For the first time in 52 days, Antonio Conte will be back at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the visit of AC Milan. It was European nights like tonight that Spurs sweated so hard to achieve last season, yet in the prolonged absence of their stricken manager – and the inconsistent performances that have accompanied it – a match that should be wholly exciting is tinged ever-so-slightly with a sense of apathy.
Conte’s contract runs out at the end of the season and neither party seems especially inclined for the relationship to continue. The Italian’s family have remained in Turin throughout his stay in north London while it would be understandable if he feels the pull to return home after losing three close friends, and undergone emergency surgery himself, in the past six months.
From Tottenham’s perspective, while Conte could still deliver back-to-back top-four finishes, the football being served up is just not in line with what fans want to see. That’s not even to say it is especially bad, in fact that’s not really the issue at all. It’s just become a bit boring and stale.
When Spurs’ hierarchy first set about finding a replacement for Jose Mourinho, they outlined the need to play a ‘free-flowing, attacking and entertaining’ brand of football. Conte’s teams are many things, but they are rarely fun. The former Inter manager prioritises control and solidity, and while other teams look to dominate, the Italian wants his team to be prepared to ‘suffer’ first and foremost.
Even against an illness-ravaged Sheffield United team Spurs did not play front-foot football. They are cautious and plodding in possession, while the automations that can produce slick back-to-front goals require so much precision, and have such a low margin of error, that the side can look utterly hapless when it is not clicking. It is also an approach that does not really lend itself to sustained attacks or penning teams back into their own half.
As a result, Tottenham only rank eighth in the Premier League for possession and sixth for shots attempted, while they sit 12th for xG per shot. Harry Kane is the only Spurs player in the top 20 for chances created and watching him right now feels like seeing your favourite, Oscar-winning actor in a made-for-streaming rom-com that only scores 61% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not rotten, but it’s not exactly fresh either.
Then there is Conte’s positional rigidity, his unwillingness to ever switch from his three-at-the-back formation, and his inertia when it comes to making substitutions. Only one other Premier League team has, on average, made their first change later in matches than Spurs. When that change sees Lucas Moura – without a goal since netting against Morecombe in January 2022 and out of contract in the summer – introduced in the 77th minute at Molineux, with a fresher Wolves team having already made all five subs, it feels especially galling.
His tactical invention has not extended any further than switching between a two-man and three-man midfield. When a pulsating Arsenal side a few miles down the road are using Oleksandr Zinchenko as a playmaking extraordinaire, and Pep Guardiola is entrusting a teenager to play as an inverted full-back, it all just starts to look very dated and safe in comparison.
Previously a lot of sad news has happened. I only had surgery so for this reason I was happy! Because you never know what can happen when you are not in a good condition. But this doesn’t change my mind. I feel that I have to stay with the players, I have to breath this atmosphere at the training ground and prepare the game to stay with them.
Ivan Perisic was supposed to be a kind of flagship signing for Conte, the embodiment of his football, but he so often looks like the weakest link in the team. Since returning from the World Cup, the Croatian has played a total of 19 progressive passes in his 11 appearances. Zinchenko has played 125 over the same period. Wing-backs are supposed to be key attacking weapons in a Conte team, but Tottenham’s feel predictable and static.
And yet, in the short bursts when Spurs up the intensity, press higher and sustain attacks, they can look impressive, though the control exerted rarely – if ever – lasts for 90 minutes and is only ever one mistake away from unravelling.
Still, the side are well positioned to finish in the top four once again and it should be stressed that the drop-off this season compared to their excellent run-in last year is also deeply wedded to Son Heung-min’s struggles, a raft of injuries, an increase in mid-week matches and, perhaps, some missteps in the transfer market.
It is worth highlighting that Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski have only started 10 times together in the Premier League. Spurs picked up 23 points from a possible 30 when they did and averaged 2.4 goals per game, with the two defeats coming against Manchester City and Leicester. Throw Cristian Romero into the equation and that trio have only started five times together.
Ultimately, though, it is hard to work out quite what Spurs are building to under Conte. On the football side, his end goal is a higher-level version of the same product: more control, less mistakes… but ultimately the same amount of excitement.
His lack of commitment removes any sense of his reign leading to anything – indeed, how can it? A limp FA Cup exit, the blunt attacks and passive play, it just feels like things are coming to a natural, indifferent conclusion. And it’s not really anyone’s fault, just an awkward, increasingly loveless marriage petering out.
All the while, the shadow of Mauricio Pochettino – whose name has even been sung on the terraces in some of the darker moments of the season – starts to loom ever greater. It was the Argentine who masterminded the most exhilarating period of Spurs’ recent history, and who foreshadowed the ‘painful’ rebuild the club’s hierarchy never wanted to commit to.
In the three-and-a-half years since he left, the squad has changed dramatically – only eight of the 23-man squad for the Champions League final still remain at the club – but it does feel like it could be tailored to suit his brand of football; that this is a group of players who could thrive in a less rigid, more expressive system. Sure, it’s not a full reset, but maybe that’s not required anymore.
What would Pochettino’s Spurs Mk II look like?
Pochettino’s summer shopping list
• A new contract for Harry Kane
• A new left centre-back to play in a back four – Harry Maguire?
• A ball-playing goalkeeper to succeed Hugo Lloris – David Raya?
• A creative CAM also capable of playing as a No.8 – James Maddison?
• A speedy, tricky winger to provide competition with out-of-form Son – Moussa Diaby?
Take Yves Bissouma, who has lacked the nous to play the very particular midfield pivot role that is so crucial to Conte’s demanding system – think of Andrea Pirlo, Cesc Fabregas and Marcelo Brozovic dictating from deep – but as a destroyer pinning teams back into their own half? Different story.
Pochettino would surely have little trouble converting Conte’s wing-backs into full-backs for his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation – which is infinitely more dynamic and adaptable than Conte’s 3-4-3 – though a transfer market raid will be required to bring more creativity to a squad lacking a Christian Eriksen-type playmaker.
Without the sentimentality element at play, Spurs might look at Roberto De Zerbi and the scintillating football he has Brighton playing. But Pochettino has unfinished business in north London and knows intrinsically the style of forward-thinking, attacking football fans want to see. Moreover, having a manager that actually wants to be at the club may – however simple – be what matters most.
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First appear at Antonio Conte finally returns to Tottenham… but for how long?