ntonio Conte’s view of his Tottenham squad can be summed up by a phrase the head coach has used to explain his reluctance to make substitutions.
“I look to the bench, then I look back to the pitch!” Conte has remarked to staff.
Conte, in short, is not convinced by his options outside his first XI, and the only changes he has made in 12 matches have been forced by injuries at wing-back.
Saturday’s frustrating 0-0 draw with Brentford perfectly demonstrated Conte’s unwillingness to turn to his bench. With Spurs needing a goal to match Arsenal’s earlier win over Manchester United, Conte’s first change was centre-half Davinson Sanchez for Ryan Sessegnon in the 74th minute, while he did not introduce Lucas Moura until four minutes from time.
Steven Bergwijn remained unused, which was bizarre in the circumstances, particularly given the Dutchman’s heroics in the last meeting with Sunday’s opponents Leicester, who visit north London on the back of last night’s 1-1 home draw against Roma in the Europa Conference League.
Substitute Bergwijn scored twice in stoppage-time as Spurs sensationally won 3-2, despite trailing in the 95th minute, at the King Power Stadium in January.
There is a view from some at Spurs that Bergwijn being the match-winner that night may not have been entirely in the club’s best interests.
His stunning late show effectively ensured it would be a PR disaster to sell him to Ajax in the final week of January, as Spurs were considering, but he has since played just 175 minutes in the League. Clearly, the club might have been better off selling him and doing a late deal for a wing-back or an attacker Conte really rates.
The big issue with Conte’s reluctance to use his full squad is that his first XI quickly ran out of ideas and steam in the matches against Brighton and Brentford and, damningly, Spurs go into Sunday having not had a shot on target for over three hours.
Graham Potter’s Seagulls may just have established a blueprint with which to stop Conte’s side — specifically, prevent Harry Kane from getting on the ball and deny the England captain, Heung-min Son and Dejan Kulusevski space in the final third.
For all their encouraging progress under Conte, Spurs are still not much better at creating chances against canny opponents as they were under Jose Mourinho.
Their wins over Leeds, Everton and West Ham came against sides who all adopted a gung-ho approach, while the thrashings of Aston Villa and Newcastle came after they had been outplayed in the first half but managed to establish a lead, before picking off an opponent who had to chase the game.
Until he can make those signings, establishing a Plan B would be a start, but Conte is committed to his approach and appears reluctant to experiment.
Among his options would be a switch to a back-four, with Bergwijn or Moura coming in at the expense of a defender, but this risks Spurs’ defensive solidity, which has remained intact.
A more realistic move would be to bring either of the above into the front three and move Kulusevski to right wing-back, where the injured Matt Doherty is a miss, as Conte did for the final few minutes against Brentford. The risk there is that the connection between the midfield two and front three is further disrupted without link-man Kulusevski drifting between the thirds. Adding an extra midfield body in Harry Winks is another possibility.
The good news for Conte is that Spurs’ next three opponents — Leicester, Liverpool and Arsenal — all have coaches who prefer their teams to have possession and play on the front foot, which should suit the Italian’s approach of absorbing pressure and attacking the space.
Conte, though, cannot continue to rely on opponents playing into his team’s hands if Spurs are to overhaul Arsenal again in the battle for fourth.