Despite the early deficit on Saturday, the season started out perfectly for Tottenham Hotspur in matchweek 1 when they took apart a young, yet tricky Southampton side. Spurs spent the bulk of their summer improving squad depth in the transfer window with the expectation that the club would compete in a variety of different competitions in both England and Europe. Spurs made waves this summer with their activity in the transfer window, headlined by the purchases of players like Richarlison and Yves Bissouma who are expected to improve the side. But Spurs also made the headlines in preseason due to Antonio Conte’s hellish preseason training regimen.
After taking over the squad in November last season, Conte referenced that the squad had a long way to go in terms of physicality and fitness. At the time, Spurs’ were one of the least-fit sides in the Premier League under Nuno Espírito Santo. At the time of Nuno’s sacking, Spurs ranked dead last in the league with an average distance covered per match of just roughly 100km. Spurs were static, looked lethargic and, most crucially, looked unenthused under the Portuguese manager. After just one month of Conte, Spurs’ per match average distance covered statistic was top of the league. It gets forgotten how integral Conte has been behind the scenes in terms of building his project at Spurs. On top the on-field performances that have seen Spurs get back into the Top 4 conversation, Conte has also made the squad fitter while getting improved performance from a variety of players who were seemingly on the way out of the club.
It has long been said that the offseason/preseason is where Conte really marks his stamp on his sides. Once on their preseason trip to South Korea, the process became visible, led by one of Conte’s right-hand men, Tottenham fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone. Nicknamed “The Marine”, Ventrone’s influence was fully on display when a number of players (even Harry Kane) were seen vomiting and struggling after a series of sprints at the end of an open training session in Seoul.
On top of just the fitness and training regiments, this time period is where Conte’s ideals and patterns of play are instilled in the squad. This is done by hours and hours of “shadow play”, which has become a trademark part of Conte’s methods. The Italian is certainly a demanding coach, but he is the type of manager and figurehead that knows what is needed from his players. Under Nuno, Spurs players had excuses to use as to why they were not firing or in form. Under Conte, there are no excuses for players to hang on to because of the Italian’s demands and understanding of what it takes and what is needed to be successful at the highest levels of this sport.
Saturday’s victory against Saints is already providing evidence of Spurs’ fitness paying off in their favor. Against a team that chose to go the more youthful route this season, Spurs were a bit quiet at first in this game but really turned things up when they went down a goal. No surprise that goal came from James Ward-Prowse, who seems like he scores every time Spurs face off against So’ton.
Despite going down 1-0, there was no panic. The system kept operating the same way it was expected to, but as Spurs gained more and more steam, it became clear that the pressure was getting to Saints and eventually Spurs pushed past their opposition with ease. The first two goals came from opportunities that that didn’t appear as frequently last season. Both goals were created via dangerous passes into the box, something that was not as much in the club’s ethos last season.
In the second half, Saints’ chances of getting back into the game were kept to a minimum. But on the other side, it looked like Spurs could score every time they pushed forward. From the moment Spurs kicked off at halftime, a simple pattern of play down the left side led to goal-scorer Ryan Sessegnon getting in behind the defense. Sessegnon for a second thought he had his brace, but he was ruled offside.
As the half continued on, Spurs were running more and more and it was Saints who looked bereft of ideas. This was particularly felt around the 80th-minute mark when Dejan Kulusevski, despite his side up 4-1 at the time, was still running and pressing around the edge of the box. He looked fresh in doing so, like he had just came on the pitch.
Now that we’ve had nearly a full season to understand Conte and his tactics, it has become abundantly clear that Spurs’ creativity comes from the system overall instead of just off the backs of individual players. Spurs relied on Christian Eriksen as the lock-picker during Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure. Under José Mourinho, the offense can best be described as “get the ball to Kane and let him make things happen”. But for Conte, creativity is not coming from just one player. The patterns are giving the team a variety of ways to pick apart and beat the opposition. We know well the link-up play of Kane and Heung-min Son, but against Saints Spurs also received consistent end-product from their wingbacks and dominated individual duels in the wide areas. In particular, Kulusevski was immaculate in Spurs’ opening match. This is all being done with the midfield duo of Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who are seen as more of cloggers and recyclers of the ball and have at times come under criticism by Spurs supporters for their deference in pushing the ball forward.
Now that Spurs have had a full preseason training regiment under Conte, their intensity and dynamism is on full display. But this is a trait of Conte’s Spurs that has gone on since last season, as Spurs really grew into games as the games went on. Prime examples are last year’s matches in the tail-end of the season against Newcastle, Aston Villa and Leicester. Against Newcastle, Spurs fell behind due to a well-executed free kick, but they came back into the game almost immediately, leveling before halftime and then scoring four second-half goals. Against Villa, Spurs went ahead early from a Son strike, but managed to weather the storm against Steven Gerrard’s side despite their aggression and a number of clear-cut chances. Villa could not keep up the intensity for the entirety of that game, Spurs had easy chances in the second half, and quickly put the game well out of reach with a final score of 4-0. Against Leicester, Spurs were all over Brendan Rodgers’ side from the get-go and carved them open on a number of breakaway opportunities.
With the inclusion of five substitutes this season, Spurs’ intensive nature and their depth gives them the potential to do special things. Throughout his managerial tenure, Conte’s second season at clubs is where the fruits of his labor really start to pay off. It would be unfair to expect Spurs to win the league, but there is more and more evidence that all signs are pointing in the right direction and this project is really starting to take flight.
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