After a result like Tottenham’s 2-0 Premier League defeat by Chelsea it is commonplace to turn the focus on the manager and, goodness knows, Antonio Conte had offered the ammunition. There was a new 4-4-2 starting system from the Spurs manager, featuring full-backs in front of full-backs and not much creativity in central midfield.
The messages appeared everywhere. There was no Sergio Reguilón, despite the overload of full-backs – or Emerson Royal, for that matter. They would kick their heels on the bench. But at least they were inside the stadium, which is more than could be said of Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli.
Ndombele was last seen walking off at low speed upon his substitution in the FA Cup win over Morecambe on 9 January and, as such, is the founder member of Conte’s bomb squad. Lo Celso and Alli have been added, with the former making clear on Instagram he was 100% fit. Alli’s social media move involved him uploading a silly video to TikTok during the game, which he later deleted.
Conte felt he had needed to try something different after his team’s losses to Chelsea in both legs of the Carabao Cup semi-final and the first half went relatively well. Spurs settled after a shaky start and, with Steven Bergwijn showing a couple of flashes on the counter, they were unlucky to see a Harry Kane goal ruled out for a soft foul on Thiago Silva.
Chelsea, though, would make their class tell after the interval and, in the final analysis, Conte’s team had offered little as an attacking force and been a clear second best.
It would not be difficult to imagine the reaction to such a Spurs performance under José Mourinho or Nuno Espírito Santo. But the point is that Conte is living a honeymoon period in which his many good results are down to his coaching genius, his drive to instil an obsessive winning mentality, and the defeats are evidence of why the squad is not good enough. Or, to put it another way, why the chairman, Daniel Levy, has to spend some money during the transfer window.
Conte has created this climate, first and foremost, by being who he is and doing what he does. The serial winner inherited a team whose confidence was low and who had lost five of 10 league games under Nuno. Conte’s record shows six wins, three draws and now one defeat in the competition. The structure he has put in place has proved effective and, with the fans firmly behind him, there are hopes – previously non-existent – of a top-four finish this season.
But the Spurs manager has turned the screw, building on his reserves of credit via his media messaging which has, at no point, been particularly complimentary about what he has found. At many other times, especially after the losses – remember NS Mura in the Europa Conference League? – Conte has been scathing about the level of the squad.
This is what the Italian does. He starts fires, he stokes creative tensions. He questions everything, he suggests that nothing is ever just right – even Tottenham’s magnificent training ground and stadium which, he has hinted, might just be too good.
To Conte, the club’s situation is connected to poor recruitment, the failure to properly replace players such as Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé and Christian Eriksen, who he remembers from when he first came to England for 2016-17. In that season, he led Chelsea to the title; Spurs were competitive runners-up under Mauricio Pochettino.
Conte’s key lieutenants played in that team, too – Hugo Lloris, Eric Dier, Son Heung-min and Kane – and it is a macabre game for the Spurs support to name the successful major signings since then. Lucas Moura, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Who else?
The manager sees better recruitment as part of the way back up and so here we are, him loading the pressure on Levy and plenty of rubbernecking from elsewhere, not least at Chelsea. The board there grew used to hearing Conte describe himself as “just a coach” and how it was “up to the club to make the final decisions”. He has trotted out that line a few times at Spurs and it has always sounded like a threat.
The economics are hugely challenging for Levy, especially with regard to Ndombele and Lo Celso, massive money signings whose values have slumped. A loan move would make sense for the former, mainly to reboot him, with Paris Saint-Germain pushing, and it could also be the case for the latter. Newcastle have an interest in taking Alli on loan.
Spurs are confident of signing Adama Traoré from Wolves, who would appear a prototype Conte player. But what now for Bergwijn, who marked his return from injury last Wednesday with the dramatic late goals to earn the 3-2 win at Leicester? Ajax want to sign him permanently. Meanwhile, Tottenham’s need for a creative central midfielder and an extra striker is clear.
Conte has such faith in his work that he believes he can engineer a top-four finish but there is no doubt he would feel more confident with a little help in the January market. Conte will always be restless. The coming week promises to be fraught.