When Antonio Conte was appointed as manager of Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday, his immediate task was to get three points in Spurs’ campaign in the UEFA Conference League. In Thursday’s game against Vitesse, Conte featured a side that was predominantly made up of first-team players. The idea was to see how the group would play in Conte’s preferred system featuring three at the back.
In his first league match, Conte’s side remained unchanged, once again featuring the same lineup and similar shape as the one deployed on Thursday.
Going up to Merseyside in a high-energy environment at Goodison Park, Everton were short-handed. Without the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Yerry Mina, this game was there for the taking.
Goals were expected in this one, especially considering both teams’ records against set pieces. But the match turned out to be anything but. In a physical battle that was extremely cagey, there were two sides that were pretty well set-up. Despite not having some big ammunition in his lineup, Everton’s manager Rafa Benítez instilled a side that looked to press Spurs’ centerbacks early and often.
Slowly but surely, Spurs grew into the game in large part due to Everton’s turnovers as well as their lack of quality in midfield. Everton seemed keen on transitioning the ball quickly and because of Everton’s at times suspect passing, Spurs’ defense were rarely seriously tested in this game.
Spurs went into the break looking like side more likely to score, as indicated by their advantage in expected goals. However, Conte’s team set up quite deep in the second period, and he team did not take advantage of transitional play. Players took too many touches on the ball with little decisiveness, so some of Spurs’ best chances on the day came from wingbacks Sergio Reguilón and Emerson Royal.
After Thursday’s game, both Conte’s and Son’s postgame comments referenced ‘suffering’. In any game, there are going to be times where Spurs look second-best. The idea of ‘suffering’ is to stay intact and get through that difficult spell. In this game, the difficult spell for Spurs came within the 60th and 75th minutes when traffic was really one-way.
As the Toffees built up more and more momentum, Goodison Park reached a boiling point when referee Chris Kavanagh awarded a penalty on the field on goalkeeper Hugo Lloris when the French captain dove in to deflect a Richarlison attacking opportunity. A short VAR review determined that Lloris got a bit of the ball, so Kavanagh concluded there to be no penalty.
After the decision, Spurs had chances to take home all three points. Giovani Lo Celso was brought in for Lucas Moura and almost put Spurs ahead from a long-distance effort that was banged off the post. A few minutes later, Spurs went up a man when Everton’s Mason Holgate was sent off late to a red card for going studs-up into the thigh of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. In the end, the points were shared and the result gives Conte yet another game to assess and time to work with the squad over the approaching international break.
To reflect on this game, let’s do another rose, thorn and bud assessment. As a reminder for those of this game, see the definitions below:
- Rose: A highlight, success, small win, or something positive that happened.
- Thorn: A challenge you experienced or something you can use more support with.
- Bud: New ideas that have blossomed or something you are looking forward to knowing more about or experiencing.
I guess you could say that Spurs looked quite comfortable for most of the game. Outside of a few chances here and there, Lloris was pretty much untested. However, Spurs’ comfort was probably due to Everton’s lack of cutting edge just as much as their own tactical approach.
Spurs’ best player on the pitch by a pretty good margin to me was Oliver Skipp. Despite being 21 years old, Skipp looked quite seasoned. He was extremely comfortable on the ball, knew his role, defended and blocked passing lanes when needed and even put together more than a few progressive passes.
I also wanted to mention here the pairing of Cristian Romero, Eric Dier and even Ben Davies. Conte’s preferred three at the back so far, each were pretty rock solid in defense. They handled Everton’s press well and did not concede any big chances.
The first thorn that should be mentioned is Harry Kane. I firmly expect Conte to get the England captain back up and running as one of the premier strikers in the world, but Kane was not consistent in this game. Yes, he had a terrific ball into Reguilón at the end of the first half, but he lost the ball a ton in the second half and his pace and agility deserves to be under scrutiny.
Both Kane and Lucas struggled to pass with efficiency in the first half and due to the lack of ball-progression from the midfield, both attackers needed to drop deeper to start up the attack. What resulted was a lack of efficacy in the final third, as indicated by Spurs’ shots on target total.
Spurs supporters have seen all season the pros and cons “Skippbjerg” midfield pivot. Spurs’ next league match will be in two weeks and in that game, they will not have Skipp after he picked up his 5th yellow card of the season. Perhaps we will see Ndombele or Lo Celso appear in that midfield.
Son Heung-min’s impact was never truly felt in this one in large part due to the performance of Everton club captain Seamus Coleman. He came off late in the game for Tanguy Ndombele and while it may have been surprising that Spurs, in need of a goal, would take off one of their best attacking threats, the reality is that the South Korean looked pretty sluggish in the moment.
The substitutions did not provide or instill that much belief in the hopes of a win. Matt Doherty, a right wingback, came in on the left for Reguilón and his presence out of position affected the flow of Spurs’ attacking threat from the flanks.
Additionally, Lo Celso and Ndombele came in, respectively, for Lucas and Son. Substituting midfielders to play out on the wings was a sign that Conte perhaps wanted to see out the result. The substitutions alluded to Spurs waiting to play a bit more narrow and rigid by asking both midfielders to play a bit more inside.
The best bright spot for Spurs is that the international break is here. Conte has said that he needs time to change and improve this side. With Spurs having roughly two weeks before their next kick-off, Conte will be given the time he needs to view the game tapes of the past two matches and figure out what needs to be done for Spurs to improve. The early signs are pointing to Conte looking to stabilize the back before making progress in attack.
Conte’s early days have shown that the team looks a bit more comfortable in the counter-press and the attacking intuition is far superior than under Nuno. As the players get more drilled into the roles of what Conte will ask and demand from them, we should see a side with a bit more cutting edge and resolve. Three points would have been nice and ideal against a reeling and banged-up Everton side, but Conte’s influence is slowly being instilled in the side. And for me, that is the best and most important takeaway at this time.
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