Antonio Conte’s methods aren’t working at Tottenham – relying on second-half form is unsustainable

A guy once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Tottenham Hotspur have conceded the first goal in their last 10 games in all competitions.

They have conceded two goals in their last seven Premier League games.

They have only led at half time in two of their last 18 games in all competitions.

What makes these stats more maddening from a Spurs/Antonio Conte point of view is that they are a much better-suited team to be up front. Until the last few months, they were a team built on solid defensive foundations – they finished last season with just five goals in 11 games and edged past Arsenal to claim fourth place.

They were built on a rigid 3-4-3 formation that lent itself to counter-attacking football through the wings, but predominantly through Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and, to a lesser extent, Lucas Moura running forward and exploding. the space behind, often. clinging to the balls of Dejan Kulusevski’s creative toes.

A basic and substantial barrier to playing this way is that if your team concedes the first goal, the opposition can sit deeper and absorb the pressure, forcing you to try and play through a lower block.

The pattern of play in Spurs matches has been extremely familiar for what seems like an age, to the extent that it’s a running joke that fans can only show up at half time, as that’s when the team starts play. .

They will probably start rather cautiously, have a defensive wobble or two – Eric Dier has been responsible for a few, which is why he was dropped against Aston Villa on New Year’s Day just a couple of months after his imperious form earned him a retirement. to the England team, then concede before half time, then perhaps again after half time, before waking up belatedly for a grandstand finale.

antonio count

Antonio Conte during Spurs’ loss to Aston Villa (Photo: Eddie Keogh via Getty Images)

Those comebacks (from 1-0 down to win at Marseille to reach the Champions League round of 16; from 3-2 down against Leeds to win 4-3; from 2-0 down at Bournemouth to win 3-2 – as well as going 2-0 at Brentford to pick up a point – a good result given that the teams Thomas Frank’s side have beaten this season) have been just as impressive as the inevitable slide into an early losing position it has been desperately and predictably poor.

Against Villa the other day, the usual was not followed by a spirited comeback. That lack of comeback brought boos for the players, sarcastic applause for a Conte substitution and even some anti-Daniel Levy chants.

Those comebacks had masked a lot of underlying anger and frustration over what felt like a disappointing season, even if when the World Cup break came Spurs were fourth and still in the Champions League. For long stretches of most matches, they haven’t been playing cohesive football, let alone engaging and fluid.

While a hectic schedule and truncated campaign (plus some unfortunate injuries, notably Kulusevski and Richarlison, as well as dismal form from Son) are reasonable excuses for a lack of consistency, there’s a right focus on how Conte, whose achievements during his career management correctly place him in the top bracket of European managers, he is setting up his team. Why can’t you crack this particular code? And where are he and the Spurs wrong?

One thing he hasn’t tried yet – and given the way he’s built title-winning teams at Inter Milan and Chelsea in recent years, it’s hardly surprising – is a different formation. There have been three in the back each time.

There are weaknesses in the team and squad that have become quite apparent during Conte’s 13 months in charge, especially in the wing where, despite the addition of the experienced Ivan Perisic in the summer (he has four assists in the league and is a prolific player). en route to goal via his set pieces) there is a distinct lack of offensive end product in the open play of the four (Perisic, Ryan Sessegnon, Matt Doherty and Emerson Royal) at his disposal. Djed Spence, the one with the sporadic presentations in the 88th minute, still does not count.

Spurs are also likely to be lacking at least one dominant center midfielder, one creative midfielder and one other striker. Kulusevski (five assists) is by far their most creative and unpredictable player in open play, but without him (as against Villa) Spurs look uncreative and unpredictable, despite Kane’s heroic attempts to be all for all men in preparation. and score goals.

As this graph shows, Tottenham’s recent results reflect an increasing trend in terms of their numbers of expected goals (xGs), with the number of xGs scored decreasing and the number of xGs conceded increasing.

So why can’t Conte currently get his team to put on a 90-minute performance?

Looking at the data, there are some clear discrepancies between how games start and how they end. A lot of it has to do with the state of the game, but there are certainly some facets of his game that can be improved in the early stages of games.

