Spurs have been winning without style for much of this season, and now that the wins have dried up too, Antonio Conte is under pressure.
For the second home game in a row, there was a smattering of boos around The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium upon the full-time whistle at the end of Spurs’ Champions League match with Sporting. A very late VAR call had denied the home side a very late winning goal from Harry Kane and the response of the crowd was visceral rather than anything else, a cry of anger over an offside decision which, however tight it may have looked, was awarded correctly.
The infuriated response of Antonio Conte was probably to be expected, but it’s landed him in hot water regardless. He was sent off for his reaction, and the cost to Spurs may be significant. The Sporting match ending in a draw means that Spurs now have to travel to the hothouse that is Le Stade Velodrome and beat Marseille in their final group match to guarantee qualification for the last 16 of the competition, and Conte is now banned from both the touchline and the away dressing room for this critical match.
All of this melodrama obscures one significant fact about the match between Spurs and Sporting, which is that Spurs didn’t play particularly well. This ties into two themes. Firstly, there’s Conte’s patchy record in the Champions League and the fact that Spurs have made such hard going of their group. And secondly, there’s the small matter of that failure to beat Sporting coming off the back of two extremely underwhelming defeats in the Premier League to Manchester United and Newcastle United, not long after the meek surrender of a North London derby.
Looking back over Spurs’ results and performances so far this season, it’s difficult not to conclude that this recent poor run of results had been coming. They managed free-flowing football on the opening weekend of the season against Southampton and against an imploding Leicester City team in the middle of September, but otherwise the performances that took them to third place in the Premier League have been functional rather than exhilarating.
The roll-call of these matches is fairly long. Wolves, Fulham and Brighton were all seen off by the odd goal in matches that didn’t live long in the memory, while their two-goal wins against Nottingham Forest and Everton were a little flattering and workmanlike. And while Spurs remain in third place in the Premier League table, the mood among the club’s support does not match.
Winning while not playing well is a desirable trait for a team to have, but it’s diminished somewhat when most of their wins are coming while not playing well. It starts to feel as though those wins are more about luck than any sort of strategic game-plan.
Furthermore, when Spurs have been faced with the test of taking on rivals who they consider to be their contemporaries, they have broadly failed. Against Chelsea, a stoppage-time equaliser may have felt extremely satisfying but it did rather mask the fact that Spurs had been outplayed for much of the previous 94 minutes. Against Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle, they were outplayed by teams who seemed both better motivated and better organised.
This is the gamble of reductive football. If your reputation as a ‘winner’ is based primarily on attrition, then you are left without much of a fig leaf when the wins dry up. And it is clear that cracks are starting to show. Spurs have been sliding back towards an over-dependence on Harry Kane, who’s scored 10 of their 23 league goals this season.
No-one else has scored more than three goals for them in the Premier League, with Son Heung Min’s quick-fire hat-trick against Leicester in the middle of September looking like a flash in the pan and Richarlison having not quite gelled. And that central midfield continues to look like a complete creativity desert, while that familiar Spurs jumpiness that leads to horrendous individual mistakes has also started to creep back into their game.
There remain certain corners of the media pushing the narrative that Spurs supporters should continue to feel grateful for having a manager of Conte’s calibre at their club, but there is clearly an ongoing cooling of the fans’ relationship with the manager because all the excesses that come as part of the Conte package are only entertaining while they’re winning.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Spurs have slumped since the injury to Dejan Kulusevski, who injured his hamstring on international duty with Sweden, hasn’t played since, and may now not be back until after the World Cup.
But while it’s possible to blame this on bad luck – Kulusevski has been the stand-out arrival at the club since Conte arrived – it’s also the case that Spurs spent £150m reinforcing the squad during the summer, and that a team with ambitions of repeating a top-four finish should be able to withstand the loss of one player to injury.
Yves Bissouma has largely been limited to cameo appearances from the substitutes bench; Djed Spence has hardly figured at all. One of the few bright spots from the Sporting game was the performance of Bryan Gil, which has led to calls for him to be given a chance in the first XI, but if the answer is Bryan Gil, what the hell is the question?
And the couple of weeks building up to the World Cup break now hold considerable significance for a team that has lost its way on the pitch. A trip to Bournemouth feels more like a potential booby trap than it might otherwise have done. Marseille away may be a combustible fixture in more than one sense. And Spurs end this first part of the season with home games against Liverpool and Leeds United.
The Liverpool game will bring an expectation that Spurs finally go toe to toe with a ‘Big Six’ club following poor performances against Arsenal and Manchester United, while failure to beat Leeds would lead to an extremely glum mood settling over the club for that extended period off.
It doesn’t seem likely that Conte’s job is at risk in the immediate future. There is a January transfer window to come, during which the squad may be further reinforced, and it would seem fairly senseless to offload him when his contract expires at the end of the season regardless.
But it certainly feels as though Spurs fans are more relaxed about the possibility of Conte not renewing that contract in the summer. This may be because of a latent belief that, should he go, Mauricio Pochettino will just waltz back into the club, give it one of his trademark bear-hugs, and make everything okay again. But this is far from guaranteed.
Of course, the rumour mill just loves this form of discord. Will Conte be tempted back to Juventus, a club misfiring so badly this season that they’ve made Spurs look like Manchester City? Will Harry Kane be tempted to Bayern Munich and as many Bundesliga titles as he could cram in before retirement? Might Son Heung Min be persuaded that he’s come to the end of the line at Spurs and seek a new challenge?
These are the inevitable questions that start to rise when things turn sour at Spurs, and the best way to stop them is to win games, and preferably to show some style in doing so. Otherwise, vultures will continue to circle.
Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle have all proven so far this season that substantial improvement is possible, and Antonio Conte can hardly argue that the club haven’t backed him. But with his first anniversary as the Spurs manager approaching, questions are starting to be asked and it’s down to him to come up with the answers.
All the complaining about borderline VAR decisions in the world doesn’t alter the fact that Spurs have been regularly underwhelming this season even when picking up wins, and if they dry up then it starts to look a little as though the ‘serial winner’ may be starting to run out of road.
That many Spurs fans seem considerably more relaxed about the possibility of Conte not renewing that contract should really be a sign that something needs to change if he’s going to get the best out of a talented but dislocated squad.
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