You’d be hard pressed to find a more Jekyll and Hyde football team than Tottenham at present. One game they’re beating defending champions Manchester City, the next they’re losing to relegation-threatened Burnley. Their thumping 4-0 win at Leeds on Saturday was followed up by an abject display and early FA Cup exit at the hands of Championship club Middlesbrough on Tuesday night. No wonder Antonio Conte looks so dejected on the sidelines.
“We have to try to avoid the up and down, up and down, and the only way to improve the situation is to work and learn about the defeat,” said Conte after his team had been knocked out of the FA Cup at the Riverside. Spurs’ season suddenly looks a lot smaller. Having already left the Europa Conference League and League Cup, their only target between now and May is to leapfrog Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United, and finish fourth. If Spurs win their two games in hand, they will overtake Manchester United, but West Ham pose a threat and, more pertinently, Arsenal are three points above Spurs with a game in hand.
If recent form is anything to go by, this rollercoaster Spurs team will fall short in their pursuit of a Champions League place. They have only won three games in a row once this season – in August – and, even though they have shown the ability to bounce back from defeats, their next collapse never seems far away. Fans would welcome some stability with open arms.
The upside of their cup defeats is that Spurs will only be playing once a week for the remainder of the season, which will give the players some rest and give Conte time to do essential work on the training ground. The Chelsea team that Conte led to the Premier League title in the 2016-17 season benefitted from not having the added distraction of European football, coupled with an early exit from the League Cup.
Conte did not have a pre-season when he took the Spurs job, but he now has some time to shape the team. The change of managers in November has altered the way Spurs play with and without the ball. Under Nuno Espírito Santo, they covered the least distance in the Premier League, whereas they now rank first with Conte in charge. Going from one extreme to the other in the middle of a season is difficult and the extra legwork also has an impact on recovery time, increases the likelihood of injury and ultimately affects consistency.
The absence of Oliver Skipp and January signing Rodrigo Bentancur has not helped Conte. One shields the backline effectively, while the other helps the team transition from defence to attack – a skillset Spurs were missing in the first half of the season due to Tanguy Ndombele’s lack of application and Giovani Lo Celso’s injury issues.
What Conte really needs, though, is time. Pre-season is of the utmost importance for the Italian. He put some of the players through a mini pre-season during the international break, but it’s not the same. With no international tournament until November, Conte will at least have a full complement of players to work with in the summer, provided he stays at the club.
Conte is only four months into the job but he has already sounded exasperated, saying just last week that he may not be the right man for the club. Whether or not he stays in the summer will be in part down to Daniel Levy. The Spurs chairman needs to appreciate that Conte has high demands in terms of new arrivals. Spurs have brilliant players across the park, but they lack the winning mentality required to reach the next level and need some new faces if they are to compete with the Premier League’s big boys.
Spurs are short of quality in a number of roles. Conte has suggested that January arrival Dejan Kulusevski could play right wing-back, but he will still hope to sign an upgrade on Matt Doherty and Emerson Royal for the role. Middlesbrough pair Djed Spence, currently on loan at Nottingham Forest, and Isaiah Jones, who tore Spurs to shreds on Tuesday night, have been linked, as has Torino wing-back Wilfried Singo.
A left sided centre-back should also be a priority. Ben Davies has been solid for Conte but could be improved upon. A move for Inter centre-back Alessandro Bastoni has been mooted, though he would not come cheaply. Two young Ligue 1 defenders – Benoît Badiashile of Monaco and Sven Botman of Lille – may be more likely targets. If Conte wants a proven winner, Bastoni is the ideal choice.
If Spurs are serious about challenging the clubs above them, they should try to sign another central midfielder – even after Bentancur’s arrival. Franck Kessie, a long-term target, will be available on a free transfer when his deal with Milan expires in the summer. Marcelo Brozovic, who will also be available on a free, worked under Conte at Inter and continues to shine under Simone Inzaghi. Kessie and Brozovic would vastly improve Conte’s options in the middle of the park.
Finally, competition for Harry Kane remains an ongoing issue for Spurs. Paulo Dybala, who is also available on a free transfer, may swap Italy for England. Perhaps former Juventus pair Kulusevski and Bentancur could convince the Argentinian to join them at Tottenham. Much will ride on Spurs qualifying for the Champions League, which is still the club’s immediate priority with 13 games to play.
There are reasons to be positive for Spurs fans even if they do not make the top four. If Conte is given the full backing of the board in the summer and a full pre-season with his squad, supporters can look forward to a new-look Spurs for next season. Granted, this is said with each passing campaign, but at least Conte is in place and can start building towards something positive now.