Tottenham's good start has not reflected performances - Conte's system is missing key cogs

Tottenham's good start has not reflected performances - Conte's system is missing key cogs
Tottenham's good start has not reflected performances - Conte's system is missing key cogs
Tottenham's good start has not reflected performances - Conte's system is missing key cogs
Tottenham Hotspur sit third in the Premier League, are currently one of two sides unbeaten and just a point off Arsenal in first. If you had offered any Spurs fan this exact scenario at the beginning of the season, you'd imagine most would have snatched your hand off for it - even the most foolish or optimistic ones. But then why do things feel just a little bit off?

Tottenham's 2-0 loss to Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League shouldn't be the end of the world. In a time where fans flip-flop and jump from bandwagon to bandwagon, this defeat shouldn't lead to too much uproar. Rightly so.

But the issue is that although the loss was a new experience for Spurs fans this season, the performance wasn't. Far from it.

Despite the good start on paper, the nature of Tottenham's games this season have been relatively insipid at times. We have seen them look flat and lethargic, and struggle to impose any authority or dominance over their opponents. 

Of their eight games in all competitions in this campaign, only two of them have been convincing. A 4-1 thrashing of Southampton and a 2-1 win over Fulham, which should have been a lot more - both at home. 

In those eight games, only three times have they had more possession than their opponents - in the two aforementioned matches and a 1-1 draw against West Ham.

In the first eight games of Antonio Conte's (53) first season at Inter Milan, his side had more possession on six occasions. The two times they didn't? AC Milan and Barcelona, so that makes a little bit of sense.

Let's look at his debut (and title-winning) season at Chelsea. First eight games, all eight times they had more possession.

Of course, there will be those who say that Inter and Chelsea are bigger and better teams than Tottenham. Sure, that may be true. But Tottenham have been playing teams who they possess more quality than so far this season, and should have more possession than - besides Chelsea.

Against Nottingham Forest, a newly promoted side, they were ripped to shreds at times and relied on hitting them on the counter-attack. There's absolutely nothing wrong with playing on the counter, and Conte is the master of that in games where they need to do that. But against Forest?

For Chelsea in 2016, they beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium 3-1. A pure counter-attacking masterclass. The same opposition for Spurs last season at the same stadium  - a 3-2 victory.

Conte is the master of adapting to context and the opposition he is coming up against, while also in relation to the team and players he possesses. One of his stand-out attributes during his career has been his perspicacity. That's why their performances so far have been so surprising. But if you look a bit deeper, have they really?

Antonio Conte is undoubtedly a fantastic manager, and he has the resume to back that up. His sides are ruthless, efficient, cold-blooded killers. They are capable of keeping hold of the ball and creating chances, while also shredding teams up despite having less of the ball. He is able to inculcate his ideas and thoughts into his players, who embody him on the pitch. 

The Italian was bought in to be the man to take the 'Spursy' out of Tottenham Hotspur. It's clear to see that he has instilled some fight into the club, as seen by their battling results this season and the late winner against Chelsea. But that was a London derby. Surely any footballer with an ounce of pride would have fought to grab a late goal when only one goal down.

It's important to bear in mind that Spurs gave Sporting their first ever win against an English side in the Champions League. They also dropped points at home to Brighton (0-1) and away to Brentford (0-0) during a pivotal point at the end of last season, which looked to have cost them Champions League football. They managed to snatch fourth spot off an extremely inexperienced Arsenal team, but it wasn't particularly down to awe-inspiring Spurs performances. 

So the 'Spursy tag' is far from eradicated.

Tottenham have not been exactly what we expect from a typical Conte side in terms of the way they play, whether people agree or not. I know some believe he is a defensive manager and this is how he wants his teams to play, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

They have been solid defensively, conceding five goals this season - only Wolves have conceded less (4) - and they have also hit opponents on the break as efficiently as any Conte team. Having Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, Dejan Kuluseveski and Richarlison sure does help.

But they haven't been able to dominate games as Conte would like. Their midfield has been overrun on a number of occasions, and they've really struggled to create many chances. Dull performances have been seen far too often for a team with stunning firepower, and a lack of clear attacking patterns must be worrying.

But there are reasons for this.

Firstly, Conte absolutely requires wing-backs who offer dynamism and athleticism in the final third. Of course, they must be able to defend, but the wing-backs are so crucial to bombing down the wing and contributing to attacks.

