In the aftermath of yet another chastening, demoralizing defeat away to one of the Big 6, the same questions and critiques are being leveled at the side once again.
The usual criticisms have resurfaced, with many accusing Spurs of being weak, spineless, gutless, and clueless. But is this a fair reflection of the game, or is there more to it than that?
Unsurprisingly, given the reactionary, often myopic nature of modern day fans, Antonio Conte’s management has also come under scrutiny, with many lambasting everything from his tactics and system, to his team selections. Yet the reality is that fans and journalists alike clamored for him to switch to a 3-5-2, and pined for the inclusion of Yves Bissouma. On Saturday, he did just that, and the result was arguably the team’s worst performance of the season.
At some point, people are going to have to grasp that Tottenham’s squad simply isn’t equipped to compete with the better sides. It’s no coincidence that every time Spurs face a higher level of opposition, they crumble.
Antonio Conte said as much himself.
Some might look at this in isolation, and wonder why it is that Conte’s side cannot raise their game against higher level opposition. The truth is that this is nothing new.
It bears reminding that this is not an Antonio Conte problem; just like it wasn’t a Jose Mourinho problem. It’s not even a Mauricio Pochettino problem.
Tottenham’s defeat at Old Trafford was their 39th in their past 66 away games to one of the Big 6. The club have won a total of 9 games in this time span, a truly dismal record, and one which highlights that this is an issue far bigger than Antonio Conte. The problem is cultural; rooted far deeper than whichever manager is at the helm. It begins at the very top, and eventually winds its way down to infect every last morsel of drive and ambition at the club. This affliction appears in human form, as Daniel Levy and Joe Lewis, the two men who’ve ruled Tottenham with an iron fist for over two decades, who steadfastly refuse to invest significantly on anything other than real estate, yet continue to deny anyone else from taking over the reigns and trying for success.
Regardless of what tactics or system was deployed at Old Trafford, the sad truth is that Conte simply did not have the personnel to go toe to toe with even an average United side.
It’s an enduring myth that managers magically transform poor players into world beaters.
The Italian’s entire system is based around a strong defense, much like his immediate predecessor, Jose Mourinho. Yet while both asked for better center backs, neither received them. Both were forced to use discards from the Pochettino era, starting players who didn’t even make the Argentine’s starting XI. Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise that results and trends seen during that era, are continuing through to today.
It’s an enduring myth that managers magically transform poor players into world beaters — the reality is that managers at top clubs are invariably backed with their top targets, and their weaker players replaced with expediency. The notion that Mourinho, and now Conte, can suddenly transform Eric Dier, for example, who started his Spurs career at right back, before failing in midfield, into a world class center back, borders on the insane.
It would be like Arteta being asked to work with Shkodran Mustafi, instead of signing the center backs he has now, or Klopp being asked to mould Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren into world beaters. Within the span of six months, Dejan Lovren was replaced by Virgil van Dijk, Loris Karius with Alison Becker, and Liverpool were winning trophies. Meanwhile at Spurs, the club are still trying to replace Eric Dier and Ben Davies, after a combined sixteen years at the club.
It’s even more farcical that these players have not just been kept, but also repackaged, and promoted into new positions. Eric Dier is no more a world class center back than Harry Kane is a midfielder, yet because he’s on low wages, and because the club refuse to spend on what’s required for a quality new center back, he’s still Tottenham’s only viable CCB option. Ben Davies, likewise was nothing more than a backup to Danny Rose. Like Dier, he was signed for cheap way back in 2014, and was never considered a starting option. How either of them are not only still here, but promoted to starting XI players must surprise them more than anyone.
The club began the summer linked with a host of world class defensive options, and ended it by signing a kid from the Championship.
But that is the level of ambition at Tottenham Hotspur these days. We hear so much about the new stadium, and how much of game-changer it is, yet outside of the owner’s profit margins, what has it actually changed? The club still looks to juggle its net spend like a homeless man juggling food stamps. The feigning of poverty is still the defining feature of every transfer window.
