When Antonio Conte emerged for his press conference after Tottenham’s disappointing draw at Brentford he was surprisingly upbeat.
The Spurs head coach even laughed as he tried out two different chairs that were both stuck at their lowest height before a third was found that allowed him to sit at the required level to address the room. It was a very calm version of the Italian who has showcased every form of emotion since arriving at the north London club in November.
Conte, like most managers at Tottenham, has tried every different approach with the players privately and publicly, prodding and probing or ignoring to see what gets the required reaction. He has spent the past six months studying the different personalities he has in his squad and how they are motivated.
After watching his team fail to muster a shot on target for the second game in a row with defender Cristian Romero their best player by a long way, football.london understands that Conte barely spoke a word to his Spurs squad in the changing room after their latest dismal display.
The players may take that as the ‘disappointed father’ look or the ‘oh dear, he’s going to kill us tomorrow on the Hotspur Way pitches’ warning. For just after they had got themselves into a great position in the Premier League table, so Spurs are do their best job of trying to throw it away.
It says everything about how poor the teams in the fourth place race have been that Tottenham and Arsenal somehow both still control their own destinies in the chase despite so many poor performances over the season. Both teams will have lost almost a third of their matches by the time the campaign ends. With 11 losses so far in the competition, they have lost the same amount of games currently as 12th placed Brighton and Crystal Palace in 14th.
The problem for Conte is that being wedded to two formations in 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 is all well and good if you have the personnel to switch between both. Right now he can only utilise the former and that makes Tottenham predictable and easy for organised sides to simply crowd them out of the game in the centre of the pitch with an extra man, particularly when Spurs’ wing-backs are seemingly unable to operate in the opposition half.
Ryan Sessegnon looked nervy and lacking in confidence after returning from his latest hamstring woe, while Emerson Royal continues to work tirelessly to tear down the stereotypes of Brazilian footballers.
The blueprint for Tottenham matches is simple. If you allow them to score once, however they manage it, you then have to open up your team and as a result leave space in behind, which suits Spurs’ players and they rip you apart.
Tottenham have only won 1-0 once under Conte in 31 matches, thanks to Davinson Sanchez’s last-gasp winner at Watford on New Year’s Day. On the whole, once Spurs take the lead, they often score again and again. The problem is getting that lead in the first place if your players aren’t able to work around deep lying teams.
Conte was asked whether he had considered tweaking his system, but simply said: “If you see in the last two games, I consider our work, our system good defensively because we didn’t concede a goal, but in the last two games we were a bit poor offensively. I think it’s not the problem of the system. It depends on the way that you attack.
“If you bring [Ben] Davies to play and go and Cuti [Romero] less for characteristics, I think we have to find the right balance offensively and defensively. Before we conceded more goals in games but we conceded a lot. Now defensively we were better. In the last three games, because especially we played against two teams with great attention, they played a really good game defensively.”
Brentford boss Thomas Frank said he had worked his team – missing three key players – all week on how to face Spurs, even if he admitted that that does not always guarantee success.
“In some ways it’s easier to prepare for but it’s not that easy to stop,” he said. “We’ve seen before in the last two games that Spurs were the highest scoring team and scoring goals for fun, but no doubt that when you know some clear patterns personally I’m like that myself if we create that more because it also gives structure to the players, but also if you prepare for some clear situations you try of course to stop it.
“When it works like it did today for us then it’s fantastic, but there’ll always be some crucial moments in a game where we have to make a defining block or sprint back.”
Conte told football.london that he too had worked during the week on breaking down organised teams, training against 10 men behind the ball, but on matchday the players did not replicate the solutions they found on the pitches of Hotspur Way.
“In the last two games we’ve struggled offensively because we’ve found two teams that are very good defensively. Without the ball these two teams defended very deep, with the whole team, with all their players. When you find this type of situation you need to create the space, also to have players to beat their man in one vs one, to create the superiority,” he explained.
“I think this aspect we are working on, because this week, after the game against Brighton, we worked on this aspect to try to in training find 10 players behind the ball.
“In the end I think this is a consequence when you score many goals, you start to become a dangerous team and the opponent pays more attention. They try to have more balance when they face you. I think today we wanted to get three points but the draw was fair and we have to accept this result and try to continue to work and improve in the situations we can improve.”
When asked by football.london whether the inability to turn training sessions into match success frustrated him, he added: “I think not frustration. I know very well that to play this type of game is not easy, for the atmosphere, for the intensity, for the opponent, because the opponent played with a great intensity.
“This is a consequence when you start to climb the mountain. When you go up and up, for sure the difficulty starts to become more and more. We have to try to face this new challenge, because maybe in the past many teams played against us, not with superficiality but undervalued us.
“Now they pay more attention, but in one hand I’m happy because defensively we were good. To defend set pieces against this team was difficult. On the other hand I know we have to improve and try to create more chances to score but if you want to get three points, if we want to win, you have to score.”
With Conte wedded to a back three, the only other real formation is a 3-5-2, a system he favoured in Italy but does not have the personnel to use at Spurs.
Adding Harry Winks or the absent Oliver Skipp to the mix with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur in the centre of the pitch would be throwing together three too similar more defensively-minded midfielders. Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso were more suitable for the role but did not meet Conte’s approval.