In Chelsea, he had Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses. First and foremost, credit must be given to the manager for making both players top-class wing backs. Who else on this planet would have even had the thought of Moses playing in that position?

But the facts are, both players' area of expertise comes in offensive areas of the pitch. Alonso is known for getting in the box and scoring goals, while Moses is a winger by nature. 

At Inter, he had Denzel Dumfries and Ivan Perisic. Both tick the boxes of an Antonio Conte wing-back.

Hence why he bought Perisic to Tottenham. The 33-year-old has been good since arriving and offered a lot more than Ryan Sessegnon, but you can tell he is still fully getting to grips with the Premier League.

The big issue comes with Emerson Royal on the other side. You will struggle to find anyone who offers as little as him while the ball is at his feet. His crossing can beggar belief at times, constantly finding the goalkeeper or just hitting it straight out of play. His technical ability whilst dribbling leaves a lot to be desired too.

Matt Doherty clearly isn't in the manager's thoughts either. Despite being a specialist in that position, he doesn't offer the defensive security that his Brazilian team mate does.

Djed Spence was signed from Middlesbrough in the summer and looks to possess the raw ability and natural characteristics that Conte wants from a wing-back. The issue is that Conte doesn't seem to think he is totally up to scratch yet.

The central midfield area is also a big cause for concern. At Stamford Bridge, he had N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.

Does anything else need to be said about that pairing?

When he won Serie A with Inter, he deployed a 3-5-2 formation, as Marcelo Brozovic and Nicolo Barella sat just behind Hakan Calhanoglu who did the playmaking.

In both these sides, the midfield was able to trample all over the opposition and keep hold of the ball. They could retain possession as well as anyone. 

The facts are, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur just can't do that as effectively. The latter is comfortable on the ball, but he hasn't got the physical presence to be able to make up for his partner's lack of ball-playing skill. 

Yves Bissouma could be that man. The all-action midfielder is exactly what you would imagine Conte would love in his team. Powerful and strong but with bundles of attacking quality.

However, Conte doesn't believe he is ready yet.

"...the only player struggling with the tactical aspect is Bissouma," he said. "The midfielder is a specific role for us, with the ball and without the ball.

“It’s not simple. I ask for some moments, some positions. They have to be a point of reference in every moment of the game.

“The midfielder for sure, to go into our idea of football is maybe the most difficult position, but we are talking about a player that has great skill, good running.

“With the ball, he’s really good, defensively he has to pay more attention. More attention because especially we only have two midfielders and then they have to be good with the ball and without the ball, but I’m really happy with his signing.”

There's no question that he should be happy with the signing. Bissouma proved that he is a good player at Brighton. But the fact that he is yet to adapt has hindered Tottenham's development at the start of this season.

Conte also wanted a creative midfielder in the transfer window, to give them the option of playing 3-5-2, much akin to his time at Inter. It would have given them a 'plan B', and a better method to take a stranglehold of games.

But they don't possess a player of that ilk in their squad, leaving them toothless against teams that sit back and defend in their own penalty area.

The form of Son is a cause for concern too. Having last season's top goalscorer in the Premier League and one of your key outlets out of form is never ideal. His record-breaking partnership with Kane has been non-existent, meaning a large portion of their productivity is gone. But the issues stem beyond that.

Conte's system requires a player with the perfect attributes in every single position, and he currently doesn't have that. He is missing some key cogs in what is normally such a well-oiled machine.

These factors are contributing to Tottenham's sluggish (performance-wise at least) start to the season. They've still managed to chisel out results, something previous Spurs teams may not have been able to do.

Something will need to change soon if they don't want performances to come back to bite them eventually. The loss in Lisbon may have been an indication that their luck might finally be running out.

The positive is that some of the dilemmas can be solved internally. Spence and Bissouma are waiting in the wings until they finally adjust to the tactical demands of their manager. Conte's system will look more locked and loaded should these two find their feet.

They face Leicester City on Saturday in London, a fixture about which they should be feeling comfortable. The Foxes sit bottom of the Premier League without a point and look in total disarray.

But they will have their eyes on the first match back after the international break. They play Arsenal in the North London derby on October 1st, which will be a true litmus test. They have failed to win at the Emirates in the league in their last eleven attempts, and Conte will be looking to put that right.

It's set to be a very peculiar season of football for a number of reasons, but if Tottenham want things to be truly different from their perspective, then they will need Antonio Conte to finally build the team that fits his mould.