TThe Sixth Spence reveal video had started and the excitement among Tottenham supporters was palpable. After weeks of deliberation, Djed Spence was unveiled as the club’s sixth new signing this summer and also on 19 July – a detail that almost calls for an exclamation point considering the way chairman Daniel Levy used to like to operate.
The real welcome came later in the evening when Antonio Conte’s view of the transfer was published on various newspaper websites. “Spence is an investment by the club,” said the manager. “The club wanted that. I said OK. This player is young, but he has shown that he can become a good and important player for us.” The club decided to buy him.”
Conte had given the quotes to reporters on the club’s tour of South Korea a few days earlier and they had been withheld pending the announcement – just in case there was a late incident; not that anyone expected it. The context is also worth reporting. Conte had been asked a general question about the club’s incoming deals and he “bid” the line on Spence, to use journalistic parlance.
Conte always thinks carefully about his messages in media interviews and it is common to hear him return to his central theme for emphasis. “I repeat,” he says before drumming it home. The point was, this wasn’t a blunder on his part in the Seoul humidity; a drop of the mask. Conte wanted to clarify a few things, all of which were completely in line with his point of view.
Spence seems ideally suited to the right-back role in Conte’s 3-4-3 formation. At 6 feet tall, he is physically imposing, a strong runner. He is fast. He loves going forward with the ball. But there’s something he can’t call himself just yet, and for Conte it’s a fundamental gap. Spence lacks experience.
The 21-year-old was so good for Nottingham Forest during last season’s promotion to the Premier League, where he was loaned out by Middlesbrough, that he was voted into the EFL and PFA Championship Teams of the Year. However, the fact remains that Spence has never played in the top flight and his three England caps have been at Under-21 level.
Conte doesn’t really have potential. He seems like he doesn’t try too hard to sign young players because he’s in too much of a rush to win the league title. He prefers to have battle-hardened national players immediately at his side – such as Ivan Perisic, the 33-year-old Croatian, who is switching to left-back. Or Richarlison, only 25 but a regular for Brazil, who arrives from Everton with Premier League know-how.
One of Conte’s accomplishments at Spurs was convincing Levy to prioritize the addition of established talent, to bring them in quickly and deal with sales later. The summer’s fifth signing – Clément Lenglet, the 27-year-old French centre-back on loan from Barcelona – signed on July 8.
Richarlison initially cost £50m and he doesn’t appear to be an automatic starter as Spurs have Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski up front. But he will get his minutes, increasing both Conte’s options and their level. That’s the kind of buy big clubs make.
Conte wants to deal with the expectations surrounding Spence, but the other reading of his comments was that they presented a challenge; a character test. The onus is on Spence to work like a demon and prove Conte he’s ready to play ahead of Matt Doherty, Emerson Royal and possibly Lucas Moura, who the manager believes could be repurposed as a right-back. As Conte said in his preview of the season opener in Saturday’s home game against Southampton, it’s up to the players to keep him happy – not the other way around.
Spence is not expected to start against Southampton as he only had a brief back-up in the pre-season against Rangers. It feels like he has a long way to go; Make adjustments, show patience. Spence has entered the big time. And Conte’s school of hard punches.