for their equaliser, just when Spurs had spent the first 10 minutes of the second half painstakingly doing absolutely nothing in order to take the heat out of any W Ham revival.

The distraction caused by Hojbjerg’s boot wasn’t the problem. Our opponents were going nowhere. Unable to find their way from within, they needed an external boost, firstly from the penalty disallowed by VAR, correctly because the ball hit Cresswell’s face first, then from our error. It could, should have proved costly. We failed to exploit their open midfield and they should have taken one of their late chances.

That said, these errors have been few and far between this year and it is one of Conte’s achievements that thankfully Spurs tend to make few mistakes at the back. Like Aurier, the full-back rejected in his favour, Emerson has improved his game but like his predecessor, he cannot be relied upon when under pressure. Wing backs are crucial in Conte’s system and as a source of creativity Emerson is not up to the standard required, especially without Romero beside him. I like the way Conte gives his players time without chopping and changing constantly but it’s time to try Doherty or Spence.

Getting the ball forward has also become a problem. Up front, Sonny is going through one of his lean spells. He’s always had them, up until last season anyway, but this one is painful. Harry is scoring but he’s off it too. The tell-tale signs are there, taking an extra touch, marginally off-balance when he shoots, slightly scuffing shots. But they will come good. The poor progression out from the back is a more serious problem, though. We can’t play easily out of a high press and in the middle, opponents have learned to isolate our man on the ball, and possession is lost. We must improve here.

If Bissouma improves at the same rate as he did on Wednesday from the first half to the second, he will prove to be a valuable influence. We need more creativity but that doesn’t have to come from a purely creative midfielder. Which is where we return to the wing-backs, not offering enough at present.

So it comes back to supporters and our expectations. We have the right to want the best. We’ve seen substantial progress, but must accept that the pace of change is slower than we anticipated when we trashed Norwich on the final day of last season.

Conte knows it. He now has to work with what he’s got. We had a decent window, it’s just that most of it took place by the end of July, not on September 1st. He’s said it will take a couple more windows to get the squad to the standard he expects, positive in itself because it implies he’s planning to stay for a while longer. If the players we wanted were not available, then it’s right not to waste money on players of a quality no better than what we have now. However, with Spurs there’s always the lingering feeling that we did not push hard enough or offer enough money for those key players. That’s an inescapable part of Levy’s tenure.

We won’t ever know. Based on reliable journalists, our real focus was a top-class left sided centre-back, we couldn’t get our first choices but Lenglet should be decent. Our late attention to Daniel James seems odd, hardly the upgrade I’ve assumed Conte seeks. However, it implies he wants the option of pace and direct one-on-one play. Time to see more of Gil or Spence, who is quick and powerful with the ability to unsettle defences if he comes from deep, even starting in front of the wingback as he did for a few minutes at Forest.

In other news: Richarlison did keepie-uppies and took the whatsit – I laughed. He got done – I laughed. That’s what should have happened. But then I don’t earn a living from keeping a non-debate going incessantly.

On twitter this morning, @Lilywhite_Rose who follows our development of young players closely, bemoans the lack of loans and therefore gametime experience for most of our promising young players, Scarlett and Parrott excepted. This seems a waste.

VAR is useless number 34449948423 in a never-ending series. There is no reason why that penalty decision took over 4 minutes when all the relevant information was available after three or four replays. It takes far more from the game that it offers. Bin it.

In the meantime, incremental change. Get the front three going and goals will come. Get Perisic settled, try something new on the right. If this is suffering, I’ll take it.

96 Minutes Gone: Calm in the Eye of the Hurricane

Proper derby. Two words, that’s all you need. Two sides flying at each other for 97 minutes, total commitment, rough-housing, no backing down, and some top class football. It’s a shame that our opponents played most of it. It’s been a privilege to see some great football at Spurs over the years so why does nothing quite compare with an undeserved 96th minute equaliser, massive shithousery and a fight between the managers.

