Messy preparations but no messing on the pitch
It was yet another match that came after chaotic preparation for Tottenham in the hours before kick-off.
Antonio Conte has 15 years’ worth of managerial experience to his name yet even he has grown exasperated with the difficulties of coaching and preparing a team in this current Covid-struck era.
During Tottenham’s own outbreak Conte was attempting to prepare for matches as he lost players to positive test results after each session.
Now he’s trying to prepare for games that the opposition are attempting to get called off.
Crystal Palace are believed to have made a very late request to the Premier League to postpone the Boxing Day clash after a number of Covid cases in their camp, including manager Patrick Vieira.
The Spurs players had already spent the night in The Lodge, the club’s training ground hotel, and then spent the morning wondering whether their fourth game in the past month was going to get called off before they had even had the chance to step foot on the pitch.
Eventually Palace’s late request was rejected by the Premier League and the game went ahead, the visitors in the end making just one change to the starting line-up from the team they put out to face Southampton 11 days before.
They did name seven substitutes rather than nine on their bench in what seemed like an attempt to send a message about their squad availability.
Spurs struggled in the early stages of the game to play through the visitor’s pressing but eventually found that their tried and tested counter-attacks were the key to ripping them apart.
The first saw Emerson Royal send Lucas Moura down the right with a perfectly weighted ball and the Brazilian winger turned it inside instinctively to Harry Kane to fire home his second goal in back to back matches, with a helping hand from the flapping Jack Butland.
Two minutes later and it was 2-0, the same three players all involved again.
This time Kane swept the ball out to Emerson and the wing-back, who has struggled for quality in good positions since joining, stood the ball up perfectly in the air for Lucas to leap high and head the ball powerfully into the net.
The result was sealed when Wilfried Zaha managed to get himself sent off with a couple of yellow cards. The first involved him catching Davinson Sanchez’s heel and then just 14 minutes later, he inexplicably decided it was the perfect moment to push the Colombian to the floor by the neck.
The red card flourished was one of the simplest decisions a referee will make this season.
Spurs had further chances to add to the scoreline but the third goal did not arrive until the 74th minute when Sanchez, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp combined to put Lucas down the right and he crossed for the unmarked Son Heung-min to flick past Butland with an outstretched foot.
Zaha’s moment of madness was just what Conte and Tottenham needed. They were able to step down the gears and even Kane managed to get half an hour off, all rather helpful with the trip to Southampton coming less than 48 hours after the final whistle.
The Brazilians and Conte’s challenge to Lucas
This match displayed the growing link-up between the club’s two Brazilians in Lucas and Emerson.
Lucas had a similar connection with last season’s Brazilian on loan – Carlos Vinicius – but that mostly came in cup matches and his work with Spurs’ current right wing-back could be more profitable in the main.
Both players are currently providing positive answers to the questions that have been posed about them.
For Emerson, while the 22-year-old is one of the fittest players in the club which suits the demands of a Conte wing-back, his end product and ability to beat the last man down the touchline has been suspect at times, without an assist to his name since he joined the club this summer.
That changed on Boxing Day with a performance that, after the first 20 minutes, brought a key pass in the build-up to Kane’s opener, that pinpoint cross for Lucas and then another cross to his compatriot in the second half that he skied with an acrobatic strike.
For Lucas it was another display bursting with end product, with a goal and two assists.
Conte has been full of praise for the 29-year-old and that’s because his challenge to Lucas earlier this month has been accepted.
“I think he scored an amazing goal but he has the quality to score more goals and he has to score more goals in the rest of the season,” said the head coach after Lucas’ rocket goal against Norwich.
“Lucas has great quality and surely my expectation is to see much more goals like this, but good performance with and without the ball.”
Now under Conte, Lucas has been directly involved in eight goals in the Italian’s nine matches in charge, scoring four goals and laying on four assists for his team-mates.
On Sunday, the Spurs boss dished out the challenge to Emerson instead when football.london asked about the duo’s growing connection on the pitch.
“We’re talking about two Brazilian players. For sure, being the same nationality helps them,” he said.
“I’m happy because they have a good link and connection but for sure Emerson has big space for improvement.
“Emerson is very young and he has to continue to work. In that side, to have Lucas Moura and this good connection could be good for the whole team.”
It wasn’t just the Brazilian connection down the right that looked dangerous for Tottenham.
The front three of Lucas, Kane and Son are all getting among the goals and it’s now an attacking trident that will worry defences again, with pace either side and a predator through the middle.
The Tottenham fans are getting shots on goal once more. They’re getting served up swift, entertaining football and those shot-shy matches under Nuno Espirito Santo seem a distant memory.
Spurs have scored 18 goals in their nine matches under Conte so far and on Sunday they had 17 shots on Palace’s goal with six of them on target.
The visitors, with their man disadvantage, mustered just four attempts with none on target, leaving Hugo Lloris with one of the easiest cleen sheet bonuses he will have picked up.
At the other end of the pitch, Son has a natural ability to always be a threat even when he’s not firing on all cylinders.
He carried the team with his goals early in the season and under Conte has now scored in each of his past four Premier League matches, plus a goal in the Italian’s opening match against Vitesse in the Europa Conference League.
For Kane, the goals are starting to come again, with strikes against both Liverpool and Crystal Palace and a relieved smile back on his face.
The 28-year-old is loving life under Conte and the feeling is mutual.
The England captain enjoyed working under Jose Mourinho and although different in approach, the tutelage of Conte has similarly reignited the passion of Tottenham’s second all-time top scorer.
Kane has always called on a show of ambition from Spurs and in the appointment of one of the world’s current best managers in Conte he got his wish as the club raised the bar last month.
