The main interest from Antonio Conte’s press conference today, given before Tottenham Hotspur’s match against Leicester City on Saturday, wasn’t anything to do with the match. Conte gave an injury update — same as before, only Lucas Moura is out — and gave the usual platitudes about Leicester being a quality team and a difficult one to play despite the fact that they have yet to win a match this season.
But Conte did give some interesting quotes about a few of his less-used players, starting with Yves Bissouma. The Mali international, whom Spurs purchased from Brighton for £25m this summer, has rarely featured in the opening part of the season. While he was an exciting signing, he’s thus far made only one start, a disappointing performance in the 1-1 draw at West Ham.
Supposition both here and among fans on social media postulated that Bissouma has taken longer than expected to adapt to his new team and to Conte’s tactics. Conte seemed to corroborate that today, saying that Bissouma needs more time, but Conte is still enthusiastic about his potential, and sees him as an important part of the team.
“If you compare other midfielders I have seen that other teams spent £60m, £70m, £50m. It depends on the view. I think that we spent the right money. Don’t forget that we spent a lot of money on players that now have gone out on loan [i.e. Tanguy Ndombele & Giovani Lo Celso].
“It doesn’t matter if you spend money, you need to have players to go into our idea of football. There are players that do this quickly like Richarlison, Lenglet, like Perisic and then other players that need a bit of time.
“Also the midfielder is a specific role for us, with the ball and without the ball. It’s not simple. I ask for some moments, some positions. They have to be a point of reference in every moment of the game.
“The midfielder for sure, to go into our idea of football is maybe the most difficult position, but we are talking about a player that has great skill, good running. With the ball he’s really good, defensively he has to pay more attention. More attention because especially we only have two midfielders and then they have to be good with the ball and without the ball, but I’m really happy with his signing.”
Some are choosing to interpret these comments as Conte being critical of Bissouma, but I think it’s much more measured than that. Bissouma’s talent isn’t in question — he’s shown he has the ability to be a very good midfielder from his years at Brighton. But as we’ve seen, Conte’s tactics are very structured and unique, and I can understand that for some they may take some time to get used to. Certainly Conte is being direct about where he thinks Yves needs more work — defensive solidity and positioning off the ball. That jives with what I saw from Bissouma against West Ham and does explain why we haven’t seen more of him this season. That doesn’t mean that Conte’s ready to chuck him overboard already, or that Bissouma can’t be a very effective midfielder in Conte’s system. It does suggest that we may need to take a longer view of his contributions this season.
Conte also mentioned the absences of Oliver Skipp and Matt Doherty. Both are coming off of long term injuries and Conte suggested that their absence from the squad was purposeful to get them up to match fitness, but hinted that we might be seeing more of them in the coming weeks.
“I can explain because I like to be honest, not only with you but first of all my players. In this first part of seven (eight) games, don’t forgot we had players like Matthew that had serious injury and I said in the past that he is struggling a bit to come back the player I knew last season. For sure now he is improving a lot and I am sure now there is the international break, he will have the possibility to have two games with the national team and then he will come back and for sure I am I will have the possibility to have another rotation with him.
“It was the same with Skippy because in this period, Skippy was injured with a serious injury. Don’t forgot Skippy played his last game in January, maybe December. Another player we have to recover from injury. Then there are players like Richarlison, who went into the team quickly, Lenglet was the same, Perisic was the same. The only player that is struggling a bit with the tactical aspect is Bissouma, but also he is improving a lot in every aspect. I am sure when we start again and play 12 games, for sure he is another player I can count on but I try to take the best decision for the player because I want to protect the player. At the same time I want to protect the team and everybody. For sure we know very well when we start again to play 12 games in one month, you have to be ready. You have to be ready because I need all my players.”
Conte also revealed his mindset behind his dogged persistence to the 3-4-3 formation that he has used all season. We have commented on this website how Tottenham’s two-man central midfield has been overrun at times and against certain opponents this season; Conte hinted that he has focused on the 3-4-3 over the 3-5-2 because of the high quality of attacking options at his disposal, and as a way of getting as many of them on the field as possible.
“I think we tried to sign a player with the characteristics to play in a two. Then it happened during the game when sometimes we were winning to play with the three midfielders. In the past I’ve played with two strikers and three midfielders but this team when you have players like Sonny, Richarlison, Kulusevski and Kane, I think the best system we can play is [with two midfielders].
“We need only a bit of time to work with [Bissouma], for him to understand and to understand well. Now we have two reliable and important players in Hojbjerg, who for me he made important progress and now I think he’s a really strong player. The same for Bentancur. Don’t forget Skippy, who is really young.
“We’re talking about a prospect but for me he’s always been reliable and for this reason I count on him. It has to be very clear because for me Skippy is an important player as a midfielder, also gives me the opportunity to make rotation. For sure in the next 12 games, he can have a better physical condition and I can count on him also, Bissouma, Matthew. We need all the players in the squad because we have every game is massive. For this reason we need to have energy, energy, energy. If we think we have to play with the same players we’re not going to have good results.”
It’s an interesting glimpse into his mind, and it does make a certain amount of sense. Conte has not only Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, but also Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison at his disposal. As we saw last season, when Tottenham’s front three are all firing, it can make for some exciting, dramatic, and progressive football. However, that’s not what we’ve seen so far this season — Sonny misfiring has exacerbated the deficiencies within Conte’s central midfield, and the attack isn’t really picking up the slack.
But you do get a sense of what Conte’s going for. For the optimist, having players like Bissouma, Doherty and Skipp back can potentially give Spurs a different look, and surely Son’s slow start can’t last forever. Conte is hinting that the Spurs we’re seeing now isn’t necessarily the Spurs we’re going to be watching in a few months, or even weeks, time. Sure hope he’s right about that!
Tottenham’s next match is this Saturday, at home against bottom of the table Leicester City. Kick-off is 12:30 p.m. ET, 5:30 p.m. BST; the match will be televised on NBC and Sky Sports.