With the page turned on the month of January, Tottenham Hotspur has now had their opportunity to readjust their squad ahead of the Premier League stretch run. I say the word ‘readjust’ here because this transfer window more than ever felt like a chance for Spurs to ship out the players Antonio Conte felt he could not rely on and instead bring on players that he feels could.
When Spurs appointed Conte, there were many reasons for optimism. But ultimately the biggest one was the club finally having a manager with the credentials and resume to make tough decisions about players who had not been showing their quality in quite some time. Dele Alli, Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele are three players who are no longer with the squad, with Dele moving to Everton on a permanent move and the latter duo on loan until at least the end of the season.
With everything going on at the club, both on the pitch and behind closed doors, it was always going to be a difficult challenge for many players relatively new to the squad to come in, find their best role and get into their optimal form. The cohesion and togetherness that was felt under Mauricio Pochettino had all but dried up and there was plenty of blame to go around with fans alternately criticizing the players, managers and even the board/chairman.
By bringing in Conte, Spurs finally had the embodiment of a “judge and jury” — someone who could assess the squad and figure out the best way forward. Many expected big things from Ndombele and Lo Celso when the Italian was appointed, but oddly enough it has been Harry Winks who has benefitted the most from Conte’s appointment.
That idea that Conte had certain players he could count on and others he couldn’t no doubt made its way to Fabio Paratici and the board going into this transfer window. Due to the nature of the month and the difficulties that come with it, there are many positives and some negatives that have come from the January transfer window. Let’s reflect on what was a big month as well as Conte’s first window.
Glass half full
For starters, Spurs brought in two players who look to be good additions into the squad in Swedish international Dejan Kulusevski and Uruguayan international Rodrigo Bentancur. While the two were really on the outside looking in at Juventus, both players provide the potential to be important additions into the squad. Both Kulusevski (21) and Bentancur (24) are on the young side and have extremely high work-rates. Additionally, Spurs are adding two players with big game experience who have played roles in winning leagues, cups and Champions League games.
There is an argument to be made that right wingback and a more-creative midfielder should have been a higher priority over a right sided winger (Kulusevski) and a number six/eight central midfielder (Bentancur), but the reliability and versatility of both provides for sufficient cover. In Kulusevski, Spurs are getting a player that can operate in a variety of roles while also providing an attacking impetus with a left foot — something that, despite Heung-min Son’s comfort with his left boot, Spurs do not have in their attackers. Kulusevski was one of the hotter names in European football two seasons ago while on loan at Parma, and while he fell out of favor under Massimiliano Allegri this past season, he has a ton of potential and has already been impactful at a young age. Bentancur is definitely not the sexy signing that Lo Celso and Ndombele were, but there are traits to his game that can make him a valuable plug-and-play option for Conte. His passing is not extraordinary, but he is an excellent recycler and ball-winner who can also provide cover in front of the defense allowing other teammates to push forward.
It has become clear that regardless of formation Conte has preferred midfielders that follow his instructions over creative-minded players. That is one reason, among others, why Lo Celso and Ndombele were sidelined for the likes of Oliver Skipp, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Winks. By inserting Kulusevski, Spurs likely take away or minimize the reliance of Emerson Royal to create chances on the right flank while also adding a left-footed attacker up top. By inserting Bentancur, Spurs have a player a bit more fluent and comfortable in a midfield pivot who can also challenge and provide fresh legs to the current options there. Additionally, he can operate in a deeper role in a 3-5-2, giving license for other midfielders to move up the pitch when Spurs are trying to pin opponents back or playing against sides that want to sit deeper against them.
These two additions will not transform Spurs into a title-winning team, but they will definitely bolster the squad and improve Conte’s options. For a January window, these are good signings who are both really good bits of business, considering the prices they were brought in for.
Additionally, time was truly be up for many of Spurs’ outgoings from the January window. By shedding some wages off of their books and also giving opportunities for players like Lo Celso and Ndombele to improve their worth and reestablish their market value on loan, Spurs have set themselves up for a big summer. And, for players like Bryan Gil and Jack Clarke who also went out on loan, perhaps a bit more game time will do them well. And if Spurs do manage to qualify for top 4, there will be both money and optimism for Spurs to make some major summer moves and likely come back in for the positions (RWB, LCB, etc.) that they weren’t able to address in the January window.
Glass half empty
Of course, worries remain with Spurs’ overall depth but making just two signings this past window makes me cautiously pessimistic. While Spurs only remain in two competitions (Premier League and FA Cup) after their fortunate (ha) UEFA Conference League exit, depth is still a worry as we approach the season’s home stretch.
While Conte seems more focused on creativity and ball progression coming from the system as opposed to individual players, Spurs have just four midfielders with significant first-team minutes in the squad. And all four of those options have abilities that are very redundant. Perhaps Conte wants his midfielders to be boring and plug the holes and gaps in the overall system, but Spurs just do not have players in the squad who can pick open locks with consistency.
Questions still remain at the right wingback position. There were rumors that Matt Doherty might be sold in the transfer window, but he’s staying in north London at least until the summer as the backup to Emerson Royal. For Emerson, it has not been a great start in the Premier League for the former Barcelona man, but he is still just 22 years old. And, unlike Ndombele and Lo Celso, Emerson should get a bit more consistent with a top manager like Conte who knows what to do to get the best out of his players. However, right wingback remains a position of priority this summer with options like Tariq Lamptey and Ridle Baku as possible options.
For me, there is some concern at left-sided centerback. Ben Davies has held up extremely well there since Conte’s arrival, but Spurs’ centerback options are limited behind him. The club was able to get through the injuries to Eric Dier and Cristian Romero, but should Davies go down to injury, Spurs likely move Davinson Sánchez there. And while Sánchez has performed better since Conte’s arrival, he is much better suited in the right-sided centerback role compared to the left. Like RWB, a solid LCB looks to me like an area the club will need to return to this summer and a return to a player like Villareal’s Pau Torres, whom Spurs were linked with this past summer, would bode well in the spot.
On top of these concerns, there is of course the continuous problem of a backup striker behind Harry Kane. It appears that just before the international break Conte identified striker qualities in Steven Bergwijn and that is ultimately why Spurs rejected approaches from Ajax. Bergwijn showcased decent hold up qualities in addition to playing a bit more off of Kane further up the pitch, but worries remain of what Spurs will do if Kane has an injury. Hopefully, not having European games in the week should help alleviate running Kane into the ground.
No one expected a perfect window, but no one also expected the club to sit on their hands and do nothing. The reality is that this window has a ton of positives as well as some negatives. I personally would have liked another signing, but it is apparent what the club was trying to do in January. With the incomings paired with the players who were shipped out, the thinking for this window was to officially move on from players who were not going to have roles this season with the long-term thinking that loaning them out to improve their value for Spurs to have a big impact in the summer transfer window. In the short term, this window gives Spurs the opportunity to add two solid players, one of whom has big potential to have a long stay at the club. Was it a spectacular window? No. But this window has set up the club decently for the medium term.
For the above reasons mentioned, I’d rank this transfer window as a 6.5/10.
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