Fresh off of a huge win over West Ham in their quest for a top-four finish, the mood surrounding Tottenham Hotspur feels like something the club has not experienced in a few years. Less than three seasons ago, Spurs were playing in arguably the biggest game in the club competitions in the Champions League final. Even then, Spurs were sputtering in the league and were fortunate to eke out a fourth place finish in the 2018-19 season. But since then, Spurs have declined and worked their way through a “painful rebuild.” Fortunately for the club, in a time where they really, really needed to turn a corner, Antonio Conte has this team on the cusp of a top-four finish and the future actually and surprisingly looks pretty bright!
Compare that to the start of this season when the club’s best player Harry Kane was looking for a move away and the club settled on arguably their sixth or seventh managerial choice when they appointed Nuno Espírito Santo. And while the fanbase still has their gripes with owner Joe Lewis, chairman Daniel Levy and company, the squad, albeit thin, is responding really well to Conte’s impact and they look determined to finish out the season in a UEFA Champions League position.
But before we wax poetically about Spurs’ turnaround, it is important to note that Spurs win against West Ham marks the first time since the month of December where the club has won consecutive games. This includes home defeats to Southampton, Wolves and losses at Burnley and Middlesbrough.
If you look at Conte’s short tenure with the club, Spurs have really been dangerous against sides that feature a high line, look to press or teams that use a lot of energy. Although they have crazy wins at Manchester City and Leicester and dominations of Everton and Leeds, Spurs have also had performances in between where they have struggled to put away a lowly team like Watford.
Additionally, Spurs’ best performances have come when the team has had more days of rest. That obviously should not come as a surprise, but the comparison is stark. Note that both the losses to Saints and Wolves came within a four-day time period whereas the win at City came with an additional day of rest. With Spurs only having league games to play until the end of the season, this trend can continue and it already has. Their most recent wins, away to Brighton and home to West Ham, came within four days of their previous games. And outside of that, Conte has even said it himself that he is starting to feel his teachings and methods are getting more and more ingrained in the squad.
I want to put a reminder here that Conte has never entered a coaching position in the middle of the season. It has been heavily documented that Conte’s pre-season training sessions are quite grueling, featuring a heavy focus on physical condition as well as “shadow-play”, which is a starting XI acting as if they are playing against another side with the focus of nailing down patterns and methods and with an end goal of figuring out how to break down different types of sides and different formations. Without a preseason to gain familiarity with the squad, Conte has had to do this in limited time. That is arguably why the side has been so predominately focused on playing in a 3-4-3 shape. And now without the lack of extra competitions, Spurs can walk out with the same lineup game after game if desired.
The squad, despite having some world-class firepower, is quite thin and this summer will go a long way in continuing to redevelop the club’s project. However, with one league game a week to focus on, we are really starting to reap the benefits of some of Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici’s decisions.
While the current first-choice starting XI still features a number of “Mauricio Pochettino players” at the moment (Son Heung-Min, Hugo Lloris, Eric Dier, Ben Davies), Spurs have had injections talent and gotten big contributions from Cristian Romero, Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski.
In Romero, Spurs once again have what they hope is a world-class centerback after the declines of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Playing in a back-three shape, Romero has been given license to move up the pitch with progressive runs. In turn, Eric Dier has become much more consistent in the “spare role” in the back three. Romero is still on loan at Spurs, but Conte has already said that it is a matter of time until he becomes a permanent Spurs player.
In Bentancur, Spurs have bought a player with a lot of maturity in the middle of the pitch who can dictate the tempo of the game, is patient, and possesses an all-around game with resourcefulness in both attacking and defensive phases. After shipping out three midfielders in January, two on loan in Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, Spurs were left awfully thin in that department. Since returning from a minor injury, the combination of Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has provided for a lot of control in the midfield. Surely, Spurs would benefit by bringing in another midfielder this summer, but the addition of Bentancur has helped the midfield while also improving Højbjerg’s form. While Harry Winks’ form has waxed and waned under Conte, Spurs will get a plus in the department if Oliver Skipp can return from injury.
With Kulusevski, we are really seeing the impact a player like him can have in this side and how he has made players around him better. I’ve praised Kulusevski a lot recently, but I want to reiterate that Spurs have tried out a lot of players in the attacking third with Kane and Son Heung-min. No player has brought more complementary traits than Kulusevski has. His ability to hold up play, make the right pass while also being an extremely dangerous playmaker from the wing has been a big plus for Conte in the right-sided attacking wing spot. And to think this 21-year-old was arguably the club’s second choice behind Luis Díaz before the latter went to Liverpool. Both players look great and have adjusted well to the league, but Kulusevski truly looks years beyond his age.
Perhaps it is more Conte utilizing Paratici’s purchases better, but the relationship between Conte and Paratici extends years after their work in Italy together. While the dividends are already starting to pay off for the aforementioned Romero, Bentancur and Kulusevski, the future is still up in the air on Emerson Royal, Bryan Gil and Pape Matar Sarr. While Royal has featured heavily in his first season at Spurs, he has not particularly bursted onto the scene for either Nuno or Conte. But at 23, the former La Liga defender is still young and adapting to a new position in a new league. Gil and Sarr are clearly ones that are considered for the future. The future seems bright for both players, but both players look to be about two years away from really contributing in Spurs’ starting XI.
So while Paratici has had his misses, particularly Pierluigi Gollini, there are some shrewd signings and acquisitions that have come with it. This revamp of the squad has happened in such short time and the early returns provide for a lot of optimism, especially with the duo of Conte and Paratici and their contacts in Serie A.
There is still plenty of time for Spurs to overtake that fourth spot. However, even if Spurs finish outside of the Champions League again, their rocky and turbulent start to the season has been amended and the ship looks to be heading in the right direction. The vibe surrounding Spurs can vary after every match result, but it’s unquestionably trending upwards. The players, many of whom were angling to leave the club (Dier, Ben Davies to name a few) have seen their form improve and that is a testament to the stability and impact Conte has had with the group.
As anything with Spurs, we are just waiting for that next shoe to drop. But the performances on the pitch and the tea leaves surrounding the club (particularly its open willingness to back the manager and spend money in the summer) provide for a lot of confidence that the club can get back in with the Premier League elites and challenge in many competitions. It feels like for the first time in awhile, Spurs have righted the ship and are finding their best form with the season’s home stretch approaching.
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