Tottenham got their Champions League campaign off to the best of starts today with a 2-0 win over Marseille at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It wasn’t the prettiest of performances (I feel like I’ve said that a lot already this season) but it was a somewhat illuminating one in terms of how Antonio Conte wants his team to play. The Champions League is the biggest of stages, and you can learn a lot about how a team like Spurs approaches matches like these, especially when at home when the crowd expects them to dominate.
Here are three things we learned about Spurs from this match.
Fans think Spurs need a midfield passer... but Conte disagrees
For much of this match, Spurs were begging for a central midfielder who could break pressure and either carry the ball through the middle of the pitch, or pass through it. It wasn’t easy. The first half ended with a torpid xG of 0.21 to 0.12 in Spurs’ favor. Faced with a robust Marseille midfield press and defense, Spurs weren’t generating any kind of excitement going forward... but notably weren’t conceding anything either. It was kind of frustrating to watch. Just pass the ball, right? Put someone in there who can just... do that thing!
But it seems Conte doesn’t think so. This season in particular, Tottenham have evolved into a defensively rock solid team set up to absorb and neutralize opposition attacks, one capable in the counterpress and which tries to quickly progress through the flanks and into space when the opportunity arises (which it inevitably will). Conte’s central mids (Hojbjerg, Bentancur, Bissouma, Skipp... pick any of them) are tough-tackling, solid and industrious, but not creative and not especially flashy. This isn’t Mourinhoball — it’s way better than that — but it is predicated on a defense-first approach, by allowing as few chances as possible while doing just enough to break the game open going forward.
xG map for Spurs - Marseille— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) September 7, 2022
more of the same from Spurs where opposition possession leads to nothing and they get just enough pic.twitter.com/STH79ydhjn
In order to keep Tottenham’s high-flying offense in check, Spurs’ opponents are forced to overload the midfield and press. That keeps Tottenham from getting the ball to the forwards as often, and without a passy mid, Spurs are forced wide to the wingbacks for ball progression because their midfielders are not going to take players on. Sometimes that works! More often, it sputters. A consequence is that these games look frustrating, stodgy, and bad. But those teams usually have to sacrifice an attacker to do that, and as we saw against Leeds and Southampton, when they DON’T, Spurs can put them to the sword.
This was another one of those matches, and while it’s a curious thought experiment to wonder whether Spurs would’ve made the offensive breakthrough had they not gone up a man early in the second half, once they did Marseille crumbled.
I feel like I need to reorient my expectations for this Tottenham team. It’s still difficult for me to accept Tottenham not playing regular, exciting, progressive football — especially when it seems like such an easy, obvious thing to fix! — but unlike under Jose Mourinho, Conte’s getting results. This is just who Spurs are right now, and it’s the way Conte wants them to be. We may just have to make our peace with it, and with Spurs’ current midfield.
Kane needs a rest
Today’s match vs. Marseille was almost certainly the worst performance from Harry Kane this season. Kane had six shots but none on target, and while he was subbed off at the 78th minute at the weekend against Fulham, he faces the prospect of a trip to Manchester City in three days time. After that — a Champions League match at Sporting that could go a long way in deciding the group.
Kane looked leggy and tired at the end of the Marseille match and it’s no wonder. But the schedule doesn’t let up until the World Cup, and as much as he wants to, Kane simply can’t play every match. Conte has to find a way to get his talismanic striker some rest, or Harry will end up injured, or slumped and that does no one any good.
Richarlison creates a real headache for Conte, in a good way
Richarlison. Wow. After several good matches in a row, including two outstanding performances in two starts, he’s forced himself into Conte’s starting XI considerations, at the expense of the (equally good) Dejan Kulusevski. But the two couldn’t be more different. Deki’s play comes through ball progression and cutbacks, good passes and pinpoint crosses to others. Richarlison is just all feathery Brazilian grace, lots of cuts inside from wide positions, a crash the box, shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of player. He doesn’t have the line-busting speed of Son Heung-Min or the tricky technicality of Deki, but he certainly knows where the goal is and how to get open to find it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any real way to get all three of them on the pitch at the same time without (hint hint) resting Kane. But maybe Conte should try? I honestly wonder how they’d work together. At the very least, Richarlison’s performances are setting up a meritocracy whereby all of Spurs’ attackers are pushing each other to consistently improve. That’s good. And if Richarlison is playing well enough that he’s keeping Deki, or even Sonny, on the bench, well that’s a pretty amazing problem to have, isn’t it?