Are Spurs simply too Spurs even for Conte to solve?

Date published: Thursday 6th January 2022 12:47 - Dave Tickner

Tottenham manager Antonio Conte during the Carabao Cup defeat at Chelsea

Spurs are going to be the most interesting Premier League team to watch for as long as Antonio Conte can stick it.

It’s a fascinating concept, an impossible clash of styles, of brands, between the manager who always wins things and the club that can go to extraordinary lengths and plumb unimaginable depths to avoid doing so.

Everything we know about Conte tells us that he will be gone within a couple of years no matter what happens. He has a contract only until the end of next season, with an option to extend by a year. That extension will most probably be activated, but it would be a surprise if he stayed beyond that.

Yet he is already talking (repeatedly) about the great patience it will require and time it will take to drag Spurs back from their current state to proper contenders.

It’s quite striking stuff from a manager who managed to take Chelsea from 10th to first in a single season five years ago.

But Chelsea are Chelsea and Spurs are Spurs.

Antonio Conte embraces Cesar Azpilicueta on his return to Chelsea as Spurs manager

Fundamentally, Conte’s reign at Spurs will come down to one thing: can Conte’s ability to Conte overcome Spurs’ ability to Spurs?

On the evidence at Stamford Bridge, your money would have to be on Spurs being just too potent a comedic, self-destructive force even for Conte.

This was vintage stuff. A two-goal lead gift-wrapped for their opponents inside the first 25 minutes via a pair of absolutely slapstick goals.

The unfortunate Japhet Tanganga was heavily involved in both, playing the under-pace pass that put Emerson Royal in strife against Marcos Alonso for the opening goal and then heading the ball against Ben Davies for a farcical own goal.

And yet it would be quite wrong to single out Tanganga. These were team efforts. Emerson and Sanchez also played key parts in the first goal, while even the concession of the free-kick that led to the second was a daftness.

Spurs were also no better going forward. They had an xG of quite literally zero in the first half, one in which Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg also put in an absolute horror show in the middle of the park.

In summary: Spurs were catastrophic at the back, offered absolutely nothing going forward and were an absent blankness in midfield.

Hojbjerg may be the biggest casualty of the night. The defence – clown-car catastrophe that it was – at least had the excuse of significant rejigging in the absence of both Eric Dier and Sergio Reguilon, forcing Davinson Sanchez into a central role – both positionally and figuratively – for which he is ill-suited. Given how competent Spurs have looked in the league recently, this was a very, very good night for Dier.

But the midfield could have no such excuse. Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp have been first choice for most of the season under first Nuno Espirito Santo and now Conte.

Hojbjerg was a central figure under Mourinho, and he was well suited to it, an all-action Viking destroyer whose attacking role consisted of occasionally watching long balls sail over his head towards Harry Kane and Heung-min Son.

But it’s no good for Conteball where actual midfielders are required, capable of winning the ball back and breaking up attacks, yes, but also doing something useful with the ball when presented with it.

That Hojbjerg was unable to provide even the screening role of his Mourinho days in precisely the sort of fixture in which he could arguably still have a job as a safety net even under Conte cannot bode well for him. The time may have finally come for a Skipp-Winks axis of nice boys in the middle.

And yet…

For all that Spurs were several shades of awful, and that pratfall Spursiness has apparently consumed and defeated even a winning mentality as strong as Conte, there were signs of a fightback from the great man. Chelsea utterly dominated this game, and yet the tie is not quite put to bed. Chelsea were unable to add to the two goals Spurs gifted them in the early stages.

They really could yet rue that failure, with those determined to see the game through the easy narrative of Romelu Lukaku’s return from the naughty step left with little to go on. A performance of neither redemption-securing verve and end product but nor one short of endeavour and commitment.

What he did do was spurn perhaps the best chance in the first half to add a third goal, although Kai Havertz was another contender for that crown as he snatched at a chance presented by yet another bit of business from the Spurs defence.

If next week Conte can somehow emerge triumphant from his ongoing battle against the all-powerful forces of Spursiness, those moments could still matter.

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