Spurs well set to start era-defining run by beating Newcastle

Alex Keble
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte and Newcastle boss Eddie Howe.

Alex Keble explains why Spurs against Newcastle will be played in bursts, with the hosts looking good to triumph at the start of a pivotal run…

 

The Premier League is in an unusually competitive state for this stage of the season, and so as the final international break ends it is perhaps controversial to say that Tottenham Hotspur have more on the line than anyone else. Everton might argue theirs is a more pressing concern, but nobody else faces the long-term status hit that may befall Spurs if they fail to land a top-four spot in six weeks.

Doing so would mean three consecutive seasons without Champions League revenue, knocking them firmly down into the second tier of big clubs – and with no obvious route back. The danger with sacking Mauricio Pochettino was that Daniel Levy didn’t realise how little actually separated Spurs from the other middle-class Premier League clubs. He didn’t seem to appreciate how much Pochettino had over-achieved.

Being able to hire people like Jose Mourinho and now Antonio Conte shows there is a certain cachet to being Spurs manager – but that will not last much longer without a return to the Champions League. Harry Kane will again be considering an exit this summer, and with Conte always teetering on the edge it is no exaggeration to say that Tottenham’s final nine matches of the season could be era defining for the club.

Fortunately, things are finally starting to click, and while Arsenal have opened up a healthy lead in fourth their relatively easy run of games has come to an end. There is time for Spurs to usurp their rivals. But they need to come out of the international window running at full pelt.


Conte: Tottenham must ‘fight’ to achieve ‘important’ top four goal


Newcastle United are tough opponents. Eddie Howe has managed to turn the Magpies into an effective top-10 team by creating a tactical model that is a halfway point between the Benitez/Bruce idea of counter-attacking football and the more expansive model their Saudi owners will ultimately wish to introduce. Being able to sign an unprecedented £90million worth of players in January is the main reason for the turnaround, but Howe deserves credit nonetheless for finding a comfortable midpoint.

He has moved the defensive line up much higher, thanks to the arrival of a natural leader in Dan Burn, while the deployment of Joe Willock and Joelinton as eights in a 4-3-3 has proved to be a masterstroke. These two set the tone for Howe’s team by snapping into challenges, winning the ball in the central third and carrying it quickly through the lines. It is the centre-piece of Howe’s desire to maximise the attacking transitions with the introduction of a pressing game that only becomes active when the opponent is in the middle third.

This is particularly dangerous for Spurs because of their own narrowness in Conte’s 3-4-2-1; as his wing-backs pour forward to provide the width in attack, found by raking diagonal passes, Spurs can leave too much space in the wide areas for opponents to counter-attack into. If Newcastle’s new-look midfield – rejuvenated by the instantly-impressive Bruno Guimaraes – can consistently pinch the ball away from their counterparts then Allan Saint-Maximin and Ryan Fraser can be set away.

Bruno Guimaraes during a match

This imagined scenario would have been far more likely to happen a few weeks ago, when Conte’s formation and deeper defensive line looked like a major stumbling block. With Spurs starting from a lower block than most big clubs, all of which are forced to hold a lot of possession, they were struggling to build attacks with any real momentum – leading to a congested central midfield and sloppy concessions to scurrying eights like Willock and Joelinton.

However, the introduction of Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski has helped considerably. Bentancur is an excellent press-resistant midfielder who can both weave away from danger and thrust the ball forward, taking risks with vertical possession – a major improvement on the hesitant sideways football of Harry Winks.

Even more important is the way Kulsevski drops from the inside forward position into pockets of space between the lines, providing Bentancur with a passing option that breaks the press and gets Spurs into the final third. Assuming Bentancur and Kulusevski start, the threat of Willock and Joelinton launching counter-attacks is significantly diminished.

Elsewhere, the battle between Kane and Guimaraes, starting at the base of midfield for Howe, could prove decisive. The Brazilian’s inexperience in English football makes him vulnerable to Kane’s movement as he comes short to dictate the tempo and set Heung-min Son away – and Son will fancy his chances peeling off to the left to isolate Emil Krafth, arguably the weakest member of the Newcastle first 11.

Certainly Spurs will need to pull wider than usual. According to Opta, no Premier League team attacks through the centre of the pitch more than Spurs (27%) but Newcastle, largely sitting behind the ball, will be solid here. It is likely to be a fairly quiet game, given the absence of intense pressing from either side, but one defined by sudden bursts of attacking transitions. The hosts, in form and with virtually a clean bill of health, ought to be able to come out on top.