Conte’s Spurs switch could put Liverpool in control of title race

Alex Keble
Antonio Conte greets Man City manager Pep Guardiola.

Antonio Conte tweaking Tottenham’s system could change the shape of the title race if Man City don’t have an answer on Saturday night.

 

Here’s a surprising fact: if we assume Liverpool will beat Norwich City on Saturday afternoon, then by the time Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur kick off at the Etihad we will know that a win for Antonio Conte’s side puts Liverpool in control of the title race. Sort of.

Six points off the top with one game in hand, and with Liverpool still to play City, Jurgen Klopp could accurately tell his players that winning all of their remaining games would win them the Premier League title on goal difference.

Of course, following three successive league defeats for Spurs and after Conte’s bafflingly frank interview with Sky Italy, it may be hard to see how on earth the visitors can complete a league double over Pep Guardiola’s side. But there is an ace up Conte’s sleeve.

Before we come onto that, there is also the possibility that the simplicity of the task at hand could galvanise Spurs – as it did in their 1-0 win on the opening day of the season when Nuno Espirito Santo’s side sat back and soaked up pressure. Clearly that is something Conte will have to do, and he’ll be happy doing it, as he was when Chelsea beat Manchester City 3-1 in December 2016 by holding a deep line and waiting for chances to counter-attack.

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Conte is particularly good at this, in theory, and while Tottenham’s defensive errors in recent weeks make it less likely – note how easily Southampton and Wolves pressed hard to box Spurs in and force mistakes – it is plausible an ultra-defensive philosophy for this game will focus minds. Tottenham can shuffle across, slow Man City down, and then look to hit behind Guardiola’s high line with the pace of Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son.

For that strategy to work, much will depend upon Harry Kane’s ability to drop off the front line in key transitional moments and get Spurs quickly through the lines; Rodri is often left alone while the two City eights roam forward, and the Spaniard is unlikely to be able to deal with Kane if he is at his best. Kane getting on the ball and playing a perfect through pass into Son or Lucas Moura is surely going to be Tottenham’s main counter-attacking weapon.

Of course, there’s a good chance it won’t work at all. The last time Spurs attempted to sit deep and play on the break was the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in which Thomas Tuchel’s team hammered the visitors – using their territorial dominance to create a psychological imbalance. Considering Man City have won 12 of their last 13 in all competitions they could simply suffocate and grind Tottenham into submission, making the most of a clear weakness in the full-back positions as in-form Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez run directly at them.


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It’s more fun, though, to ask how Spurs might pull off an unlikely win – so let’s return to that ace up the sleeve.

After Spurs were pressed until dominated for the first half an hour against Wolves last weekend, Conte substituted Ryan Sessegnon for Dejan Kulusevski and moved to a 4-2-3-1 formation. It was the third time he had deployed a back four at Spurs, following a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 in two matches against Chelsea in January, but before then it was six years since Conte had abandoned the back three in a famous 3-0 defeat to Arsenal that kick-started Chelsea’s run to the 2016/17 title.

Not enough has been made of how big a deal it is, then, for Conte to switch system. And while it didn’t work on the first two tries, there is reason to believe the change against Wolves could be made permanent.

For a while now Conte’s lower block (compared to other ‘Big Six’ teams) and his relative disinterest in a high press had left Spurs too deep in possession to manage to build into the final third. This is partly because Eric Dier’s absence meant they lost the long diagonal that lurches Spurs up the pitch, but it is primarily because opponents are learning that to press hard onto Tottenham’s two-man midfield limits their options to get through the thirds.

In the 4-2-3-1, with Kulusevski linking the forwards with the midfielders from the ten position, Spurs suddenly had progressive passing options. Rodrigo Bentancur in particular improved as Tottenham built their way back into the game, all while maintaining defensive solidity thanks to Ben Davies staying deep to form a back three as Matt Doherty overlapped.

Should Conte deploy the 4-2-3-1 at City, he may find that Kulusevski combining with Kane puts extra pressure on Rodri in central midfield during counter-attacking opportunities, while the wider starting positions of Son and Lucas could help the visitors break on the outside of the City centre-backs. It would be a brave move, but it’s worth remembering Spurs’ 1-0 win on the opening day came in a 4-3-3 in which Dele Alli was expected to advance – not unlike Kulusevski.

Conte knows how to play Guardiola. Spurs will enjoy being the under-dogs, deploying simple tactics and with the pressure off. Stranger things have happened. Liverpool might just be in the driving seat by Saturday evening.