It was a sloppy performance all around for most of the day on Saturday. Tottenham Hotspur faced newly-promoted Bournemouth sandwiched between two group-deciding Champions League matches. After Spurs had the winner and group-advancing goal taken away from them on Wednesday against Sporting, Antonio Conte decided to refresh the squad with the thinking of preserving legs for the all-important away fixture in France against Marseille on Tuesday.
When the team news broke and Spurs’ starting XI was released, Conte and his staff decided to bench three starters — Eric Dier, Cristian Romero and Rodrigo Bentancur. Conte styled his team in a 3-5-2 shape with a back three of Ben Davies, Clément Lenglet and Davinson Sánchez along with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Yves Bissouma in the middle of the park. While three points were expected against Bournemouth, it was hard to muster too much confidence in a starting XI that featured a number of players who have yet to kick into form this season. On top of this, Spurs have had a propensity of starting matches slow, as evidenced by them going behind first in their last four games in all competitions.
Naturally, Spurs supporters’ worst fears came to light as Spurs looked toothless for large portions of the game. In their losses this season, Spurs’ Achilles heel has been their inability to progress the ball against well-equipped pressing sides. This was the case against Manchester United when Spurs had arguably their worst performance of the season. However, Bournemouth never pressed Spurs and their chances instead came on Tottenham’s inability to string together consistent passes, stretch the defense and their tendency to give the ball away carelessly. In a 3-5-2, Spurs certainly had control of the ball and dictated the pace of play. But without a proper, creative option within that midfield three, a lot of the ball progression relied on the likes of Emerson Royal from the right wingback area — and Emerson had yet another poor performance in that role.
At the half, it was only a matter of time until changes were to be made. Spurs started the second period a little better, but heads dropped after Kieffer Moore scored his and Bournemouth’s second goal after getting in between the space left behind by Sánchez and Royal — two Tottenham players heavily criticized for their performance in this match. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg put in a terrific, weighted pass for Ryan Sessegnon to finish to halve the deficit, and Spurs made their substitutions quite early in the second half. Four substitutions were made in the span of 17 minutes as Lucas Moura, Dier, Bentancur and Ivan Perišić came on respectively for Skipp, Sánchez, Bissouma and Emerson.
Almost immediately, Spurs started to look more dangerous. After Bentancur’s sub for Bissouma, he joined midfield pivot with Højbjerg in a 3-4-3 along with another attacker in Lucas Moura. Whereas all of the attacks seemed to die out in the first half, Spurs looked much more fine-tuned and looked determined to score goals to not only tie it, but ultimately take all three points.
Bentancur’s presence on the pitch was the catalyst for Spurs turning a 2-0 deficit into a 2-3 road victory. Currently in incredible form, Bentancur is doing the ball-winning in the middle of the pitch while also showcasing his passing ability — something that was viewed as a weakness when he came over from Juventus last season. Bentancur has gotten better and better since adjusting to the intensity and the dynamic nature of the Premier League. Last January, the scouting report on Bentancur was that he was decent at a lot of different things, but there was not a particular trait that he was superior in. But since the start of this season, after a full summer training under Conte and getting adjusted to England, I do not find it as a stretch to say that he has been Spurs’ best player this season.
He has a nonstop motor, as shown by his pressing ability. He has displayed neat and tidy passing, which is a key component in Spurs’ quick attacks through Conte’s patterns. He has provided some goal output as well, but the most important thing is that he is a player who seems to slow things down under pressure. Because of the 3-4-3 shape, there have been a number of games this season where Spurs have been overrun in the middle of the park. This was notably evident in the Chelsea game among others. But because Bentancur is so familiar with the patterns and so comfortable in the position and role he is asked to play, he has become a key cog in Conte’s machine.
Something that also should be mentioned is that his presence also enables Højbjerg, the player that has been featured alongside him the most, to go up another level. When Højbjerg was partnered with Skipp and Bissouma, the trio struggled despite the Dane’s goal assist. After Spurs moved to the 3-4-3, Bentancur’s stabilizing presence allowed Højbjerg to play a much more steady role and one that he was much more familiar with. And while the 3-5-2 shape can be important when Spurs are trying to see out matches, control the game better and get things over the line, the reality is that the squad lacks that creative engine to utilize that shape when trying to score goals. Additionally, this match is further evidence that the side is much more comfortable in the 3-4-3 shape.
Against Brighton a few weeks back, Bentancur was a part of the trio along with Højbjerg and Bissouma. Further evidence of just how important Bentancur is to the side can be seen by comparing the Bournemouth match versus the Brighton match. This is not a knock on Skipp, who started in Bentancur’s place to give him some rest. It is just a testament to how, alongside say Harry Kane, there may not be a player as important to Conte’s vision at the moment than the Uruguayan.
So this is not just a quick overreaction to Saturday’s result and Bentancur’s game-winning goal. Lolo is in a terrific run of form at the moment and while Spurs should continue to assess the market in January for more creativity from midfield and right wingback, his run of form has been a primary reason why Spurs — despite not having the best of performances — are grinding out results and putting themselves in a good position ahead of the World Cup break.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.