With Antonio Conte now officially appointed as Tottenham Hotspur’s fifth manager since 2019, it’s time to turn our attention to not just his arrival, but what we can expect from the new man in charge. In an ideal Tottenham under Conte, Spurs will be defensively sound, progressive, pressing, and will shoot the ball a lot more than what we saw in the first sixteen matches under Nuno Espirito Santo.
While Conte has shown the ability be flexible with his tactics, especially when facing specific opponents, we can learn a lot about what to expect from Conte from how he set up his team at Inter Milan, his most recent appointment prior to coming to Spurs. There are numerous videos that explain Conte’s tactics in detail, including a couple from Tifo/The Athletic (and I highly recommend both of them), but for those who don’t follow Italian football or don’t pay as much attention to clubs that aren’t named Tottenham Hotspur, it’s useful to briefly outline how Conte likes to play.
At Inter, Conte lined up primarily in a 3-5-2 formation, and it’s in that formation that he experienced the greatest amount of success. Conte’s 3-5-2 starts three central defenders, with wing-backs that are given license to push high and provide width in the attacking third to force overloads in wide positions high up the pitch. The wing-backs need to cover a lot of ground, but the extra central defender allows for an extra degree of safety on opposition counter-attacks in the event that the fullbacks are caught upfield. Conte’s sides play with a moderately high line and he likes to have at least one central defender who is comfortable with the ball at his feet.
A hallmark of Conte sides is a dynamic three-man midfield with the deepest lying player acting as a fulcrum (think Jorginho at Chelsea), spraying passes forward towards the attacking band, or out wide to the wing-backs as required. The two central midfielders ahead of him alternately get forward into attacking spaces vacated by defenders drawn out by the movement of the fullbacks. Conte’s attacking midfielders are given the freedom to get forward and shoot when they have the opportunity to do so. Conte’s players tend to press high and regularly in order to force opponents into making mistakes or direct the ball into areas of the pitch that are more favorable.
Conte wants above anything else shots from inside the box. That’s clearly been an area that Spurs struggled with under Nuno and potentially where we might see the most immediate improvement going forward. Conte prefers a strike partnership — at Inter it was Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, both of whom are coming off of fantastic seasons to the extent that Spurs were very close to signing Martinez this summer before Chelsea purchased Lukaku. The attackers tend to thrive on direct balls to their feet, as at their best Conte’s sides are dynamic and move the ball forward quickly rather than exclusively playing out of the back. One of the strikers is apt to drift wide to help the wing-backs with overloads, and it’s also not uncommon to see one of the two drop into the half-spaces to pick up the ball and play attackers in.
The end result is a fast, exciting side that at its best moves the ball quickly, pushes forward with pace, plays vertically, and discombobulates defenses with overloads and mismatches. This was used to great effect at Inter the season they won the Scudetto. When it doesn’t work, Conte’s sides can drop into a more compact back five, with the fullbacks sitting deeper to cut out balls and hit back quickly on the counter, similar to how Conte played when at Chelsea. Conte can also tweak his tactics based on the opposition
It’s pretty easy to see how (at least some of) Tottenham’s existing players can fit into Conte’s tactics, and in the sidebar is one way that we could see Spurs line up using Conte’s preferred system in the short term. But Spurs are not pre-built to be a Conte side. With the width coming from the wing-backs rather than the midfield, certain players in the squad will need to adjust their playing style or try and slide into less familiar positions to fit into the way Conte wants to play. Others may find themselves marginalized or even eventually sold.
We’ll get into which Spurs players will benefit, and which may not, in future articles, but suffice it to say that we will have a much better idea about how Conte wants to play and which players fit into his plans by the time the January transfer window rolls around. Expect Spurs to be fairly active in the January window, with perhaps some fan favorites sold or loaned.
Tactics aren’t perfect and it’s altogether possible that Conte could throw a curveball at all of us based on his analysis of the squad at his disposal. He has played with four at the back in the past, and it’s possible he’ll decide that’s a better fit for Spurs, at least initially. But what we do know is that Conte’s tactics have worked everywhere he’s gone, and that there’s a very high probability that Spurs just became fun as hell to watch.