On November 2, 2021, Tottenham Hotspur announced the managerial appointment of Italian phenom Antonio Conte; a sluggish start to the new Premier League season under previous manager Nuno Espírito Santo saw the club slump to 9th in the table following four consecutive London derby defeats to Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Arsenal, and West Ham.
Eventually, Spurs pulled the plug on Nuno after a 3–0 battering at home by Manchester United. Under Nuno, Spurs were deployed in either a 4–2–3–1or 4–3–3 formation. Nuno utilized a front-three of Harry Kane, Heung-min Son, and Lucas Moura, and despite the trio’s stellar form in the 2020–21 campaign, Spurs only registered 9 goals and 103 shots after 10 games, placing them 19th in both categories.
Spurs’ attacking statistics have been woeful thus far under Nuno Espírito Santo. (Sky Sports)
As such, Conte will look to instill a winning mentality into the club. “My coaching philosophy is very simple: to play good football and attractive football for our fans with passion,” Conte mentioned. “The fans deserve to have a competitive team with a will to fight. Developing the Defense In his previous tenure with Italian side Inter Milan, Conte adapted his team to a 3–5–2 formation in their title-winning season.
His trademark back-three allowed wing-backs to push forward, leading to Moroccan Achraf Hakimi’s breakout season. From his wing-back position, Hakimi managed a stellar 7 goals and 8 assists in the Serie A from 29 starts. Hakimi’s emergence may be mirrored in Spurs’ current full-back duo Sergio Reguilón and Emerson Royal, as the pair will be pushed further up the pitch in Conte’s system.
A lesser defensive burden and more freedom to participate in attack will be beneficial to both Reguilón and Emerson. Marquee signing Cristian Romero will also reap the benefits of the new defensive system, having played in a similar formation at his former club Atalanta. However, his lack of discipline may be detrimental to an already leaky Spurs defense, with the likes of Eric Dier and Davinson Sánchez known for being error-prone at the back.
Cristian Romero’s heat-map shows aggressiveness to bring the ball forward. (SofaScore)
Yet, winning the 2020–21 Serie A Defender of the Year award over more established center-backs, such as Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, or Milan Škriniar, is a testament to Romero’s natural ability. With the centerpiece of his back-three intact, Conte will look to bolster his defensive options during the January transfer window.
Spurs have already been linked with numerous Serie A defenders, including A.C. Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli and Inter Milan duo Alessandro Bastoni and Stefan de Vrij. Young center-backs Joe Rodon and Japhet Tanganga have shown glimpses of potential, but a loan move away may be better for their development and experience.
Still, since the departure of Jan Vertonghen in 2020, Spurs have failed to replace the Belgian’s composure at the back. Conte’s back-three requires a left-footed center-back, ideally an elite ball-playing center-back who can beat the press to contrast Romero’s over-aggressiveness at times.
Having been rumored with a transfer to Spurs last summer, Villareal’s Pau Torres looks like a perfect fit for Conte’s defense. The young Spanish defender is in the 98th percentile for dribbles completed and 91st percentile for progressive carries compared to all center-backs, and has the most progressive carrying distance in this La Liga season so far.
While Torres will have to adjust to the Premier League’s physicality, he has the capability to become a world-class defender under Conte. Molding the Midfield Spurs’ lack of creativity from the midfield has been evident: 19th in shot-creating actions, 18th in expected goals, and 18th in touches in the attacking penalty area after 10 games.
Creative midfielders Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso have failed to hit the ground running, and Dele Alli has completely fallen off from when he first burst onto the scene as England’s next superstar. Ndombele’s talent is indisputable, with his innate dribbling to swivel around defenders catching the eye.
Ndombele’s progression statistics rank highly among midfielders. (FBRef)
With more freedom and fewer defensive duties, Ndombele may experience a revival under Conte. Similar to Nicolò Barella’s role for Inter Milan, Ndombele could be the link between midfield and attack by progressing the ball forward with his elite dribbling and skills.
Behind Ndombele, Spurs have relied on the double pivot of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp, which is a major source of the team’s creative issues. Skipp and Højbjerg have overlapping profiles, and their inability to bring the ball forward and play through the lines effectively has hurt Spurs.
If AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessié is available on a free transfer next summer, Spurs should pounce immediately for his signature. The Ivory Coast international retains the ball well, and a partnership with Højbjerg could be key to getting the best out of Ndombele and Lo Celso, neither of which thrive out of position.
Conte’s system relies on possession and quick passages of play to strike lethally on counters. Through playing out from wide areas, potential signing Kessié and Højbjerg are perfect for connecting the flanks, switching the play or powering forward while simultaneously shielding the back-three from opposition attacks.
Awakening the Attack
Arguably Spurs’ strongest area, the duo of Kane and Son broke the record for most goal combinations in a Premier League season with 14 goals. Despite outstanding performances in the 6–1 rout of Manchester United and the 5–2 pummeling of Southampton last year, the pair have looked nothing like their past selves recently.
Having to drop deep to retrieve the ball in midfield, Kane has lacked service, registering only 1 goal and 1 assist after 9 games, netting only against a lackluster Newcastle side. Following his summer transfer saga, Kane seems mentally distant from Spurs, although Conte’s appointment may have changed his mind.
“It shows great ambition to be honest. His resume speaks for itself,” Kane explained. “We have a manager and club that believe in us and this appointment definitely shows that.”
Conte’s framework at Inter Milan revolved around the strike partnership of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez, scoring 41 goals and providing 17 assists in total. Kane and Son appear to be a carbon copy of the Lukaku and Martínez pairing, if not an upgraded version in terms of ability.
Harry Kane chips the ball to Heung-min Son for a goal against Southampton on September 20, 2020. (NBC)
With Kane’s elite hold-up play and Son’s blistering pace to run in behind, the duo can return to their previous form under Conte. Unlike Martínez, Son’s world-class finishing, outperforming his expected goals by 15.7 since 2017, means that any chances will be buried resoundingly.
After an individual sweep of the Golden Boot and Playmaker awards, with 23 goals and 14 assists, Kane will undoubtedly thrive in Conte’s system where he is moved closer towards goal. It remains to be seen whether Conte’s plight will end in a similar fashion to Jose Mourinho’s reign. Spurs’ overall squad strength has dwindled in the past few years, and Conte requires monetary backing from the board to push towards the goal of Champions League football.
Specifically, newly appointed director of football Fabio Paratici, having worked with Conte previously at Juventus, outlines a dreaded but necessary rebuild for Spurs. “I worked with Antonio before: a lot of passion and knowledge and one of the best coaches in the world,” Paratici noted. “We have to work to be focused and committed with this project.”
By: Jason Cheng / @jcheng025
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Tottenham Hotspur FC / Rob Newell – CameraSport