After an unexpected and some ways worrisome two week break from football due to a COVID outbreak in the Spurs camp, Conte’s men finally took the pitch against Liverpool earlier on Sunday. Jurgen Klopp hasn’t had much of an easier ride as the Merseyside club have been plagued with injuries and COVID cases as well. The line-up for this match was never going to be representative of a full strength side, with the likes of Hobjerg, Lucas, and Skipp missing from the XI and Fabinh and Van Dijk unable to even make the bench.
Still, starting the momentum (as Spurs needed to after such a long break) is arguably just as difficult as keeping momentum going (as Liverpool were seeking to accomplish) this was a good litmus test for Tottenham and how the squad are evolving under Conte. Here are a couple of things that stood out throughout the match.
The Lateral Centerbacks are Building Good Relationships with the Wing Backs
A month ago, no one would have predicted that Ben Davies and Ryan Sessegnon on the left, and Davinson Sanchez and Emerson Royal on the right would have been able to put up a performance like this. Not only keeping the likes of Mohammad Salah - who is the best player in the Premier League right now - quiet, but minimizing the impact that Mane, Robertson, and Alexander-Arnold had was massive and unexpected. Sure, you could point to Robertson’s assist, but no Spurs player - or Red - had a perfect game. Even with the assist coming from the flank, both pairs worked well to hold Liverpool at bay. What was most impressive was 1) their understanding of who to cover when with over/underlapping runs and 2) how they were on the same page on when to press an opposition player. These pressing triggers are something I intend to write more about in a future piece.
Perhaps Ryan Sessegnon takes top individual honors here - facing Salah, after two weeks no football, and little football going back further with him playing second fiddle to Reguilon this season, he did an outstanding job of making the left flank his own. Completing 100% of his tackles (6), he was certainly a reason Liverpool were forced to attack down Tottenham’s right - finding no joy through the left they made Sanchez and Royal quite busy. Some might say that he turned up to a big game and that’s it, but it was refreshing to see Sessegnon quietly (and excellently) go about his business after his error in the EL.
Dele Alli and Harry Winks Put Up Two of The Best Performances
Who would have thought. The two players that were the top of the wish-list for most fans (including my own, through no ill will) to depart in January stepped up when Conte needed them to. Harry Winks was a man possessed, linking the middle and final thirds with some great progressive passing. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the past - but comparatively speaking those were flakes of gold dust compared to the mountain of riches Winks put on display today. Had Tottenham’s finishing been better he would have gotten more plaudits, especifically speaking about Dele’s missed chance in the 28th minute that was made possible by an inch-perfect pass from Winks to Son. He was involved in Tottenham’s tying goal as well, making a pass that Alisson mishandled. Still, having the eye and desire to execute a pass like that is worth applauding, as it represents attacking impetus that Spurs have sorely lacked in months.
Speaking of attacking impetus - Dele Alli was one of the most positive players on the pitch today. Coming off the pitch with the most amount of dribbles completed, five blocks, and one interception in the defensive third, he executed the box to box role really well. With some runs off the last man to connect with long balls from centerbacks (how he found tons of success earlier in his career, scoring notable goals against Chelsea and Arsenal), it’s possible that he still has a role to play in Conte’s side.
Conte is Building a Team That’s Larger Than the Sum of Its Parts
It’s insane to me that a month ago Spurs fans would have begged for a good performance against Liverpool and a low scoring loss. On paper, the match-up between Salah and Sessegnon, Mane and Royal, and three center backs that are all error prone (perhaps harsh with Davies) combined with a midfield that has never played together in Conte’s system? Nightmare fuel.
But after the events of Sunday, it’s clear that there was a win within Tottenham’s grasp. Liverpool is flying high and aiming for the title. For Conte to come in after a month and set up Spurs to play out of their skin with the intensity that every fan has wanted to see for months is something special.
Do you remember Pochettino’s 5-3 against Chelsea on Boxing Day? You know the one. That one performance that you knew every player, whether a ‘guaranteed starter’ or not, knew exactly what to do and, more importantly, believed in what they were doing. Such a performance can be transformative for a club, never mind a coach’s tenure.
Could be that I eat my words in the future but I think that this was Conte’s 5-3.
Planning on publishing a match review video later this week. When done, I will update this post with a link.