Is Antonio Conte’s style of play the right fit for Tottenham Hotspur?
From the moment he was appointed, Antonio Conte appeared an awkward fit for Tottenham Hotspur. That, however, was what made the Italian’s arrival in North London so exciting. Even in times of success under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs had been the Premier League’s nearly men. Conte, though, is a winner.
This has been evident in the way Tottenham have started this season. Conte’s team have played well within themselves in several matches, but have still managed to secure the results needed to compete near the top of the Premier League table. And yet a growing number of fans are disgruntled at the style of play being favoured.
Saturday’s North London derby defeat to Arsenal saw the worst of Tottenham under Conte. The visitors to the Emirates Stadium were dreadfully passive as the Gunners sliced them open. Conte’s deep defensive line conceded too much control to the hosts as Harry Kane and Son Heung-min struggled for service. Arsenal were deserved winners.
Until then, Conte had a strong argument to stick with the system that had kept Spurs unbeaten after seven matches in the Premier League this season. However, Arsenal brutally exposed the limitations of a Tottenham team that has the individual quality to do a better job of imposing their own game on opponents.
Spurs’ midfield was a particular area of concern against Arsenal. Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Holbjerg were picked to start as a double pivot, but were overwhelmed by an Arsenal midfield that was better equipped to control the match. Conte has used a third midfielder in the past to control and create (see Andrea Pirlo for Juventus and Italy), but the Italian has stuck with playing only two in the middle so far.
Against a lesser opponent, Tottenham would have found a way out through Ivan Perisic and Emerson Royal in the wing back positions, but Arsenal kept Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka high to pin them back. Without this out ball, Kane, Son and Richarlison only had long balls from the back to feed on.
Conte was backed in the summer as Spurs bought a number of new players to strengthen his squad. And yet Richarlison is only new addition who has seemingly earned the trust of the Italian coach. Yves Bissouma has barley featured while Djed Spence has had to be patient for his opportunity in the first team.
Royal’s suspension means Spence could get a chance over the coming weeks at right wing back, but Conte’s recent remarks suggest he will dig his heels in despite a clamour from supporters to change his approach. The 53-year-old is renowned for being stubborn, even if that stubbornness is towards his club’s own fans.
“The fans have to be fans,” he said after the North London defeat to Arsenal. “I understand they can think everything but I see every day what happens during the training session. I try to do the best for the team. If they trust me, then they trust me, but the choices are mine. If I didn’t decide to pick one player it’s maybe because he’s not ready. If they trust me it’s OK, if they don’t trust me then I’m the coach and I need to take the best decision for Tottenham.”
Most Spurs seemed willing to embrace Conte’s conservative style of play if it meant winning. Now, though, there is growing doubt that the former Chelsea, Inter and Juventus boss will be able to replicate the achievements he has enjoyed elsewhere in North London. The joy in Conte’s approach comes from the success it brings. Without success, there is no joy.