What a win! Tottenham Hotspur went away to Marseille on Tuesday night knowing that they had to get a result in the seething cauldron of the Stade Velodrome in order to continue their Champions League journey. Spurs have not been good away in Europe over the past year (or in general) and the match was touch and go there for a while, but thanks to a Marseille tactical error and an incisive counterattack, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s injury time goal saw Spurs win their group and go through to the next round with a dramatic win on a glory, glory night.
There’s so much we could unpack after this match, but let’s focus on three things we learned last night in France.
Let’s not overreact to this dramatic win
There are a lot of positive things you can take from last night’s win. It was another inspired fight back from a team that is now showing signs of real resilience and grit. It was perhaps Ivan Perisic’s best match in a Tottenham Hotspur shirt. Both Harry Kane and (incredibly) Emerson Royal put in very good performances. The midfield of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Yves Bissouma all played well in the face of an intensely hostile atmosphere and after a potentially demoralizing injury to Son Heung-Min. It’s led to some, including the Athletic’s Jack Pitt-Brooke, to shower Spurs with praise after full time.
Obviously I know that if Kolasinac had scored we'd be having a different conversation... but there was a real canniness to Spurs yesterday, even down to things like time-wasting. They're an experienced team and they showed it. (Like in the Arsenal win in May.)— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) November 2, 2022
With respect to JPB, a journalist whose opinion I value highly, I and many of the Carty Free writer’s Slack disagree with this take. The result was certainly spectacular, and done with panache, but it’s important to reflect a little critically on the match as a whole and not just on the final result.
The truth is that not much has really changed after this match. Spurs are still a frustrating team that, whether by design or not (see below) are still starting games slowly and are underperforming to the level they were at last spring. The majority of their best players are at playing at minimum a full step behind where they were at the peak of last season. Yes, a previous iteration of this Tottenham squad might not have completed the comebacks against Bournemouth or Marseilles, and there’s a certain level of maturity visible now — KPB notes the capable time-wasting, which I agree with — but it feels too tempting to paper over some of the ongoing concerns after what was a really, really fun and exciting result.
As one member of our Slack put it, “the vibes are good but I don’t think anything has changed.” I don’t want to minimize the vibes — they’re good and cool and important! But there are still issues with this team that could easily be exploited by, for example, a wounded bird like Liverpool. This result also comes with the context of what was supposed to be a pretty easy, straightforward group. The Champions League opposition will only get tougher now that Spurs are through. I’m enjoying the win, but I still have some questions.
Tottenham’s slow starts might be at least partially by design
Cristian Stellini didn’t cop to it in his press conference — he’d be crazy to do so — but after yet another Tottenham first half marked by insipid, plodding play, little attacking play, and a goal deficit and followed by a second half markedly improved in both urgency and efficacy, there appears to be ample evidence to suggest that this is at least partially a coached tactic. There’s clearly some debate on this amongst fan circles: for every supporter you find who suggests Spurs’ slow starts are an attempt to preserve legs as much as possible until the World Cup break, you’ll find another who is absolutely livid that the team can’t seem to muster the will to come out swinging right from the start.
In all seriousness, I think both are correct. Tottenham do not have a deep team, despite the emphasis on purchasing quality depth this summer, and the injuries to key players such as Richarlison, Dejan Kulusevski, and Cristian Romero have made the quality of their depth even more of an issue. It’s also true that an already busy schedule is more compressed than ever this season due to the inexplicably ridiculous winter World Cup in Qatar. It does not feel at all unusual to me to suspect that Conte would want to preserve the health and fitness of his key players as much as possible until the World Cup, after which he can go full-tilt and make a play for something special.
That said, I’m pretty sure Conte’s team instructions have not been “play like shit for 45 minutes.” Compact, patient, and defensive? Sure! But that doesn’t really explain Conte’s Spurs looking like the nadir of the Mourinho era for the first half of every match this past month. The players have to have some culpability in these performances, because spotting your opponents a goal or two in the first half doesn’t seem to be a very good strategy if your goal is to challenge for silverware. Clearly Spurs can do better, even if they’ve been coached to, for now, sit deep and absorb pressure in the early parts of matches.
I don’t think we’ll ever get confirmation that this is the plan, from Conte or Stellini or anyone. That’s just not how this works. When asked, they’ll say that the team didn’t show enough “energy” or “determination” or whatever buzzword makes the most sense at the time. I’m also not saying it’s a bad idea to conserve energy as part of a long game end strategy. What I am saying is that it’s both okay to be frustrated at how Spurs are starting matches — this match included — while also acknowledging that this might be the plan for the whole season. So long as Spurs are getting results, that’s a strategy Spurs supporters could grudgingly get behind, if the ends justify the means.
Conte could do worse than finally give Bryan Gil a shot
We don’t know when Kulusevski and Richarlison are coming back into the side. Lords knows we could use both (or either) of them right now, especially with Son Heung-Min out as well for who knows how long. But after another match where Lucas Moura ran into cul-de-sacs and looked non-threatening going forward (even acknowledging his defensive contributions), it’s becoming more and more inexplicable why Conte is so intransigent about giving Bryan Gil a sustained run in the team.
Lucas was not good on Tuesday night. He wasn’t awful (credit for teeing up Hojbjerg when he smacked the bar), but he was more of a passenger than a plus-add on the night. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he didn’t provide anything that Bryan Gil couldn’t also have given had he started in Lucas’ place.
Conte has a “next man up” strategy, but we know that he also values experience over youthful enthusiasm. So while it’s not surprising to see him favor Lucas over a 21 year old Spanish kid with a Beatles haircut, it is still pretty frustrating. We know what we’re getting out of Lucas at this point, and it’s not all that impressive. Maybe Bryan is at or slightly below “Lucas-level” at this point in time, but at least Gil has the possibility of improving his game at this point and becoming better than he is now. But he won’t if he only plays spot minutes in these big matches.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how Conte handles first team minutes in Sonny’s absence over the next couple of weeks (and I’m assuming Sonny will be out for a while). Will he keep Lucas in a 3-4-3? Will we see a shift to the 3-5-2 that we saw after Son’s sub last night? If Deki and Richy aren’t available, who will partner Kane and how will that work? We don’t know. It’ll be interesting to find out, though I hope Bryan Gil is at least a part of the discussion.