Tottenham have their mojo back
You only have to look at the stats to see just how quickly Spurs have propelled themselves back into the Premier League’s top four for the first time since mid-September. They have won five of their past six matches in the competition, including the past three in a row, and even the defeat to Manchester United came after a decent Tottenham performance at Old Trafford was stunted by Cristiano Ronaldo’s finishing.
When it comes to finishing, Spurs have gone from a minus two goal difference to a plus 15 in that time, a swing that could be a big factor in the final reckoning of a tight top four race. The shot-shy days of Nuno Espirito Santo feel like a lifetime ago and in those six matches Antonio Conte‘s side have scored a remarkable 21 goals. In fact in 2022, they have scored more goals than any other team in the Premier League.
On Sunday afternoon they had 19 shots on the Newcastle goal. After taking 45 minutes to tease the compact visitors out of their shell, Spurs looked like scoring during every foray forward.
The goals were coming from all over the pitch with five different scorers on the day and five different players providing the assists. This was no performance based around one man and instead a collection of superb displays made Tottenham more than the sum of their parts.
Spurs also showed their determination. How many times have they gone behind in a match after dominating possession but struggled to find a way through and then they’ve gone on to lose the game?
This time Tottenham responded to Fabian Schar’s free-kick goal – Newcastle’s only shot on target and one Hugo Lloris clearly felt he should have done better with as he pounded the turf afterwards. Just four minutes later though Ben Davies was leaping to guide Son Heung-min’s pinpoint cross inside the right-hand post.
It was a hammer blow to the visitors and built the platform for Spurs to add goals at will from that point.
Conte was impressed with that character and it’s moments like that which show him that his team is being infused with his mentality.
“We were 1-0 down and it is another positive thing that I have seen, because despite this [goal] I have seen my team focused, with calm, with patience and with resilience,” he said. “We have drawn 1-1 and then in the second half, it was good to score the second goal because then Newcastle was forced to play and concede a bit of space.
“To score five goals is good for us. It’s not the first time and in the last period we are creating many chances to score. We are scoring a lot. I am enjoying seeing my team play in this way because I’m seeing great improvement in many aspects, tactical and technical and the mentality.
“Now we have to continue in this way. I’m happy for the players because when they work hard you want to see the result of your work. Then I think the players they are enjoying to play in this way and also to dominate the game, to create all these situations to win the game.”
The wing-backs doing what Conte demands
The first half looked like it was going to rubber-stamp what Conte and the fans would have expected from the wing-backs once it was confirmed that Sergio Reguilon’s training ground injury on Thursday had kept him out.
Spurs lacked balance with Matt Doherty shunted over to the left-hand side and needing to keep cutting inside, while a rusty Emerson Royal showed that attacking hesitancy and questionable decision-making that hampers his wing-back progress.
Then Conte had his say. What he uttered at half-time to his wing-backs – mostly a message of calm – changed everything and from that point on they seemed fully reminded of what is required of them within the Italian’s system.
For the wing-backs are the crux of it. They need to be fit enough to make up a back five one moment and then seconds later be auxiliary attackers when the team is on the attack to make a front five. They need to keep pushing high up the pitch to provide the width and options or foils for the creative front three.
In the second half, Doherty played the role to perfection despite being on that more unnatural side of the pitch for him.
Conte demands that his wing-backs look to arrive at the back post when someone on the other side slings in a cross.
Just three minutes into the second half and there was Doherty, ending a sprint from the halfway line to dive in the six yard box to head home Harry Kane’s teasing cross from the right for the goal that began the rampage in the second period.
The Irishman was also in the right place six minutes later had he been needed to finish off the excellent team move for Spurs’ third goal, which began with Hugo Lloris and ended with Dejan Kulusevski’s pass that in the end Son took and buried past Martin Dubravka. Doherty was in position to fire it home if the South Korean hadn’t.
Then on 63 minutes, the Dubliner showed quick feet to turn his man inside out before delivering a dinked cross that Emerson, who had popped up in the centre of the box, battled to get a toe to to poke the ball over the line.
It was the kind of goal that Conte takes immense satisfaction from because it includes three of the wing-back elements he calls for, creativity, energy and finishing.
For Doherty, it continues the road back for the 30-year-old, who is flourishing back in his natural position and as a popular member of the squad you can see joy on his team-mates’ faces as he continues to deliver what he had struggled to before.
The Irishman has now had five goal involvements in Spurs’ past six matches, scoring twice and laying on three assists.
