Since coming to Tottenham Hotspur, Antonio Conte has immediately implemented his expected back-three formation. At Inter Milan, it was a 3-5-2 shape that guided the Nerazzurri in the 2020/21 season to their first scudetto since the 2009/10 season. But at Spurs, Conte has instead opted for a 3-4-3 shape. Regardless of the flavor of his formation, Conte has a clear preference for his wingbacks to get up and down the flanks, looking to create overlaps and underlaps with his forwards.
At Inter, Conte deployed options like Achraf Hakimi, Ivan Perišić and even an aging Ashley Young to play wingback roles — not the greatest of options outside of the first. In his managerial years, Conte has developed quite a reputation for getting the most out of his players and winning with squads that may not have the most talent. At Spurs, Conte once again finds himself in a position where he does not have the most talented options at his disposal.
Despite that, Conte has already had an impact on Spurs’ team in his short time as a manager. And while the Italian has yet to have a transfer window to add reinforcements into the squad, we have already seen players blossoming under Conte. Oliver Skipp and even Ben Davies in that left-sided center back role are examples of that. There will surely be upgrades made in defense, but looking at wingbacks in particular, this is arguably the area that is most important to how Conte sets up his sides.
In looking at the past few transfer windows, Spurs have invested quite a bit at the position. Since 2019, Spurs have moved on from Danny Rose, Juan Foyth (although you could make the argument that he was seen as more of a center back at Spurs), Kieran Trippier, Serge Aurier and even Kyle Walker-Peters. Players like Sergio Reguilón, Emerson Royal, Ryan Sessegnon and Matt Doherty have been brought into the fray with Japhet Tanganga being promoted through the ranks. With the transfer window approaching, given that Conte has had a bit of time with the group, the position of wingback will once again be one to monitor in January. Could Conte look to add a player or two in this role?
It it still early days, but what has become abundantly clear is that Reguilón and Emerson are Conte’s preferred starters. While the duo are likely still adjusting to their new(ish) roles, both have certainly had an uptick in form since Conte’s arrival. However, the options behind them are certainly questionable. This was made clear almost two weeks ago when Spurs traveled to Slovenia in the UEFA Conference League. In that game against Mura, Sessegnon and Doherty both started and both failed to impress. Sessegnon was sent off in the 32nd minute after picking up two quick yellows and Doherty was subbed off shortly after halftime.
In Sunday’s win against Norwich City, Conte’s wingback preference was once again tested, as Reguilón, despite having a knock in training ahead of that match, was picked to play on the left and Tanganga, due to Emerson’s illness, was preferred over Doherty on the right. Sessegnon quickly came on for Reguilón once the Spaniard could not go any longer. Forced into the game after 20 minutes, Sessegnon grew more and more in confidence and put in a decent shift. In his one cameo, he showcased that while he may not be as apt in defense as Reguilón, he has more natural ball-carrying and progression ability.
On the other side, Tanganga was a big minus despite the poor opposition. The reality with Tanganga is that while he is good in defense and reads the game quite well, attacks end with him as he does not have the natural feel and comfort on the ball to progress up the field in a wingback role. He could play as a fullback on the right in back four, but in Conte’s set-up, he would be better suited to play as the right-sided centerback in comparison to right wingback.
Maligned as public enemy number one by Spurs supporters, Doherty was not terrible in this game. He made a few things happen, but he is not seen by many as a reliable player for Conte and Spurs. So it leaves the club with the feeling that they have options on the left, but their options on the right side are very much in question.
With the recent COVID issues going on at Spurs, these worries could very well be accelerated into problems. There is an idea that perhaps a more orthodox forward could play in a ball-playing, wingback role. Bryan Gil, Steven Bergwijn and even Lucas Moura have been discussed among Spurs fans as potential options in this role. But with the reports of Spurs looking to move on from some assets and build capital to play with in the approaching transfer window, perhaps Conte and Fabio Paratici could be looking to bring in a player to spell and/or even compete with Emerson on the right.
The worry for many about Spurs this season is their lack of capable depth. Whether it was playing a 4-2-3-1 under Nuno Espírito Santo or a 3-4-3 under Conte, the same XI have largely been the preferred starters. Fortunately for Spurs, the squad has stayed largely healthy this season. However, with all of the upcoming games, including the Premier League, domestic cups, European competition, as well as players departing for their international sides, it’s inevitable that injuries can and will eventually arise. And they have in recent weeks with Giovani Lo Celso not being available (although he is apparently set to return soon) and now with star defender Cristian Romero set to be out until at least the new year.
Spurs not only lack depth, but they lack capable and reliable play from the depth they do have. And this has certainly become apparent for Conte despite his short tenure. That is why it comes as no surprise that players on the fringe, like Dele Alli, Bergwijn and even Tanguy Ndombele, have been linked with moves away.
Should Reguilón or Emerson miss time, it would be quite damaging. For years, Spurs have featured a back four so it has been interesting to see how each player has transitioned to finding their place in the squad now that the team has shifted to a back three. In a short time, it has become abundantly clear that while Spurs have the resources needed on the left, the worries on the right side are serious. And against clubs that are superior to Leeds, Brentford and Norwich, those problems could spell disaster for Spurs.
With January approaching, the roster is going to continue to churn and turn over. And the fact that Conte has gotten results in the process provides so much optimism. The race to finish in a Champions League spot is on the horizon and should Conte iron out this squad’s issues, Spurs are more than capable in beating out their competitors for that fourth spot. Shoring up the wingbacks will help them get there.