If you watched Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 win over Leeds United at White Hart Lane yesterday, you’ll have noticed there was a pretty distinct difference in Spurs’ performance between the first and second halves. The first half was awful — Tottenham sat back and conceded most of the possession to Leeds, allowing them to dictate play and relying on their defense to hold. On the rare occasion when Spurs were able to get forward, they were let down by individual errors, cheap giveaways, and an inability to progress the ball through midfield.
Leeds scored their only goal of the match during this stretch, a nifty team goal that a defensive breakdown, a good cross, and a well-placed volley by Daniel James. In that half, Spurs were let down by very poor performances by Lucas Moura, Harry Winks, and Sergio Reguilon. In my mach notes I described the football as “grim.” The home crowd booed Spurs off the pitch at the halftime whistle.
But in the second period, everything got turned on its head. I’m not a tactician — my brain doesn’t really work that way and people like Andres Ramirez can tactically run circles around me, but I knew SOMETHING changed. Spurs came out with a great deal more energy, out-hustled the visitors, and scored two good goals (even if one was a rather lucky rebound effort from Sergio Reguilon). It remains difficult to say exactly what happened — Antonio Conte made no halftime substitutions nor did he really change the shape of the squad. But Spurs did start to press, moved the central midfielders a little higher, and played with more of a sense of urgency that was immediately apparent just seconds into the second half when Lucas Moura slipped a through-ball into the box for Harry Kane that forced Meslier to make a close range save.
It wasn’t a dominant performance from Tottenham, and it’d be fair to say that there probably wasn’t one standout player who put in a comprehensively excellent performance against Leeds, but it was a VAST improvement. After the match, Conte talked about the difference in performance between the two halves, and noted an intentional tactical tweak implemented at halftime.
“I read the stats of Leeds and Leeds was the first team to bring high intensity and to run. In the first half we struggled a lot because they played better than us. They won the tackles, they lead the game, but also because in the first half we conceded too much possession.
“The second half we have changed the plan tactically and we started to put pressure, to go in every area of the pitch to put pressure and we created great difficultly to Leeds. We created chances to score goals. We scored two goals, maybe we deserved more goals, but for sure an important win because we needed this.
“After the first half, our fans weren’t satisfied by the football we played and I was agreeing with them. In the second half we changed totally. I’m pleased and pleased for the players. I changed the plan tactically but then they played well, they played with personality. They ran, they put pressure, created difficulties to Leeds in the second half. For this reason we won.
“I think to win in this way was good. I bring with me and also my players two different situations. The first half and second half. I said to my players ‘if we want, we can.’ We have a lot of space for improvement.
“I’m pleased because many players are involved today. Tanganga, Sanchez when he came in, Winks - he struggled a lot with the rest of the team in the first half, second half he played with a lot of personality and played well. Also Sessegnon to come back into the team after injuries was good for us.”
There’s a clear implication here. Under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds are considered to be one of the fittest sides in the Premier League, and despite a comparative lack of talent, few teams can match them in terms of sheer effort and hustle. Leeds typically out-run their league opponents and are fierce competitors, chasing down every loose ball, making runs to pull defenders out of position, and wearing players down with their athleticism and fitness.
Conte saw this, and set Spurs up to play more defensively in the first half, inviting Leeds to try and play through them and expend energy doing so. In the second half, Conte asked his team to start pressing Leeds high up the pitch and attack with more intensity, basically taking the match straight at them when they were tired and more likely to make mistakes. It worked — Spurs didn’t have a shot on target until Kane’s blocked shot a minute into the second half, and Tottenham went on to out-shoot, out-hustle, and out-Bielsa Leeds en route to the win. The second half also saw markedly improved performances from Lucas and (to some extent) Reguilon and Winks to go with an overall solid defensive performance and good games from Hugo Lloris, Son Heung-Min, and Emerson Royal.
In the post-match comment thread, Bad_News_Bears referred to it as a “rope-a-dope” strategy, which I think is a really good way of describing what happened.
xG map for Tottenham - Leeds— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) November 21, 2021
like two different matches, one in the first half with Leeds all over Spurs and a second half the roles reversed, that's why there's a cliche for it pic.twitter.com/ckTzv9CGnS
Now, I sincerely doubt that the plan was to play 45 minutes of garbage football. Conte deserves some responsibility for certain decisions made in this match — Winks and Lucas were predictably and diabolically poor in the first half and I’m not sure he should be entirely let off the hook for that opening 45 minute performance. Conte’s comments also seem to acknowledge that, whatever the tactical plan, Tottenham didn’t really execute it very well in the opening half.
“We played two different games. In the first half they beat us on the tactical aspect.
“In the second half we tried the solution to change the game. To play against Leeds and Marcelo Bielsa is not easy. We must be satisfied. This is a point to start for the rest of the season. I’m sure that to continue to work in the way we’re working on the tactical, physical and mentality aspects I think we can have good improvement for the rest of the season.
“For sure we need to improve because I like to bring this intensity. I had a bit of perplexity [whether] to use this intensity for the start. I didn’t know if we could bring this intensity for the whole game.
“First half, for sure but it was my decision. We were more compact. We left them to lead the possession. Second half I totally changed the situation and the tactical aspect and also I said to them we had to go, man to man, and play with the same intensity. If we wanted to beat Leeds, we had to beat Leeds at what they’re good at doing.”
If Conte’s not fooling all of us in his post-match comments, and I don’t think he is, we can take a few things from this match.
First, Conte has a plan, and that plan is likely going to be tailor-made for each of Spurs’ opponents. Conte recognized that Spurs were at a fitness disadvantage to Leeds and that the best way to counter that was to play on the back foot and let them bash their heads against the wall for as long as possible. It might not always work — it almost didn’t this time! — but it’s certainly something you can hang your hat on.
Second, Conte is a reactive manager, but in a good way. He saw something that wasn’t working especially well, made a minor tactical adjustment at the break (possibly along with breaking out the hairdryer), and Spurs responded positively en route to a come from behind victory. How many times have we asked for a tactical adjustment over the past two years that simply hasn’t come? It feels like we’re going to get more of those kinds of tweaks, even if they at time involve players we wish had been left on the bench.
Finally, Spurs finally have a manager who isn’t afraid to talk about and reveal the rationale behind his decisions. Conte goes into a ton of detail in his comments about this match, the way he set his team up, and the way he wants his team to play. It’s refreshing. It’s fascinating! It’s something we haven’t had since Pochettino, and even Poch frequently played it very cagy with reporters.
Tottenham still feel very much like a work in progress under Conte. While it’s still early days, it almost feels as though the club is being hauled to wins by the sheer force of Conte’s enthusiastic personality. You can see glimpses of the way Conte wants to play via the increased emphasis on wingback play and fast transitions out to the flanks, but it’s not perfect and there are times when Spurs look like they’re moments away from falling on their faces. Fans are also still edgy, and the halftime boos were as much a fearful recollection of the dour football experienced under Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo as anything Spurs actually did on the pitch.
But isn’t it nice to know that Spurs can now play their way out of a funk under a manager who demands effort and who has the ability to switch things up when needed?