He’s come a long way since the nadir of his time at Tottenham, the day he was left on the coach at Villa Park, with 16-year-old’s Alfie Devine and Dane Scarlett named by Jose Mourinho on the bench ahead of him.
“I went to get off the bus and Ledley [King], who was the coach at the time, said to me: ‘You’re not allowed in the changing room, you’ve got to stay on the bus’. It was Covid, so you weren’t allowed in the changing room if you weren’t in the squad,” Doherty was quoted ahead of Saturday’s match as saying in the Daily Mail.
“Once the game started, I was allowed to go into the stands. I was just sat on the bus on my own. It was the international break straight after and, genuinely, I was so close to just getting in a car and going to the international, you know? I think we were meeting in Manchester anyway. I didn’t in the end, I decided I’d stay and watch the game and then go.
“I’m glad I didn’t. It’s just not that professional, is it, to do that? I know in your head you’re sitting on the bus and thinking ‘What’s the point in watching the game, I might as well go’. There were kids – and that’s no disrespect to the kids – but they were kids on the bench.
“Obviously, [Jose] was trying to prove a point to everybody, not just for me, but for the players who weren’t there either, you know? But yeah, that was not fun.”
Yet Conte has connected with Doherty and his system is restoring the player to his best at the perfect time.
“I’ve just managed to hit the form that I was in at Wolves. I feel really good on the pitch and things are going really well. That has just come with game-time, the manager trusting in you and, obviously, the formation helps a lot,” he said.
“It’s just happening now where I feel I’ve gained his trust. Even when we lost to United, lost to Middlesbrough, I wasn’t taken out. I’m able to repay him and help the team set up goals and win games. There were times that I played for him and was in and out and then against Leeds I kind of nailed it down and have been in ever since.”
On Conte he added: “So many things that he’s made all of us have little improvements on already and he’s not had a full season yet. He’s not even had a pre-season. So you can imagine with a full pre-season what kind of shape and what kind of state of mind we might be in. That is exciting.”
For Doherty it’s just reward for all of the effort he was always putting in previously but without the benefits, even if by his own admission his performances did not match what he believed he could provide to the team.
“It’s not enjoyable when do your preparations all week, then come to do your job at the weekend and you don’t do anything, you’re on the bench or you don’t come on, that part is not really enjoyable,” he said.
“Other than that, the training, I never once got my head down and felt I wasn’t enjoying it, thinking I don’t like it here. I’ve loved it ever since I’ve moved here it was just the part on the pitch that was the problem.
“I did get opportunities. I did play enough games where I could have got myself back in and I just didn’t play well enough. So it’s not like I wasn’t given any chances. I was. It was just finding the right rhythm.”
The Conte discipline when it comes to food and nutrition has also transformed Doherty’s fitness. The ketchup banning is the stuff of legend but it’s also about cutting out things as simple as pasta sauces, with the defender now eating plain old rice and chicken and drinking more water. It’s all worth it, he believes.
“It’s just in your head. At home, you don’t dip into that sweet drawer that everyone has in the house,” he said.
“You want to be switched on, you don’t want to give him any excuses, and you want to be ready for him because he gives everything for us so we have to give everything for him.”
On the attack
Spurs’ attackers, with the foundation of what’s behind them, have clicked under Conte just when he really needed them to.
In the second half, the 57,553 fans inside the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium were treated to another breath-taking display of attacking football and they responded in kind to create a carnival atmosphere.
There were big performances all over the pitch, Davies scoring that crucial quick equaliser, Cristian Romero a colossus at the back, Eric Dier calmly organising and producing the tackle that started the move for the final goal, while the wing-backs bombed up and down the pitch.
In the centre of the action, the battling Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg – who earned special praise from Conte – is revelling in playing alongside the absurdly calm and collected Rodrigo Bentancur.
The transfers of Bentancur and Kulusevski could well go down as the most transformative January double deal Spurs have ever done, particularly if they help keep them in the top four at the season’s end. Add Romero to the new signing mix this season and that’s three huge team-changing additions.
Bentancur delivers the composure and Kulusevski is the mobile playmaker. The 21-year-old Swede has contributed more assists in the Premier League – five – than any other player in the competition since his debut in February.
The only players while aged 21 and under with more assists in their first 10 Premier League games in the competition’s history are Lee Sharpe and Arjen Robben with six each.
Against Newcastle Kulusevski was constantly on the move, playing a fine one-two with Kane before setting up Son’s goal and he was involved in much of what the team did well, including another one-two for Doherty to set up Emerson.
