Kulusevski changes the Spurs narrative as Conte’s side discover unexpected style

Date published: Tuesday 9th August 2022 8:00 - Ian King

Dejan Kulusevski scores for Spurs against Southampton

That Spurs brushed Southampton aside on the opening weekend was no great surprise. The manner in which they did it was.

 

There’s a long way to go, but the early signs are encouraging. Spurs kicked off their Premier League season on Saturday with a convincing home win against Southampton, and it was a performance that told a story of how head coach Antonio Conte has reshaped this team, and about how the best laid narratives of mice and men can go missing.

Spurs had some reason for trepidation ahead of this fixture. When the two clubs met at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in February, Southampton won 3-2, the second of three successive league defeats and a result which set in motion a flurry of speculation over whether Conte would even still be there by the end of the season.

But he stayed, the rebuild has continued apace, and Spurs’ summer in the transfer market has been wisely praised as a number of briskly arranged arrivals of excellent quality have been signed on the basis of how well they will fit into a clearly defined system.

But Conte can also be somewhat mischievous at times, and when the team sheet was produced for the first Premier League game of the season, none of the club’s five big summer signings – Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma, Clement Lenglet, Fraser Forster and Djed Spence – were starting in the first XI.

And by the end of the afternoon, another narrative was looking a little shakier than it had done previously. The attacking pairing of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min contributed 40 goals between them in the league alone last season, and it is understandable that there might have been comment that Spurs may have been a little over-dependent on them.

Even though Spurs went to the top of the first (and obviously most meaningless) league table of the season with four goals, these two were not among the scorers.

The star of the show was a player who’s been living in the shadows a little. Dejan Kulusevski’s arrival from Juventus on an 18-month loan at the end of January was one of the less heralded moves of that window, but Kulusevski has become increasingly influential since his arrival.

He’d come a long way over the course of the second half of last season, but his performance against Southampton indicated that he’s not reached the limits of his capability just yet.

Ryan Sessegnon of Spurs

But before any of this could come to pass, Spurs had to get their Tottenham moment of the afternoon out of the way. A chill wind blew through the stadium when James Ward-Prowse gave Southampton an early lead, a sobering moment after all that pre-season optimism.

This might have been the cue for another round of Deep Tottenham Hotspur On-Pitch Introspection and Panickiness but instead, less than ten minutes later, they were level with a Ryan Sessegnon header, his first league goal for the club.

Early nerves settled, Conte will have been more than satisfied, not only by the eventual 4-1 scoreline but also by the nature of his team’s performance. Southampton were largely ineffectual as Spurs’ confidence grew, with Kulusevski finding particular space in the gaps behind their defence.

After Eric Dier had put Spurs in front after 31 minutes with a glanced header and Mohammed Salisu had extended their lead with an own goal from two yards out that in days of yore would have found its way onto a video cassette compilation hosted by a stand-up comedian, Kulusevski added the fourth goal himself – a low-shot across goal which put the game beyond any reasonable doubt with almost half an hour still to play.

The strength of Kulusevski’s performance shows that opposing coaches preparing their teams for the omnipotent threat of Son and Kane may have to recalibrate their plans. It’s not that these two weren’t a threat against Southampton. Both had chances to score themselves. But if it was true that Spurs may have been a little over-reliant on their goals last season, the early signs this time around are that this might not be quite as much the case again.

Of course, results and league tables at this point of the season should be treated with due caution. The league table shows nothing that can’t be seen from looking at a list of results, and even results and performance levels at this very early stage can be taken with a pinch of salt.

Spurs supporters know this better than most. On the opening day of last season, Nuno Espirito Santo’s team beat Manchester City 1-0, and after three games they were the only ones left with a 100% league record. By November, Nuno was out of a job and Conte was on his way.

But the performance against Southampton was characterised by a number of unexpected – or at least under-reported – improvements (Kulusevski’s ability and increased importance to Spurs’ system has been no secret for Spurs supporters this year). That should, if anything, only offer encouragement. Son and Kane are still there, and both will now be likely champing at the bit to get their own goalscoring for the season kick-started.

Further goalscoring threats from different positions are A Good Thing in and of themselves. Having so many outlets for scoring goals is one of the many strings to their bow that Manchester City have had in recent years.

It’s also worth remembering that this was all achieved without the services of Richarlison, who missed this game after being suspended by the FA for throwing a flare into a stand at Goodison Park during Everton’s win against Chelsea towards the end of last season.

There’s no question that Southampton’s defence was extremely porous – the odds against Ralph Hasenhuttl becoming the first Premier League manager this season to be sacked will have been slashed – but for Spurs, a team with a reputation for flakiness and with expectation levels starting to rise, this will be considered an irrelevance.

A win’s a win, but a win in style can be something else altogether at this early point in the season.

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