MAnchester United were apparently put off by Antonio Conte’s style and brief stints at his previous clubs, but the Italian’s relentless nature is bringing out the best in Spurs – as a team and as individuals – to put them in the driver’s seat for Champions League qualification.
Things have not always gone smoothly since his arrival at Tottenham but the hard work on the training ground is paying off. They have won six of their last seven league games in a crucial period. Spurs have scored more Premier League goals than any other team since the turn of the year and are less dependent on Harry Kane.
Before Conte’s appointment, Spurs were bottom of the table when it came to ground coverage. The key to all Conte’s work is to get the team fitter, without which his methods don’t work. In any case, he works harder on players in training than his predecessor, Nuno Espírito Santo, in order to get them into his preferred 3-4-3 formation. When I was at Chelsea I saw Conte at the training ground and he was relentless with the players as he tried to find the right form and find areas where individuals could improve.
Kane thrives under Conte; In the league this season he has scored 12 goals and assisted another eight, with Nuno recording just one goal and one assist. Like his teammates, Kane looks fitter which has revitalized him after a long season when you include the Euros. His role hasn’t necessarily changed as he’s always loved going deep to make the most of his passing range, but now his teammates can continue to overtake him. It’s not just Son Heung-min’s doing anymore, which means Kane has more options if he finds space. That takes the pressure off him, which is reflected in his performance.
Spurs’ most consistent forwards have been bolstered by the winter signing of Dejan Kulusevski from Juventus. He’s the player they’ve been clamoring for because Steven Bergwijn, Lucas Moura and Gareth Bale all tried to cast the role but didn’t produce regularly. The Sweden international has fitted in well, linking up with Son and Kane to record three goals and six assists in 11 league games.
While Tottenham’s rivals completed limited transfer deals in January, Conte let four go and although the club only signed Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur it has paid off. Kulusevski is young and they have purchase options for just €30m (£24.75m). It’s part of the business model to buy a top player for a good price like they did with Son and give them time to develop him into the player they want with two top individuals in Kane and Son by his side.
There are few better at extracting instant improvements from players than Conte. Look at Romelu Lukaku: he brought him to Internazionale after it was clear the Belgian wasn’t wanted at Manchester United and turned him into a striker who scored 64 goals in two seasons and was sold for £97.5m . At Spurs, he turned Matt Doherty from a player who couldn’t make the matchday squad under José Mourinho into a vital part of his system until an injury at Aston Villa ended Doherty’s season last Saturday. In 2022, Doherty has two league goals and four assists and appears to be back to being the player he was at Wolves.
Eliminations from the Europa Conference League and FA Cup will have helped Conte as he needed time at the training ground to get the squad used to his methods. Resting players for games on a Thursday is useful, but means their week of training is interrupted as another starting XI gets in shape. Fewer games to focus on is better because if you overload players for a whole week to get them fit and sharp, they can perform at their best for a game. It allows them to build preparation into this game and means there can be no excuses and it shows.
At one point it didn’t look like Conte would revive Spurs and he hinted he was ready to leave following their defeat at Burnley in late February. Conte said “maybe I’m not that good” despite having plenty of evidence to the contrary. I don’t know why he said that – maybe he wanted to put pressure on the club hierarchy – but it seems to have worked as the football and the results have gotten better since then. It shows he knows how to press buttons on and off the pitch.
Spurs have made themselves favorites for fourth place. Manchester United are in terrible form, Arsenal have lost their last two games against Crystal Palace and Brighton and West Ham’s results have fallen juggling between the Premier League and Europa League. Spurs have a derby in north London – a home game on May 12 – and I think they will secure Champions League qualification.
Of the four managers battling for fourth place, Conte is without a doubt the one I want in my dressing room. Spurs have their form and the stamina to get the job done, all thanks to Conte proving once again that his methods work.