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.