It has been somewhat of a rigid start to the season for Tottenham Hotspur. They have gotten off to a great start in the Premier League campaign taking 17 points despite not looking entirely convincing. Spurs’ only defeat of the season was in Lisbon last Tuesday when Sporting scored two late goals to take all three points in the Champions League tie. The match was an eye-opening one for sure considering Spurs looked toothless and bereft of ideas in the final third. However, many of the issues that plagued Spurs in that match have been showcased many times so far in the season.
Even in matches where they have won, Antonio Conte’s side seems more than happy to concede the ball and capitalize on mistakes made by the opposition. And while Tottenham have shown in recent years that they are one of the most dangerous counter-attacking sides in the world, their lack of natural ball-progressing players has led to some questioning and we saw in that Champions League group match against Sporting what can happen when things don’t work.
Just prior to the international break, Spurs tore apart a ragged Leicester side that looks extremely down in confidence this season. And while the final scoreline of 6-2 flatters Spurs, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made a series of important saves. It was not the most convincing win for Spurs despite the scoreline, but the big takeaways were that they got the three points and finally got Heung-min Son off the mark.
Roughly 50 days into the season, Spurs have had the benefit of playing only 1-2 matches a week with a couple of Champions League group matches on weekdays. Because of this, they haven’t needed to heavily rotate their side and instead been able to use the same starting XI for most matches. And while there have been some changes due to knocks and injuries, Conte has mostly relied on the same 13-15 players, ones that Conte knows and trusts. We know that Spurs are going to feature their front 4 attacking players, Ivan Perišić, Cristian Romero, and Eric Dier, but the rest of the squad has seen a lot of chopping and changing.
For the most part, Conte has leaned on the midfield duo of Uruguayan international Rodrigo Bentancur and Danish international Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Both players have been in good form to start the season and have done what Conte has asked them to do by operating as clogging, ball-recycling midfielders. However, neither have provided the cutting edge needed to push the envelope and provide consistent ball progression and pick apart defenses — see the recent matches against Sporting or West Ham. In Spurs’ system, because the midfielders are asked to play a much more pragmatic style with the focus on ball-recycling and the early portion of build-up play, the onus comes on Spurs’ wingbacks, primarily Emerson Royal and Ivan Perisic, to get the ball up the pitch and put it into dangerous positions.
We saw something different against Leicester. Midway through the second half, Spurs switched their formation to a 3-5-2 shape by inserting an extra midfielder (Yves Bissouma) and taking away an attacker (Dejan Kulusevski). At this point, Spurs were already up 3-2, Leicester were tiring. The formation change allowed Son to move to a front two which placed him in a role where he did not have to make decisions and play with his back towards goal and instead could run in behind more.
For awhile now, Spurs supporters have asked Conte to try a 3-5-2 shape. For example, Dejan Kulusevski is versatile enough to play in a wingback role or perhaps even as the No. 10 behind Harry Kane and Son up top. Kane and Son in a front-two balance each other so well and with the right service and support behind them, it does make sense to play this sort of shape when Conte’s preferred 3-4-3 is not working. Nevertheless, Conte has seemed so fixated on the 3-4-3 and while some inclusions like Clément Lenglet and perhaps Djed Spence could improve the side in ball-progression, an important aspect of this is that Conte needs more players in the squad to be reliable and dependable enough that he feels he can call upon.
As of this writing, Spurs have nine matches in the month of October. Things do not get any easier in November when they play four matches in 12 days before they head off to the World Cup break. Because of this fixture congestion, Conte will be forced to refresh his side a lot more and he needs to find a way to integrate the duo of Oliver Skipp and Matt Doherty.
It’s easy to forget since Skipp hasn’t played at all and Doherty has barely featured this season, but Skipp and Doherty were two of the players who benefitted the most when Conte joined. After nearly two years of struggling to get into the team, Doherty came out of nowhere towards the end of last season and was in good form before sustaining a season-ending injury against Aston Villa. While Doherty is not the greatest one-on-one defender, he is far better in the attacking third than Emerson. Doherty seems to still be getting his fitness up before getting into the side with consistency.
Skipp is a player that Conte raved about almost the moment he came in. It has been an unusual set of circumstances for the 22-year-old given his unfortunate injury, one that has kept him out of the side since January. An obscure pelvic injury caused him to miss serious time, but this is a player everyone in and around the club has raved about for years and he was given assurance from the club when he signed a five-year contract extension in April. Notably, Skipp started today’s England U21 match, his first action in eight months, and Conte has publicly said that both Doherty and Skipp are in his plans in the upcoming stretch ahead of the World Cup.
Conte mentioned last week that Bissouma is one of the players that is struggling from a tactical perspective. However, in the win against Leicester, Bissouma played well and it should come as no surprise that it came in a match where he was in a midfield three — something he featured in often during his time at Brighton under then-manager Graham Potter. We have talked here before that a lot of Spurs’ tactical approach is based on their tenacity and their dynamism. For them to continue to bring these traits towards each match, squad rotating is extremely important and that is where Skipp within the midfield and Doherty at right wingback can be so well-utilized.
With Skipp in the fold, Spurs have four reliable — albeit similar in profiles — midfielders who can play in games where they are seeing out points or where they need to go for a goal. Having Doherty back into the team with consistency can help the side due to his attacking threat of finding space in the box.
When looking at the squad, Skipp and Doherty are the two most likely to have bigger roles as the season progresses. However, there are a variety of players that are deserving of looks. Players like Spence, Pape Matar Sarr and even Bryan Gil will surely get looks in the domestic competitions like the League Cup or the FA Cup. But if there has been a main complaint of Conte in his managerial career, it has been his inability to properly rotate. Spurs have a very good squad and their depth is far better now than it has been in years. With fixtures coming quickly and often — especially if Spurs look to compete in nearly all of them — we will need to see more and more players playing to deputize and spell the already-established players in Conte’s plans.
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