Lads, it’s Tottenham. One of the funniest and most perceptive team talks of all time. We had to take it, but not any more. We are Conte’s Spurs now and in his image, we do not take a backward step. Other Spurs teams would have wilted as the blues piled on the pressure but now if you want to beat us, you’re going to have to be good. In his analysis for the Athletic, Liam Tharme quotes research undertaken over a decade across several European leagues, which showed a correlation in the PL between the number of fouls committed and number of points won. This is no time for faint hearts – every successful side was hard and hard to beat.

Amidst all the bluster and hot air around Tuchel’s emergence as one of Germany’s leading conspiracy theorists and worst shaker of hands, in a much discussed game one thing isn’t getting enough attention. 96th minute, chaos all around, two men stayed calm. Perisic delivers the perfect ball, Kane has the presence of mind to find space in the box and deftly guide his header into the far corner. There’s no rush or panic, the memory of missing a classic Harry through-on-the-keeper chance earlier consigned to the recycle bin of his mind. Two men, two winners.

Peering through the social media fog (take my advice and stay away from the twitter button), as the dust settles, the positives are our resilience and tenacious blocking, as was the way we took the game to them after Richarlison came on. But our opponents were by far the better side and comprehensively outmanoeuvred us for large chunks of the match, as they did in the League Cup last year, when we were outplayed. Tuchel’s taking it out on the ref but this is just projection of his anger about how he got it so right, again, yet failed to win, and of his anger at the way his top midfielder chooses to do a drag-back in the box or that his defence allowed Kane to jump unopposed. The ref had nothing to do with that.

It worries me that we were under so much pressure for so long without being able to do much about it. We were outnumbered in midfield, our wing-backs penned in and the press meant we were unable to play out of defence. With few available passing outlets leading to misplaced passes under pressure, we lost the ball repeatedly and seemed inflexible and incapable of responding, the worst example being our marking for their first goal. They dutifully stationed themselves as per training ground practice, and our opponents had the brass neck to stand somewhere else! It was that ridiculous.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Conte’s a pragmatist. Looking at the end product, I suspect he saw it as Spurs not conceding, and in fact the blues made comparatively few chances until later on, hence no need for a major change before the hour mark. Perisic and Bissouma on earlier would have been welcome, though.

Decisions decisions. I was surprised a foul wasn’t given for Bentacur’s tackle. He got the ball first but came in from behind and to the side, and for several years that’s been deemed unfair. The days are long gone when judging a foul rested simply on whether the tackler got the ball or not. The ref’s angle may be crucial here – he saw the touch clearly. It might be a right cock-up. Equally, it might be be part of the the changing referees’ guidance around allowing more physical contact in challenges, i.e. there was physical contact but he got the ball, so now, the decision is play on. Fact is, it was a great game because of the thunder of physicality, from both sides. You want a proper derby where the players and managers care as much as the fans? This is what comes with it. Maybe we fans have to get used to the changes too, but refs need to talk to us more.

Romero on Cucurella also a foul. I’ve joined in the joking about Romero’s shithousery, and we need that. He’s a fine player and it’s integral to the way he defends. However, he has to use in a controlled manner. It’s one thing going nose to nose with Havertz, quite another seeking retribution for an earlier wrongdoing as he prepares for a 96th minute corner, right in front of the ref, with Spurs a goal down. This is actually a sign of weakness that other teams will seek to exploit by winding him up.

My younger daughter was married a couple of weeks ago. For her dance with me, the DJ played Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons December 63, which perplexed her no end as she has no connection to this song. As a result she spent these tender, never to be repeated moments on the dancefloor desperately asking guests about this choice. My teenage granddaughter, who sits with me at the Lane, triumphantly announced that it must be my choice because the alternative lyrics celebrate Tottenham playing on Wednesday night while Arsenal play on a Thursday because last season they weren’t quite as good as we were. This is completely untrue but I’m so proud of her. And my daughter, of course.

The Noise

Going to games is not meant to be like this any more. The Premier League contrives an ordered, stewarded environment where fans watch rather than participate. But this was different. Streets around the ground closed from late afternoon so the carnival could take place. Wending our way through the glorious chaos of crowds and smoke to the turnstiles to the soundtrack of more songs from those already inside the ground.  

This game belongs to us. The supporters I mean, our energy the context for everything that took place. This was a celebration of being Spurs. It’s the derby, it’s all about beating them. Nothing else. Win this game because it is them. It’s not about the Champions League. Social media static and Sky hype drowned out by fans being fans. This was the purest expression of being Spurs. All as it should be.