There’s of course a certain irony that the perfect third midfielder for that formation was on the pitch on Saturday, but Christian Eriksen was wearing a Brentford shirt. The former Spurs man pulled the strings in the Bees’ trio and had he been in Tottenham’s team, the visitors would likely have won. It’s a joy to watch the Dane after everything that’s happened to him and watching him relish his second chance with gusto.
Conte has previously been quite clear that he would like the midfielder back at Spurs next season even if he’s been more coy this week about that prospect, swerving the subject completely ahead of and after the game.
“First of all, I was pleased to see Christian play and to play in this way. You know very well to speak now about the transfer market about players that are not in my team, I think it’s a lack of respect for the team that the player is playing for and also for my players,” the Tottenham boss said after Saturday’s game.
“For sure I worked with him two years at Inter Milan and I enjoyed this. I am very happy to see him in this fantastic form because don’t forget only eight months ago what happened. Now I am pleased to see Christian play football in this type of level.
“Christian is showing great joy to play football. I think when this happens this type of situation and when you risk to finish to play football to play with your passion and to have another opportunity I think now he’s enjoying it totally.
football.london understands that Spurs have discussed entering the race to tempt Eriksen as a free agent in the summer knowing the player still holds a strong affection for the club he played almost seven years for, despite leaving on not the best terms with its hierarchy.
Frank admitted that he cannot say for sure that Eriksen will sign a new contract to remain at Brentford next season.
“I would love to say that I am confident, I am very positive and very hopeful that he will stay but it will be a decision at the end of the season,” he said. “I will do what I can but it’s down to Christian, where it’s like everything if you decide to go to one club or another, you buy that house or another house, you take that job or another job.
“There must be pros and cons and I always say if you make it an eight-two decision, where you have eight pros and two cons, then you are in a good position. I hope Christian makes the right choice for him and his family and I really hope it will be us.”
For now, Conte must find another way to unlock his star players, who were again notable by their absence. Dejan Kulusevski has gone from a revelatory signing to a player on the fringes of the action in these past two matches. Son Heung-min was closing in on Mohamed Salah in the Premier League Golden Boot race but has not even come close in these games.
Harry Kane looks like the Harry Kane we saw under Nuno Espirito Santo – frustrated, underwhelmed by his team-mates and trying to do too much by himself, although Spurs were indebted to his goal line clearance and his late acrobatic attempt was not far away from winning the game for the visitors.
Off the bench, Lucas Moura had one bright run that was stopped by a cynical foul just outside the Brentford box but Steven Bergwijn did not even get his customary couple of minutes to impress, Conte instead deciding that he needed the height of Sanchez to help Spurs combat Brentford’s superiority from set pieces and throw-ins.
The sight of the big Colombian centre-back coming on first as Tottenham searched for a goal was hardly the inspiring sight the travelling fans needed.
Conte does not appear to trust his bench and it’s not too far-fetched to suspect that both Lucas and Bergwijn could be set for pastures new next season if the right bids arrive as a squad revamp takes place.
Spurs’ managing director of football Fabio Paratici was, as usual, chatting away on his phone at pitch side before kick-off and he is going to have work hard this summer to furnish Conte with what he needs.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Tottenham could be looking for a new goalkeeper, left-sided centre-back, a wing-back on either side, a creative midfielder, a winger and a striker.
That’s seven new signings, but then many will be made available for sale or loan. Ndombele and Lo Celso will be available, Winks will want regular football as will Joe Rodon, Emerson and Sergio Reguilon could be cashed in on as Conte does not appear to see them as first choices, while free agent Sam Johnstone is likely to replace Pierluigi Gollini when he returns to Atalanta. Then you have Lucas and Bergwijn, who should attract interest and may want to depart for regular starts, plus Cameron Carter-Vickers who is expected to permanently join Celtic in a deal that could eventually be worth £10m.
In reality 10 departures is unlikely because the market rarely works in that way, but it does show just how much of an overhaul could occur if Paratici works the market.
Conte wants a certain standard of squad in order to fight for more than just fourth place next season. His points per match at Tottenham is just 1.77, compared to his 2.11 at Inter, 2.12 at Chelsea or 2.28 and 2.19 during his spells at Juventus. His Spurs average is his lowest since his time at Siena 11 years ago. Conte does winning, not merely getting by.
The Italian knows he needs a much better squad and when asked whether he needed an upgrade in his wing-backs to make his system work, he was polite but did not exactly back his current crop.
“Now I repeat it is not fair to speak about the situation that we can improve or not. I think I’m very happy to have this group of players and I’m trying to exploit every single player and improve every single player,” he said.
“I think also for this reason today with five games to play we are talking about Tottenham in the race for the Champions League [places]. Don’t forget in November the big trouble Tottenham was in.
“Now to stay with five games to go the possibility to stay in this race means the players improved a lot and we are doing a great job, but we have to know in this last month maybe if we gave 120 per cent maybe it’s not enough, we have to try to increase and go 150 per cent to try to reach this target.”
Tottenham now face three games in a row that, while appearing tougher on paper than the two they have fluffed their lines in over the past week, will bring more space for them to attack.
Leicester, Liverpool and Arsenal will not sit back and defend and they will seek to attack Spurs, which in turn will leave space for Conte’s side, who scored five times against the first two in their previous meetings.
This isn’t the Tottenham Hotspur Antonio Conte wants right now but it’s the one he’s got and he needs to make the most of it if he wants to snare the lure of the Champions League for Paratici to assemble the Spurs squad he desires.