It’s no coincidence that the players who hang around long past their sell-by date are the ones no one else wants. Steven Bergwijn departed the club after only 18 months, while the likes of Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Davinson Sanchez, Eric Dier, and Ben Davies were afforded years at this club. Spurs have reversed the general trend in football, and get rid of players in high demand, while keeping those no one else wants. It’s entirely incompatible with building winning teams, and is the primary reason the club continues its meaningless journey into mediocrity. Nothing at Spurs is done to win at football, everything is geared towards profit. There was hope that the appointment of Antonio Conte might finally — after 22 years — alter this paradigm, but the harsh reality is that nothing has changed.
The last transfer window was unequivocal proof of this. The club began the summer linked with a host of world class defensive options, and ended it by signing a kid from the Championship as their only defensive reinforcement. It was a sorry repeat of what happened with Mourinho, where the club entered into talks for Ruben Dias and Milan Skriniar, only to settle on Joe Rodon, another Levy special from the lower leagues, signed for little money, and even less impact.
This pattern of signing prospects — ultimately the hallmark of the ENIC era — is not just antithetical to the promised transformation of the club, but also hampers any chance of progress Conte’s side has in the short term. His squad is littered with the debris of pointless, speculative paper signings, who do nothing to improve the team’s level. The likes of Bryan Gil, Pape Sarr, and Djed Spence are all long term projects, who at a time where reinforcements were desperately needed, offer nothing like what Conte demands. It’s an issue dating back to Pochettino’s time, where the manager asked for players like Sadio Mane and Georginho Wijnaldum to improve the team, and was handed the likes of Clinton Njie and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou.
Pochettino was often outdone, especially in the bigger games, by his weak bench in comparison to his counterparts. Chelsea — ironically with Conte — would win tight games through sheer quality of options to change a game. On Saturday, Erik Ten Hag had the likes of Ronaldo and Eriksen on the bench. At 2-0 down, Conte looked to his bench and must have been alarmed what he saw. That he’s chasing a game, and deems Davinson Sanchez and Oliver Skipp his most viable options, is another damning indictment of the squad he has. Yes, Kulusevski and Richardson are injured, but it’s testament to the squad’s fragility and overall lack of depth that a couple of injuries leaves the manager once more scraping the barrel.
Another surprising, yet not entirely unexpected upshot of the performance is the renewed criticism of Tottenham’s talisman. Harry Kane, along with Heung-Min Son, tends to shoulder a fair share of the blame for these poor performances, yet it’s hard to see how this is truly justified.
Tottenham managed an xG of just .59, getting just 2 shots on target, neither of which were particularly threatening. With two of Europe’s most prolific goalscorers in attack, this is shocking. Incredibly, however, it’s not even that surprising; it’s a familiar story. Tottenham’s creativity has often dried up, especially away from home, and especially in the bigger games. This was another issue that plagued the Pochettino era. Yet with Christian Eriksen — Tottenham’s sole creator during these years — gone, and never replaced, Kane and Son have often been left to feed on scraps.
“Just make do” has been the prevailing narrative for 22 years now, and the Conte era appears no different.
It’s perhaps even more mind-boggling then, that the club didn’t bother signing an attacking midfielder over the summer, even while letting the likes of Eric Lamela, Tanguy Ndombele, and Giovani Lo Celso leave. For some time, Spurs have had a one in, one out, transfer policy. Meaning that while the club would never be ambitious enough to just go out and proactively sign quality players (in the way clubs trying to win things do), they would at least replace those who leave. This summer, they couldn’t even manage that. Conte’s system has always had creative players; the likes of Fabregas and Hazard at Chelsea, or Barella and Eriksen at Inter. Tottenham opting to not give him a single CAM — even to replace those who left — is yet another sign of just how little the club’s ownership cares about footballing success. Just make do has been the prevailing narrative for 22 years now, and the Conte era appears no different.
The simple, inescapable truth is that until the mentality off the pitch changes, nothing ever will on it. As long as holdouts from previous failed regimes, and pointless, speculative kids continue to be part of the matchday squad, Conte’s Spurs, like all of its predecessors, are going nowhere. Abject defeats away to the elite clubs are now as woven into Tottenham’s DNA as any of their former glories.