The January window may have closed, but Tottenham Hotspur’s performances are still as Jekyll & Hyde as ever. From winning at the Etihad against arguably the best team in Europe to home defeats against the likes of Southampton and Wolves to a classic cold, windy night loss at Burnley, Spurs somehow still find themselves in a battle for fourth.
Spurs may no longer have multiple games in hand against their competitors and their chances to finish top four have taken a hit, but they still have a chance to finish in a Champions League qualifying place. After the appointment of Antonio Conte in November, many expected Spurs to fight for that fourth spot. And while the start of Conte’s tenure started out great, the club has gone through a recent dip in form in their last six games, taking just six points out of a possible 18.
In January, Spurs got two significant additions by bringing in Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur but lost a considerable amount of depth in midfield by selling or loaning Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli. The worry after January was the club’s lack of depth, and that has been tested in midfield with both Bentancur and Oliver Skipp out currently due to injury, leaving Harry Winks and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg as the club’s only experienced and fit midfield options.
Another worry stemming from the January window is that the club did not improve at wingback; utilizing the width from those positions is a true staple the way Conte likes his teams to line up and play. Whether it has been in a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, Conte’s preference for his wingbacks to venture forward is a major part of how his systems generate creativity and advance the ball. In recent seasons, Spurs have gotten lackluster in the creativity department, particularly since Christian Eriksen departed in January 2020.
Perhaps Conte’s biggest strength is his ability to identify a player’s best trait and finding a way to utilize that asset accordingly. While some of Spurs’ best performances under Conte have come in the 3-5-2 shape (Liverpool home, Leicester away, etc.), the Italian seems determined to make the 3-4-3 shape work and that was probably reinforced by Fabio Paratici and the board letting players like Ndombele and Lo Celso go. But while the shape looks set in a 3-4-3, Spurs’ wingback options have continuously been tested and questioned — Conte has been forced to use all of the options available to him due to form, injury, and even COVID-19.
Spurs definitely wanted Adama Traoré in January to play in a wingback role, but it was not meant to be and the Italian was left with just two options at each wingback position. Let’s take a look at both sets of wingbacks and re-assess their form and what could be expected with the season’s home-stretch approaching.
Ryan Sessegnon has been given extended opportunities with usual starter Sergio Reguilón sidelined in recent weeks with COVID and some knocks here and there. For the most part, Sessegnon has held up well and has seemingly improved in each of his appearances, not counting the Wolves game where he made way after 27 minutes when Spurs were down 2-0 and Conte was forced into changing the system to get something out of the game.
It is easy to forget that Sessegnon is still just 21 years old. He has had some significant injury misfortune in recent seasons, but he is playing in a new position in a new system. Sessegnon is a player that Conte has mentioned has the potential quality and potential, the mindset and bravery to to truly establish himself at Spurs as he did a few seasons ago with Fulham. Consistent game time has clearly been huge for Sessegnon, as he has handled himself well against elite players such as Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez in recent appearances.
Reguilón has been very hot and cold since Conte came in. By far Spurs’ best fullback option when they were playing in a back four, many expected him to blossom in a more-advanced role. In my opinion, Reguilón is not the most technical player and he is a little clumsy on the ball. His final ball is not consistent, but he is a runner and has impressed me in transitional defense. There has been chatter in recent weeks and months that Real Madrid would be interested in buying him back in the coming transfer windows. Regardless of Sessegnon’s uptick in form, both players will be needed going forward under Conte, especially given the Italian’s propensity for substituting his wingbacks off in latter parts of games.
Definitely an area of concern in future transfer windows, both Emerson Royal and Matt Doherty have failed to take hold of the right wingback position despite multiple opportunities, leading the club to consider Adama Traore for the role. As it stands currently, it has clearly been a difficult transition for Emerson, who was bought late in the summer window and is currently being asked to play in a position he is not accustomed to at wingback. His performances at right back earlier in the season under Nuno Espírito Santo were not spectacular, but they did not show his weaknesses nearly to the same extent as they have since playing as a wingback under Conte.
Emerson’s performances have shown him to be a player who is low on confidence, but this is still a 23-year-old player that Spurs invested quite a bit of money in. Spurs signed Matt Doherty in the José Mourinho era where the club was a back-four team, effectively asking the Irish international to play in a position he was not familiar with. Of course, Spurs should be in the market for a new right wingback this season, but Emerson and Doherty will have to do for now. Some potential options include Ajax’s Noussair Mazraoui and Atalanta’s Joakim Mæhle.
Coming off his best performance in a Spurs shirt against Leeds, Doherty seems like he has found his footing a bit and appears to be the leader for me at right wingback over Emerson. I find it not a coincidence at all that Doherty’s form has found an uptick at the same time Kulusevski has taken on a bigger involvement in the starting lineup. With Kulusevski starting, Spurs have a player who can really hold their position and give defenses a ton to worry about. Lucas has provided some heroic moments in spots this season, but Kulusevski is a clear upgrade at the position. With Kulusevski in right-sided spot as the three in attack, Spurs have a player who can hold onto the ball, always thinking forward with his touches and can provide a lot of creativity in that area of the field.
The combination of Kulusevski and Doherty on the pitch has led to a much more balanced and disciplined attack, at least against Leeds. Kulusevski’s ability to hang onto possession has led to Doherty providing his best trait on the pitch, which is arriving late in pockets of space and stretching defenses wide. Lucas has definitely given way for Kulusevski at the position, but the reality is that the Brazilian is better suited as a sparkplug off the bench in a 30-to-40 minute cameo. A concern of Kulusevski at Juventus was his inability to grasp onto a particular position, but his flexibility has been a linchpin in Spurs’ recent attacking outbursts.
Spurs should definitely be in the market for a new right wingback in the summer. But at this moment, Doherty looks to be the much better option at the position over Emerson. Doherty can provide goals, as indicated against Leeds this weekend. I know that it is Leeds and basically any game against that opposition can provide for crazy outcomes, but Doherty has more experience at the position and has more accommodating traits to be given the nod above Emerson.
On the other side, both Sessegnon and Reguilón are deserving and more than capable of the starting spot. Obviously Reguilón has more experienced than the former, but I wonder if Sessegnon’s recent improvement in form paired with Reguilón’s prior inconsistencies could lead Conte into choosing the Englishman. With Conte having his back three preference clearly set with Ben Davies, Eric Dier and Cristian Romero, he should have a bit more comfort to experiment more with a player with Sessegnon’s potential.
After Saturday’s win against Leeds, Conte made reference to this game being the first time that the players really understood the system. I think that may be pretty tongue-in-cheek considering, again, the opposition, but there are qualities and dimensions that the wingback combination of Sessegnon and Doherty do provide. On a different day, Leeds could have capitalized more on their chances, but we saw some clear aspects of the duo’s game that Conte can utilize and work with at least until the summer transfer window.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.