“We are talking about a player that I know him very well, because he played in Italy. He started to play with Atalanta, then Atalanta [sent] him on loan to Parma, and he played in Serie A and he played in a fantastic way,” said Conte.
“When I was coach of Inter, I tried to ask him, but then Juventus moved before. Maybe they put more money than us at the time, and then they bought this player.
“We are talking about a player who is only 21 years old and he has to continue to play this way, because he’s strong physically, big engine, he’s good technically. I think for Tottenham, this is a great signing for the present and for the future. We are talking about really, really strong.
“But also Rodrigo Bentancur with us, I said that with these two players, despite that we lost four players in January, with these two new signings we made this squad more complete, with more balance. I think that it’s very important in football to have a clear idea, and to have a good vision, because in this way, the situation is more simple.”
Kulusevski’s arrival has lit the fuse for the entire Spurs attack. In the team’s past eight matches, he has two goals and five assists, Son has five goals and three assists and Kane eight goals and four assists. That’s 27 goal involvements between them in those eight games.
Son was always contributing goals and assists but now he’s the smiling assassin again. He looks confident in the final third and opposition defenders are terrified of what he’s going to do on and off the ball.
His cross for Davies’ crucial equaliser was perfect and came after a corner earned by his sprint forward. The South Korean star’s touch and finish for his own goal was clinical. He could have had a second just minutes later but fired inches wide of the right-hand post after a great Tottenham move.
Even Steven Bergwijn got in on the act with a confident finish to complete a wonderful week for the Dutchman who scored three goals on international duty.
Then there is Harry Kane. The England captain looks happy again. He believes in Conte, has bought into everything he’s selling and in turn Conte adores him.
The 28-year-old’s idol is NFL star Tom Brady and it’s somewhat fitting that Kane has become Tottenham’s quarterback. He pulls back from the attack and sprays the ball around the pitch.
Just look at his two long passes to Son in the second half and two quick balls to Kulusevski down the right to showcase the variety of his quarterback game, long and short accurate passes to his wide receivers on either side.
After the game, his golfing buddy Doherty called him the best player in the Premier League, the best finisher and the best passer before begrudgingly admitting he was annoyingly the best on the golf course as well.
When Conte spoke about Kane after the victory there was more than a suggestion that he wants the striker to be part of his Tottenham journey beyond this summer.
“When the game finished I went into the pitch to thank my players and I said to Harry, ‘I am only disappointed for one thing, that you didn’t score because you played a massive game’,” he said.
“It is very difficult to describe this player. I am happy for him because we are talking about a world class striker. He deserves the best because he is a great worker, a hard worker, this is not normal.
“Normally the player that has talent don’t like to work hard. In my career I didn’t have a great talent and for this reason I worked hard. What I liked from him from the first time was his availability, he was a big example for his team-mates.
“When you see him work in this way, for sure you have the desire to work and work very hard. For this reason I want to thank him, he is always a big example for everything and I hope to give him satisfaction.
“I think he is now enjoying playing this type of football and we have to try to continue together. I am seeing many players with great improvement. Also Pierre, no one asked me about him, but I think in every game he is doing a fantastic job, with the ball, without the ball, strong physically. Every player is improving their level and for this reason Tottenham is going up and up.”
This is feeling more and more like Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur and it’s no coincidence that Spurs are shooting up the table as a result.
The full weeks between matches are helping him really brand this team with his mark to make up for his lack of pre-season.
The move for Son’s goal alone, quick passing and movement starting from Lloris’ short pass, showed the confidence in every Spurs player that they know their specific job on the pitch. The sweeping move from the back at 4-1 for the chance Son fired wide was just as easy on the eye with one-touch passing, backheels and a Kane golf-style faded pass over the top for the South Korean.
On the touchline, Conte was the orchestrator as usual. He rarely sat down, shouting out instructions and pointing at everyone. He even seemed to help hurl Kulusevski back on to the pitch at one point in the second half.
The often emotional Italian even called for calm after Doherty’s goal early in the second half, turning to his bench and moving his hands up and down, with his palms facing down.
As the goals continue to fly in though even Conte could no longer hold it in. He launched himself at his coaches as he celebrated and on one occasion when the fans sang his name, which happened frequently, he turned to the big south stand and pumped both his fists at them in delight.
