Heading into the 2021/22 season, it felt like Tottenham Hotspur were entering another year where their strengths and weaknesses were extremely variable — think Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde — and that each end of the spectrum would ultimately decide if they were to win or lose on any given day. While the strengths were clearly evident in the elite finishing duo of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, the reality is that the Spurs’ season would ultimately depend on the defense, an area that had been their Achilles heel in recent years.
Just a few seasons ago, Spurs’ defense ranked as one of the better back lines in the Premier League, led by the Belgian superduo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. However, since the conclusion of 2016/17 season, Spurs’ defense has fallen off. Perhaps in large part due to aging veterans and faulty recruitment, going into this season it appeared that Spurs were once again heading to another year of leaky defensive play at the back.
Even with the addition of Cristian Romero, Spurs were once again positioned to be using options like Eric Dier and Davinson Sánchez after trying and failing to bring in better centerback targets, such as Sevilla’s Jules Koundé and Villareal’s Pau Torres.
Despite three clean sheets in the first three games in charge for Nuno Espírito Santo, it never felt like Spurs were in serious control in any of their victories. Largely playing a dull and pragmatic system, Spurs were taken to the sword in three different London derbies against Crystal Palace (3-0), Chelsea (3-0) and Arsenal (3-1). The run of poor form continued and led to Spurs sacking the Portuguese manager on November 1st and replacing him with Antonio Conte the following day. And since, Tottenham’s defense has magically improved.
While it is true that Spurs would do well by improving the overall quality in defense in the future, there is a feeling that the appointment of Conte has almost overnight turned their biggest area of concern into their biggest strength.
Since Conte was appointed on November 2nd, Spurs have a record of 4-0-3, scoring 13 goals and conceding four. Now, there is no exact answer why the defense has improved so quickly. One can point to the change to a back three, added motivation under Conte, the improved relationship between the players and the managerial staff, having an actual coach with an identity and recognizable patterns of play in place. The reality is that it is a little bit of all of the above.
By moving away from the back four, Conte has asked his centerbacks to become more comfortable on the ball while also playing a bit farther away from their penalty box. By transitioning to a back three in his preferred 3-4-3 system, Conte has given total license for his wingbacks to move forward to create overlaps with his advanced forwards, thus reducing the need for one more midfielder on the pitch, which in turn has added the ability to have an extra centerback in the back line.
When Conte came in, it was Ben Davies, Dier and Romero who anchored the back line. Moving from a left back to a left-sided centerback has turned Davies into quite an important player for Spurs. Conte has asked less of him to get the most out of the strengths in his game while minimizing the areas he struggled with as a left sided fullback, a role that has led to a resurgence in his performances.
Moreover, Sánchez and Japhet Tanganga were used as versatile pieces throughout the defense with options like Ryan Sessegnon and even Matt Doherty playing on the outside. Most thought Spurs were dealt a significant blow when Romero went down with a hamstring injury in November, but the defense has continued to rise to the occasion, giving both Sánchez and Tanganga starting minutes in the back three.
No player has become more important under Conte than Dier. A much maligned Tottenham player the past few years, the transition to full-time centerback has been quite a rough one for the 27-year-old. Dier has always struggled out in space and in individual duels, but he has excelled in the box in tight areas and is quite good in aerial duels. Similar to how Conte is getting the most out of Davies, Dier is no longer being asked to play in the wide areas as his positioning has really been restricted to the “spare-man” role in Conte’s set-up.
In this spot, we have seen Dier become one of the more underrated defenders in the league, perhaps even warranting some England national team attention in the process. Additionally, Dier’s ability to make the diagonal and long-ball pass has improved with more space and time on the ball in this deeper role. After years of criticism from Spurs supporters — myself included — Dier has become one of the more important figures, both from an ability and leadership perspective, on the pitch despite how crazy that sounds.
Due to how much emphasis Conte places on his centerbacks’ ability to dribble out and advance the ball, Romero’s return from injury should insert him back into the lineup after he shakes off some rust. He is undoubtedly Tottenham’s best defender and his style of play matched with Conte’s demands of his defenders could be quite the marriage together. However, it should be mentioned how both Sánchez and Tanganga have improved considerably since the Italian arrived.
While on the fringes of Spurs’ squad at the start of the season, Sánchez has gone through somewhat of a rebirth in recent weeks. His athletic ability and comfort on the ball has gotten Spurs out of a variety of tricky situations, most recently against Southampton when he recovered and defended a ball in a dangerous area after Dier cheaply gave it away. He likely will never be utilized on the left side again after the performance against Mura, but Sánchez has proved at the very least to be a reliable squad piece for Conte.
In Tanganga’s case, the Italian quickly realized that he was better suited as a centerback instead of a right wingback after a poor showing against Norwich City. Tanganga has never been known for his ability on the ball, but the injury to Romero and the fixture congestion of late has forced the youth academy graduate to play more and we have seen his ability in attack and on the ball improve a marginal amount.
All of this is not by coincidence — it all has to do with Conte and the impact he has had on the players. Of course Tottenham should eventually be in the market for one or two new centerbacks — we discussed a few here. But the purpose here is to outline just how vital an elite manager can have on a squad.
For awhile, it felt like the rebuild at Tottenham was coming. And the discussion many were focused on was whether the club’s issues over the past few years had been due to the manager or the players. No longer playing for a tyrannical football dinosaur like José Mourinho or the introverted Nuno, the Tottenham players seem reborn. And while the options may not be what Conte was hoping for, he is getting the absolute most out of them and that alone is a considerable improvement over what the club and its supporters have endured in recent seasons. As the squad is expected to be improved upon in the coming transfer windows, it is no longer doom and gloom surrounding Spurs. The future, in fact, does seem quite bright.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.