A lot of questions are being asked of Tottenham Hotspur in the wake of Sunday’s disappointing home defeat to Aston Villa. Unfortunately, manager Antonio Conte doesn’t have many answers, at least when it comes to his missing players.
Conte held his press conference ahead of Spurs’ trip to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace tomorrow, with Spurs enduring a dismal run of form — four losses in their last seven league games, and a run of ten matches where they have conceded at least one goal to their opponents first. And the news gets even worse: Conte confirmed today that Uruguay international and injured World Cup star Rodrigo Bentancur is not expected to return until the North London Derby on January 15, meaning he will miss both tomorrow’s match against Palace and the FA Cup match vs. Portsmouth this weekend.
Spurs are already without Richarlison, still recovering from a hamstring injury sustained in the World Cup, and Yves Bissouma, who picked up his fifth yellow card against Villa and is suspended for this match. Dejan Kulusevski also missed the Villa match with a slight muscle injury, and Conte said that he is being assessed but expressed cautious optimism that he’d return.
“About Rodrigo Bentancur, he has started to work. He’s still not ready and also for the FA Cup game but we hope to have him back for the next Premier League game. About Richarlison we have to see and check the situation and for sure in the future he will have another MRI to understand very well his situation.
“Kulusevski is not a serious injury but you know we need to monitor it day by day and tomorrow and then we take the best decision. I don’t know [if he can face Palace]. We have today and tomorrow to check his situation. We’ll see. The injury is not serious. If the player gives his availability then he could play. Otherwise we have to wait and have patience for the next game.”
The big question, with both Bentancur and Bissouma unavailable, is who will partner Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in the center of midfield tomorrow. Conte has made positive comments about Pape Matar Sarr after having had a chance to work extensively with him after Senegal’s elimination from the World Cup, and gave him his league debut as a substitute vs. Villa. Sarr played quite competently in a match that had already mostly been decided, and Conte might hand him his first start. Oliver Skipp is the other option — he was also a late sub against Villa, and while he was featured a lot more under Nuno Espirito Santo, he has been used extremely sparingly since returning from a long injury absence this fall.
Naturally, Conte was asked about his state of mind and happiness at Spurs in the wake of the Villa loss, with lots of behind the scenes grumbling about his future at the club and whether the Spurs brass will back him in the January transfer window. To his credit, I suppose, Conte continued his recent line that he’s happy where he is.
“I am happy but I always say to you I am happy. I want to stay here. I am enjoying my time in Tottenham, I am enjoying my work in Tottenham. I always say this and I am happy but it doesn’t mean I cannot tell you what we are doing. We are trying to create a base foundation.
“Maybe from the start of my experience here I am repeating always the same thing. It is difficult for me every day to repeat the same thing and for you not to understand. It is difficult. I am happy to stay here because I am at a modern club, I have a good relationship with the players and I have a good relationship with the club.
“Sometimes I go home and think I have to study much more English because I am not good to transfer my thoughts to you because I am not good.”
That said, Conte refused to give assurances that he would remain committed to what is turning out to be, in his estimation, more of a rebuilding project at Tottenham than what was originally conveyed.
“This is a problem between me and the club. Now I am really committed for this club and for Tottenham. Then there is this project and I signed a contract with this club to accept this project and try to build and help the club. During this process it can happen 1,000 things. The club can sack the manager or there are different visions, different situations.”
The atmosphere surrounding Spurs has quickly turned toxic after what was perceived as a disappointing draw at Brentford and an even more dispiriting loss to Villa. Spurs have now dropped out of the top four and are miles behind Arsenal at the top of the table. The trip across town to Selhurst Park is another difficult trap game, one in which Spurs will need to play well (and score goals) in order to get anything out of it. Another loss risks Spurs heading into the home North London Derby against league leading Arsenal on a major slide, and should that happen there’s no telling what the ramifications will be for Spurs’ future.