The atmosphere was electric. Conte had called for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to become a fortress and that’s what happening. Since those disappointing back to back defeats to Southampton and Wolves in early February, Spurs have won three consecutive matches at home, scoring 13 goals and conceding twice. They need that the home comforts to continue.
There is certainly a growing connection between Conte and his team and he told football.london that he could see his brand of football on display.
“Now for sure you can see a team that has specific characteristics and you can recognise your football,” he said. “For this reason I said that we are in the race to try and take a place in the Champions League.
“At this moment the team is a team with an idea of football. Every single player knows very well what happens during the game and what they have to do.
“The players that came in today, for example we lost [Sergio] Reguilon for an injury in his knee and we have found the solution to play with Matthew [Doherty] on the left and Emerson on the right. Great performance for both.
“It means there is great work behind on the tactical aspect and physical aspect as you can see this team has big intensity from start until the end. I have great staff behind me that work with the players and now we have to be happy, also tomorrow but then from Tuesday when we start to work we think an important game against Aston Villa.
“It won’t be easy to go there and take a good result but we have eight games, eight finals for us, and every games it will be very important to get points and continue to dream to finish in the Champions League this season.”
Conte believes that he now has a squad in which every player has bought into the project he is heading up.
“When you see the whole team, the whole squad, so very involved in this project this makes me proud,” he said.
“It means they believe in work and despite sometimes you decide the starting XI and the others go on bench and maybe someone can deserve to play, but at the same time they understand that now we are trying to create a squad, a strong squad.
“To have Steven Bergwijn, Lucas Moura on the bench means during the game you have two players that can change the game, especially if you are down or need to win. Also Winksy, today he came in and Winksy deserves to play, but you know Bentancur and Pierre Hojbjerg are playing in a massive way.
“I have to consider it was a pity [that we] don’t stay in other competitions as if involved in other competitions can give more space to players they deserve.
“Don’t forget Joe Rodon improved a lot from November until now. Every single player improving a lot. Now for example Sanchez before was playing every game but now not playing as we’ve found a good balance with Romero, Dier and Davies.
“Not because he doesn’t deserve to play, but in this moment they are playing very well, but to know if an injury happens to one of the three central defenders, to have Joe Rodon and have Patron Sanchez behind makes me happy.”
There is also Oliver Skipp, with his impending new contract, and Ryan Sessegnon to return next week to training at a very helpful time as Tottenham continue to build.
Much has been said about the huge summer ahead for Tottenham and the need for chairman Daniel Levy to keep Conte happy at what feels like a real crossroads for the club.
If Arsenal do falter and Spurs keep themselves in the top four, that will be a major boost for all concerned but Conte is the key to everything.
Tottenham’s managing director of football Fabio Paratici, who was furious with the officials at half-time on Sunday and had to be dragged down the tunnel by Davinson Sanchez, is already starting to build towards next season.
The Italian likes a free transfer and football.london understands that Spurs are currently the favourites to tie up a deal to bring 29-year-old West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone to the club in July when his contract ends with the Midlands club.
Johnstone is one of a select group of goalkeepers Tottenham are looking at to provide back-up to Hugo Lloris next season, which suggests that Pierluigi Gollini’s loan from Atalanta will not be made permanent. Spurs’ 23-year-old third goalkeeper Brandon Austin penned a new two-year deal last week.
The Preston-born Johnstone’s homegrown status is something that appeals to Spurs and there is a belief that the England international can help push Lloris and potentially succeed the 35-year-old in the long-term.
That move would just be a small one in the grand scheme of what needs to happen this summer but it would certainly be a start, a free transfer to ensure funds are used elsewhere to improve the squad.
That a start has been made can also be said of what’s happening on the pitch at the moment. This has been a great start to the run-in, but with eight matches to go Conte’s men must keep the momentum going.
A trip to Aston Villa awaits on Saturday. The Villains’ revival under Steven Gerrard has stuttered slightly in recent weeks with three straight defeats after three consecutive wins but they are a very different proposition under the former Liverpool man.
All eyes will be on Arsenal’s trip to Crystal Palace on Monday night but the old cliché remains that Tottenham can only focus on what they are doing. If they succeed in their own matches the pressure will be huge on those around them, with their top four rivals facing arguably tougher games in the run-in.
There is a feeling that things are coming together and the team understands its way forward, a similar mood to the one that came through towards the end of Mauricio Pochettino’s first season and years before that in Martin Jol’s debut campaign.
Conte is a winner. The Italian has got his Spurs players playing in the way he wants. If he can get them thinking the way he does then all bets are off.