Both those within Kane’s camp and those within Tottenham maintain that talks have not yet begun over a new contract for the striker – with what happens at the club in the coming transfer windows set to truly show just how far that ambition will stretch.
Kane still has two and a half years left on that six-year deal he penned back in 2018 and right now goals is the best currency the forward has at his disposal.
“I always say we are talking about a top-class striker and a player that for us is very important,” Conte told the BBC on Sunday.
“Today I had the possibility to give him a bit of rest and for him to play only 60 minutes for us was important. Kane is a player it is very difficult to decide to put in a rotation.”
The next challenge for Conte with his attacking firepower is to make them as dangerous when counter-attacking is not an option.
For the opening 20 minutes of Sunday’s match, Palace looked like they might frustrate Spurs as they did at Selhurst Park earlier in the season.
The visitors pressed well and kept their shape and Tottenham struggled to find the creativity and forward passing to harm them.
It is in moments like that, with a 3-4-3 containing two more defensively-minded central defenders, when the lack of a playmaker becomes glaring.
However, Palace suddenly broke ranks and allowed Tottenham the space to revert to their go-to attacking trait, those blistering counter-attacks, and the visitors were torn apart before they knew what had hit them.
Conte made it clear that he feels Spurs need to improve in both forms of attack and also reminded people about Steven Bergwijn, the Dutchman replacing Kane up front for that final half an hour.
“I think we have the strikers that are very good at receiving the ball and creating something important, to make assists,” said the Tottenham head coach.
“At the same time we have very good strikers when they have space in front of us to attack.
“We’re trying to improve both situations. When you find a team that stays in their half, you have to be good to use more quality.
“Not run but to use all your quality to make a good pass, to beat a man in a small space, but for us it’s great to have these type of strikers. Steven Bergwijn is another player with these characteristics.
“We have to continue to work and continue this with the strikers. I’m happy today because they scored and they have to thank the rest of the team because they worked very hard to create chances. They scored and I am very happy for them.”
The Conte foundations being built
It’s testament to the impact Antonio Conte has made at Tottenham that after an incredibly tough period for the club, during which Covid has spread like wildfire through players and staff, everyone has a smile on their face.
In just under eight weeks, including an international break plus matches and training sessions lost to postponements, Conte has transformed the mood inside the club and rejuvenated a flagging and frustrated fanbase.
Tottenham now sit in fifth place in the Premier League despite having three games in hand over three of the four above them.
Should they manage to win those matches in hand then they would be in fourth and just three points behind Liverpool and Chelsea, second and third respectively, although Jurgen Klopp’s men have played just two matches more than Spurs.
Matches will continue to drop from the schedule for teams in the weeks ahead and while Tottenham’s outbreak was difficult to deal with, it could now leave them in a better position for the remainder of the season with the likelihood of players getting Covid again reduced and those who had it getting through the after-effects as the weeks go on.
Conte is far too experienced to be getting carried away by his start to life in N17, despite still being unbeaten in the Premier League since returning to England.
He was asked whether the momentum being built had a similar feeling to the surge created during the long-winning run that took his Chelsea side to the Premier League title over Spurs in the 2016/17 season. He slapped that down instantly.
“No, I think it’s different. I don’t like to compare different situations. Also because there’s too big a difference with my experience in the past,” he said.
“Also because I remember very well I started the season and when you start the season you have the possibility to work with your players and to also make decisions about your players.
“This is different. For sure we have to continue to improve, to exploit the confidence that is going to improve us.
“We know very well, I know very well, we have a big job to do.
“It’s good to get three points, to score three goals with your three strikers. It’s good to keep another clean sheet.
“We know very well we have to work very hard to improve the situation.”
This season was perhaps expected to be one of gradual improvements and laying the foundations for a big campaign next time around.
However, the Conte impact and his top drawer coaching methods have brought a surge in morale, quality and points.
The players are responding, they’re getting fitter and have gone from an average distance covered as a team in matches that was bottom of the stats table to running more than any other side.
That’s down to Conte and his coaching staff but also a slightly damning reflection of the effort put in by some players under his predecessor Espirito Santo.
Conte is keen to publicly play down the prospects of what this season might bring, with his only stated intention being to get the club into a position where they can attempt to capitalise should someone drop out of the top four.
For the Italian, he believes he can only truly be measured by what comes next season in north London.
Spurs will look to build on the early momentum though and try to make moves in and out of Conte’s squad during the January transfer window, particularly once he hands in his evaluations on the players he wants to keep and allow to leave.
football.london understands that meeting with Paratici – a follow-up to the one a few weeks back when Conte asked for more time to evaluate his players – is yet to take place as the Italian wants to make sure he does not jettison players who could yet prove important going forward without thorough evaluation.
Conte has a reputation for taking those players not deemed to be stars by others and making them integral parts of his title-winning teams and the club will wait for his final evaluation before moving forward with what positions need replenishing or exits.
The current feeling within the club is that the targets in January could end up being a new right wing-back, with Matt Doherty potentially moving on for more regular football, a new left-sided centre-back to provide competition for Ben Davies and a natural number nine to allow Kane to be rotated when needed and provide him with extra support up front. Conte likes his main striker to be a ‘reference point’ for the team.
Ultimately though the decision over who stays and goes will be Conte’s as he seeks to shape a squad befitting of his ambitions at Tottenham.
Talks over a new contract for captain Hugo Lloris are yet to move in the right direction but there is believed to be a willingness from all parties to extend the Frenchman’s stay with Conte in particular keen to keep the World Cup winner.
Everyone wants to be part of what Conte is cooking up at Tottenham.
So far the starter has been appetising for the club and its fans and all eyes are already peering ahead to what’s set to be served up for the main course.
Source by Football London