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How Stellini got Tottenham’s groove back

With Conte absent, Spurs turned in their best overall performance of the season in a huge win over City.

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Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

With thanks to Joel Wertheimer, from whom I stole the excellent headline.

After the way Tottenham Hotspur capitulated against Manchester City the last time these two teams met, you can forgive Spurs fans for being a little nervous. Not only did they blow a 2-0 halftime lead at the Etihad on January 19, conceding four goals in a dispiriting loss, they were heading into this match without Antonio Conte, who was recovering from gallbladder surgery.

Instead it was Cristian Stellini who prepared the team in training and who led Spurs to their first win this season over a member of the top six. It was a huge win, not only for the prime banter it produced — Pep Guardiola’s City have yet to score a goal in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — but for Spurs’ confidence after a confusing and frustrating January that saw them take just six points out of 15 including a demoralizing home loss to Arsenal.

Oh, and that Harry Kane fella scored and broke an important record. That’s pretty significant too (but we won’t talk about that here).

There’s a lot to unpack from this match, but let’s take a look at three points that stood out to me from this match and its aftermath.

Spurs’ high press was selective, but outstanding

A big reason Tottenham were so effective at stopping City in their tracks was due to how they implemented and utilized a selective high press. Spurs are a bit weird this season in that while they do press, they don’t do it all the time. Writing in the Athletic (£) today, Michael Cox does an excellent job breaking down how Spurs pressed City high and how that press was targeted for maximum disruption. Cox in particular points out how Eric Dier would frequently push up out of the back line to give Spurs an extra body in central midfield and to shut down the passing ability of Bernardo Silva.

It was that same selective press that directly led to Harry Kane’s winning (and Greaves-breaking) goal; General Ho, who was magnificent in this match, was pressing Rico Lewis in front of City’s box and astutely intercepted a pass intended for him as City tried to play out of the back. Hojbjerg had to do a not-insignificant amount of work to get the ball to Kane in the box and Kane did some canny work to get into an open pocket of space, but none of that happens if Spurs aren’t trying to disrupt City with a high press from the outset. All three of Spurs’ front line — Kane, Son, Kulusevski — also worked their tails off to stretch and pull City’s defenders out of position and force them into less-optimal passes.

This press hasn’t always worked — when it doesn’t, Spurs can look like they’re conceding the midfield which can have a cascading effect on their defense. But as Cox also points out, Spurs lead the league in high-pitch turnovers that lead to goals. Spurs could’ve had another couple of goals on Sunday with a little luck, and that press kept City’s ball progression in check and discombobulated their offense for the entire match.

Emerson Royal had his best match in a Spurs shirt.

It’s safe to say that Emerson Royal hasn’t had the best season at Tottenham. A capable young fullback asked to play out of his comfort zone in a system that doesn’t really suit him, he’s unfortunately born the brunt of fan’s ire this season after a series of disappointing performances. I’ve been critical of him this season just as others have, and I won’t apologize for pointing out bad performances (and there have been several). He hasn’t deserved the extreme vitriol directed at him on social media and elsewhere, but it’s fair to say he hasn’t looked the part at times.

Emerson was probably the best player on the pitch for Spurs against Manchester City, and that’s saying a lot. Emerson was tasked with defending Jack Grealish on a night where City were clearly trying to focus much of their chance generation through him, and rather than crumble he put in his best performance for Spurs all season. Emerson had two tackles, two interceptions, and a vital six clearances for Spurs, and crucially was only dribbled past once; Grealish was visibly frustrated the entire match (when he wasn’t on the ground after being fouled).

Emerson’s Achilles heel has always been his efficacy in the attacking third (that’s why Spurs purchased Pedro Porro in January after all) but the Brazilian combined well again with Dejan Kulusevski and was a reliable outlet wide. He even had one big chance in this match. He may not be a perfect fit for Tottenham’s wingback tactics under Antonio Conte, but with Spurs set up to hit on the counter through Son and Kane, in this match he didn’t have to be. Spurs were generating plenty of offense and ball progression without him, letting him concentrate on keeping Grealish in his back pocket.

After the match, Stellini singled him out for praise, and hinted that with the addition of Porro, Spurs now have right wingbacks with contrasting skills that can be used tactically, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

“Emerson was one of the most important [players]. In the end of the game he had two or three situations and he showed his desire like all the team. It is important to have different players in the same position with different skills and you use the player when you need. Emerson showed today he is a good player.”

Spurs won one for the Gipper Conte

Although it was clear a couple of days before the match that Antonio Conte would be in no shape to manage against City, there was absolutely no visible drop-off in performance under assistant manager Cristian Stellini. Conte’s No. 2 is a long-time friend and top lieutenant, someone who basically shares a brain with the head coach, and all reporting ahead of and after the match suggested that there was no reason to think that Spurs’ tactics would be any different than with Conte on the sidelines. After all, it’s not the first time that Stellini has led the team in Conte’s absence — Spurs had a last-gasp Champions League victory at Marseille earlier this season with Conte suspended for arguing with officials.

That’s not to say that Conte’s influence was completely absent. Reports said that Conte was reviewing training footage from his home in Italy where he was recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery and that he and Stellini had had several meetings via Zoom to discuss strategy and tactics including one the morning of the match. Stellini knows Conte’s system almost as well as Conte does, and both he and assistant coach Ryan Mason were given a lot of praise for implementing and executing Conte’s tactics in this match.

You could tell the Spurs players were motivated and happy — they played with freedom, confidence, and belief against one of the best club teams in the world. They avoided major mistakes, took their chances when they came, and never looked like they ever took a punch to the gut, something that has unravelled this team in the past. It probably helped that many of Spurs’ stars were rested in the FA Cup match against Preston last weekend; Kane in particular looked rejuvenated, but also Hojbjerg, Hugo Lloris, and all three starting CBs had the benefit of two weeks without any matches. That’s a luxury that Spurs haven’t had much of this season.

After the match, Stellini stayed out of the way and praised his team, putting the focus squarely on the players, and on Conte.

“I’m so glad and so happy to have this possibility to train all the week, a special team, special players and great men so I have to say thanks to everyone but not only say thanks to the players but all the staff who work around the players because everyone push themselves in another level to try to cover the gap left by Antonio. We knew very well we had to so thanks to everyone.

“We spoke with Antonio in the dressing room. Immediately when we arrived Antonio was on the phone and he say he was really happy. He gave compliments to everyone and especially to Harry for the record he achieved. It was amazing, he was really happy and he gave them the day off tomorrow. They enjoy a lot this moment.”

Conte’s presence may have loomed large even in his absence at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, but it was still up to Stellini to deliver the goods. He did it, and with style. Spurs have some challenging matches upcoming to be sure, but the team has a head of steam now. There’s a chance that at the end of the season we can look back on this match as the point where Stellini got Spurs’ groove back.