It’s always exciting when Tottenham Hotspur dress all in white, because that means they’re playing in Europe. Those “glory, glory nights” are things to look forward to, even when the matches don’t necessarily go according to plan. That’s what happened at the San Siro on Tuesday evening — Spurs were absolutely not at their best, conceding a Brahim Diaz goal in the seventh minute en route to a 1-0 loss in the first leg of their Champions League knock-out series against AC Milan.
I’ll hold up my hand and say that my initial reactions to this match were mostly negative, though this was absolutely colored by Spurs’ current run of form, my own personal biases, and everything else that’s swirling around the club at the moment. In context, a narrow 1-0 loss away to AC Milan in a two-legged tie is not the worst result, and there’s every chance that Spurs can still progress to the quarterfinals with a solid home performance on March 5.
That said, I don’t think any Spurs observers can look at that performance in Milan last night and think that there aren’t still a lot of issues that Tottenham need to address in what’s left of the season. Here are three things we can take from this performance.
The offense is still broken and Conte refuses to fix it
As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That feels like a pretty apt summary of Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Manchester City match aside, Spurs have struggled going forward and it’s at times baffling as to why with the talent they have available.
Conte persisted with his usual front line of Son Heung-Min, Harry Kane, and Dejan Kulusevski, and once again the offense sputtered. Son continues to struggle and looks bereft of any confidence. Deki has looked off his feed for a few matches now and one wonders if he’s carrying a slight injury that has reduced his effectiveness. And Kane has struggled whenever he has been starved of service (which he often is) and can’t generate his own magic. Spurs generated just 0.5 xG at the San Siro and rarely looked threatening.
xG map for Milan - Spurs— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) February 14, 2023
never any serious danger from Tottenham pic.twitter.com/MjophJqxXT
With all that said, it became pretty infuriating that Antonio Conte either didn’t recognize that something needed to be changed early in the second half, or did and waited too long for any changes to be effective. With Son and Deki off the boil, this would’ve been an excellent opportunity to see what Arnaut Danjuma and Richarlison could do with an entire match’s worth of opportunity. Instead, they were both relegated to late substitutions.
Neither were especially effective in the short time they had on the pitch, and maybe it wouldn’t have changed things. But Conte’s intransigence to shake up his starting lineup and actually use rotation has been one of the more infuriating parts of his tenure as Spurs manager. What we did know was that things weren’t (and aren’t) working at present. Why not at least try something new?
Spurs’ defensive issues persisted, again
I should start out by stating, for the record, that the overall defensive performance probably looked worse than it actually was. It certainly was a better performance than Spurs put out at Leicester City at the weekend. But it wasn’t great! AC Milan, Rafael Leao aside, are not an especially efficient or even good offensive team, and the difference between the sides was another frustrating defensive breakdown.
Weirdly, this time that breakdown didn’t come from the usual suspects (Eric Dier or Ivan Perisic) but from Cuti Romero, who had one of his least effective matches in a Spurs shirt, and that’s coming off of a match where he was set off with two yellows! Cuti got cooked a couple of times defensively in the first half, none worse than when he was beaten in the air by Hernandez in a play that resulted in Milan’s goal. (At the time I spent more analytical capital criticizing Fraser Forster, whom I thought could’ve done better in that situation, but the goal was almost entirely on Cuti.) Romero also picked up another insane yellow card for a super late tackle on Tonali; he was probably lucky not to see red.
In addition, Dier picked up a cheap yellow card of his own that will rule him out of the critical return fixture, and Spurs were under a significant amount of defensive pressure in the second half.
Spurs’ overall defensive effort was... fine, I suppose? Emerson Royal defended well and was probably Spurs’ second-best player on the day. But if Spurs aren’t going to generate a ton of offense, you need the defense to be rock-solid and not have those kinds of defensive lapses, because the offense isn’t designed to bail them out, as it has shown in the past two matches.
A Sarr is born
OK, enough grumpy Tottenham blogger — how about some good news? Pape Matar Sarr and Oliver Skipp were both thrust into the Champions League spotlight after the spate of injuries that plagued Spurs last week. Both players impressed after somewhat shaky opening minutes, but of the two, it was Pape Sarr who came out of the match with the best overall showing.
Sarr, 20, was quite clearly the standout performer from this match, and was Spurs’ best player on the day. In particular, he showed a real composure with the ball at his feet in difficult circumstances — he completed 88% of his passes, many of them snappy and progressive, was not afraid to carry forward in transition (even if Spurs’ attackers largely failed to capitalize on his efforts), and was demanding the ball from his teammates. He also had five tackles and an interception in central midfield, the joint highest tackler on the team with Ivan Perisic. This was an impressive performance, not least of which because it took place in the Champions League at the San Siro.
Which makes it all the more baffling that Sarr came into this match having only played 400 minutes of first team football with Spurs. It’s not like he is a player plucked from U21 obscurity and dropped into the Champions League — he’s only 20 but has two years of high level first team football in Ligue 1, which is what attracted him to Spurs initially. He’s also coming off of a solid run of play in the World Cup this winter with Senegal.
Sarr has made a lot of people sit up and take notice of him lately, including (apparently) Conte. He’s going to get more minutes going forward because there just aren’t many central midfield options available, but he’s also earned future appearances with the quality of his play. He’s an exciting young player that Tottenham could absolutely build a team around... and depending on what happens with the club the rest of the season, there’s a chance they might need to do just that.