Our rivals took what they believed to be an expedient decision to push for a postponement of the original game. However, their short-termism did not take account of supporter reaction, again typical of Premier League clubs as a whole, but this proved to be a grievous mistake. Conte didn’t need a team talk, and no cheerleaders were required. Marginalise fans at your peril.

This match will be remembered for the emphatic nature of a result born from a level of dominance rare in the NLD, certainly from the Spurs side of things. Those of us who were there, and hopefully those at home too, will vividly remember it for the atmosphere. Levels of noise into the red on the dial and beyond into smoking hot, raw emotion and impassioned support billowing out from the stands to envelope the players and inspire them.  Sitting in the east Shelf, at times I couldn’t hear myself think.

It’s also the only game I’ve ever been to where I couldn’t hear the opposition fans. I genuinely mean this as an observation rather than disparagingly. I wouldn’t have been in a joyful mood if my team played as they did, and fair play, I could see the away end bouncing up and down at 3-0, I just couldn’t hear them because they were drowned out.  

The ground is great, the noise was incredible. I spent most of the second half watching the fans because it was better than the game. Not my words but those of two AFC fans ruefully discussing the game afterwards and their prospects for the last two matches as they walked behind us through the park near Tottenham Hale.

Derby games are all up and at ‘em frantic, but this is not Conte’s approach at all. On the touchline he’s all about flamboyance whereas to his team he preaches control and order. The early exchanges were cagey therefore, with our opponents keeping it tight, keen to keep their shape and cover Bentancur to block passing routes out from the back, and Spurs resisting the crowd’s urge to go flying in. Then Spurs picked it up again and never let slip our grip on the game. Hojbjerg played a prominent role here. Often maligned, his desire and purpose made him a key influence in this period. With Bentancur marked, he took responsibility to make good use of the relative lack of attention our opponents gave him to drive us on with hard yards and tough tackles. He lifted the whole team.

A push in the box, Harry disdained the organised protests around him to score the penalty. Although he has rehearsed a variety of options, his go-to pen has become low to his left, and he’s used this a bit recently. England teammate Ramsdale knows this, so Harry goes the other way.

And then the noise got to them. Normally Harry is the target, battered calves and ankles evidence of countless what me ref going for the ball ref! fouls. Now Son is the danger, to be dealt with by whatever means necessary. I assume Holding’s series of fouls, including a smart wrestling move, was integral to Arteta’s tactics, so why on earth commit a blatant heavy block on Son so soon after a first yellow? Because the noise got to him. We got in his head. Sonny’s rep and our noise scrambled his brain and changed the course of the game.

We three in block 123 agreed this was the time to ram home our advantage. Harry duly obliged. That never happens. We then agreed on the imperative of not letting them off the hook after half-time. Son duly obliged. That never happens. What looked at first sight to be a straightforward stab at a rebound was in fact a poised, considered placement of the ball to avoid any possible blocking defender.

Then Spurs dominate, controlling the game until the final whistle. That certainly never happens, any danger to our superiority remarkable by its absence. We strolled through to the final whistle, our rivals drained and beaten. Naturally I didn’t relax until the 86th minute.

Conte is getting through with tactics and mindset. The spine of the team is strong. With Dier as the lynchpin (notice near the end, it’s he who Conte shared final instructions with before Rodon came on), the back three works. Davies is adept at covering for others, while credit to Sanchez for a good game. Everyone did well, extra praise for Sess, whose growing confidence is allowing his long-dormant talent to gradually emerge. Maybe this plus the volume of support will convince Conte to stay for a while longer, or more realistically, persuade Levy to give him a budget to work with.

This was my first game since March 2020 because I’ve stayed at home, shielding my immunoknackered wife. So thank you Tottenham Hotspur for honouring my return, decent of you after all these years. I’ve been lost without the game and the fans. Being there has been integral to my life and my identity for over 50 years. This is who I am, who I want to be. By midnight, I was knackered but couldn’t sleep, my mind flooded to overflowing with the game, the scenes, the people. Of being there. Of being truly alive.