Spurs’ style is more suited to transition play, but by the time they’ve scored many of their goals this season, their full-backs are high and wide of the pitch, while their central midfielders (usually Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur, who are having either the best scoring seasons of their careers, or the best together), attack the box. Having these players on the field helps Spurs win more set pieces in attacking areas, which is a great strength of theirs. Twelve of his goals (the highest along with Fulham in the league) have come from set pieces.

They also love to shoot the ball into the box from open play, producing a league-high 269 crosses (more than double the number compared to Wednesday night opponents Crystal Palace with 120), either to Kane or the far-back to attack, while Hojbjerg and Bentancur are often there for the rebounds on the edge of the box.

These tactics, in theory, should push the opposition back as Spurs work to score the first goal of the game and then play to their greatest strengths (lower blocking and counter-attacks).

That’s the theory, but in practice the Spurs keep giving up first. Part of this may be to do with mentality (Spurs know they are capable of coming from behind, having won a league-high 14 points from negative positions, plus another seven in the Champions League) and part may be related to energy conservation. for later in the games. Asked about Spurs’ lackluster first halves before their win over Marseille in November, Conte’s assistant Cristian Stellini said: “We’re playing a lot and sometimes you have to manage the energy.”

Comparing data from when Spurs are drawing and when they are losing, things like how hard they press, how many long passes and crosses they play, how fast they get the ball upfield, how direct their attacks are and how many chances they create they increase when they are behind in matches.

The division between the first and second half is remarkable. They are the best team in the second half of the Premier League with 11 wins, two draws and four losses (23 goals scored, 12 conceded), but the 11th best team in the first half, with only five wins, six draws, six defeats, 10 goals scored and 13 conceded. They are essentially two different teams.

Interestingly, their pitch tilt, which is their share of the total final passing passes in the game, decreases when they’re behind in matches, meaning they’re not keeping the ball on the opposition’s halves of the pitch to a great extent. , but they are perhaps having more build-up play in deeper areas as opponents sit.

Spurs under Conte (for 90 minutes) 22/23

Metric He drew Losing

Possession %

52.9 (7th in LP)

52.9 (13)

Field inclination %

50.1 (8th)

46.7 (17)

Pass over %

9.6 (16)

10.3 (11)


9.88 (5th

13.36 (4th)


14.41 (13)

12.79 (tenth)

minutes per goal

138 (eighth)

70.8 (1st)

direct speed

1.26 (14)

1.46 (2nd)

Big opportunities

12 (14)

19 (2nd)

direct attacks

22 (10)

14 (5th)

“We didn’t start well in the first half,” Stellini said after Marseille. “We don’t use power or intensity and we allow them to play too much in our half and lose the field and let them have control of the game.”

They know it’s happening, they don’t like it, but right now they seem powerless to stop it.

Conte’s solution, at least for what he concedes in the press conferences, is time, patience and better players. He largely plays dumb when asked about the first half/second half conundrum, asking only his players to be more aggressive in duels early on and show the character they have during comebacks from the start. minute one instead of minute 70.

He was keen to remind the media on Tuesday that everyone has said that this season would be strange and unique because of the World Cup.

“This is a situation that many, many coaches did not want to face,” he said. “At the beginning of the season we said: ‘This season is going to be very strange for everyone, we won’t know what will happen, blah blah.’ And that’s true. The problem is that people have already forgotten. This season is going to be a strange, really difficult season for everyone, not just us.”

He insists that he is happy at Spurs and that if he accepts the limitations of the job, such as not fighting for the biggest titles and not being able to compete financially with many of the big clubs in Europe, he will stay. Those limitations include the players at your disposal. Not having your go-to players right now means your tried and tested formulas aren’t working.

“I understand that my task here was different,” he says. “My task is to help the club build a solid base, create a base and then try to improve. This is my challenge here. If you ask if the challenge is to win the Premier League and the Champions League… that is not the task here, at the moment. The task is to help the club.

“I found the club in a difficult position. The task was to help the club go in the right direction or return in the right direction, about the choices of the players, about work, about creating a base. If I want to stay here, I have to accept this. Otherwise, if I don’t want to accept this, I have to go.”

Additional reporting by Mark Carey.

(Top photo: Clive Rose by Getty Images)

See also  Is Doctor Doom in Black Panther Wakanda Forever?

Leave a Comment