The first part looks at England’s meek approach to the game.
The second looks at how the US shut them out.
Michael Cox and John Muller provide their take on a 0-0 draw that puts England on the brink of the last 16. For the US, everything is still riding on the final game against Iran…
England were far too tentative
Cox: It was a scene familiar to anyone who watched England’s goalless draw with Scotland at Wembley last year. The second game of the group, England in control having won their opener and entirely happy to settle for a point against opposition they should really have attempted to beat. A point isn’t a bad result for England, but it was a performance that underlined the limitations of this side, and of Southgate, too.
Arguably the three major positive features of England’s display against Iran in their opening fixture were all seriously lacking here.
Jude Bellingham, outstanding four days ago, had a difficult match here, particularly off the ball when he seemed unsure how to press.
The full-backs, who made inroads against a narrow Iran side, were considerably more cautious here, holding their position almost permanently — again, a key feature of that game against Scotland.
Most obviously, the tempo of England’s passing was dreadfully slow. They started surprisingly quickly against Iran, but here were content to slowly knock the ball across the defence, barely penetrating the back four.
If the early stages were about a lack of ambition, however, that gave way to a lack of quality. England were not entirely in control of this game and were forced to withstand periods of long pressure from the US. Perhaps Berhalter’s side lacked the incision to turn pressure into clear-cut chances, and England were completely dominant inside their own box. But England shouldn’t have been on the back foot for such long periods.
A common theme of Southgate’s tenure has been his inability to react when the opposition change shape — that was particularly the case in the semi-final defeat to Croatia four years ago and to a certain extent against Italy in last year’s Euro 2020 final.
The exception here was that the USA’s change of shape actually came from the outset, more 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 than 4-3-3. Weston McKennie moved out to the right, Timothy Weah looked like more of a second striker than a right-winger. England’s area of advantage was, at least in theory, in the centre of midfield, but they failed to exploit that. Mason Mount was uncharacteristically unable to find space, in part because of the superb Tyler Adams.
But Southgate’s reluctance to react wasn’t simply about a lack of tactical ingenuity, it was also a sign of his contentment with the situation. Even a tactical luddite could look around and think that one of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish or Conor Gallagher as a replacement for one of the three attacking midfielders could offer something different without necessitating a change of shape. But Southgate waited until gone 65 minutes to introduce anything new, despite England looking increasingly troubled.
Southgate knows how tournaments are usually won — with a good defensive record. That necessitates some level of caution. England reached the semi-final four years ago with a similar approach.
But much has changed since then. England weren’t able to call on the likes of Mount, Saka, Foden, Grealish or Gallagher in 2018. There is a new generation of exciting talent, and while supporters often want a manager to be more attack-minded than is logical, there was surely a good argument for being bolder or at least trying different options early on.
United States’ defensive shape locked them out
Muller: If the United States’ first 45 minutes of the World Cup against Wales tested whether they could disorganise the opponent with the ball and the second 45 minutes was a pop quiz on transitions, this game was always going to be a final exam on holding their defensive shape against England’s build-up.
Neither side came into this match with much to play for. After the first round of the group stage, FiveThirtyEight’s model gave England a 93 per cent chance of advancing to the next round, compared to 45 per cent for the United States. After a scoreless draw, it’s 99 per cent for England and 38 per cent for the US, who have exactly the same mandate as before: beat Iran to go through to the knockouts.
It made for a cagey game. England dominated possession for long stretches but were more than happy to pass the ball around the back, while the US sat off in a 4-4-2 mid-block in defence: two tight banks of four defenders midway up the pitch, with a pair of forwards cutting off the lanes from England’s centre-backs to Declan Rice and Bellingham in the middle.
England occasionally managed to move the ball upfield through their full-backs, Shaw and Trippier, but struggled to progress through midfield or find their free-floating attacking midfielder, Mount. Even when Harry Kane dropped into midfield, which he does a lot, England couldn’t find many gaps between the Americans’ hyperactive defensive pair of Adams and Yunus Musah in the middle.
The free radicals in the United States’ atomic structure were Christian Pulisic, who had license to push up on the left side of the defensive 4-4-2 to join the front line in applying pressure in a more familiar 4-3-3 when the moment felt right, and McKennie, who was given similar freedom up the right wing in possession.
McKennie’s freestyling was more productive. Like at Juventus, he often looked less like a central midfielder than a floating right wing-back, getting up and down the sideline and occasionally crashing the box while Tim Weah, the right winger, tucked inside to play closer to the striker Haji Wright on the counter.
One of the United States’ best chances came in the 27th minute, when McKennie started an attack on the right wing and then slipped inside to get on the end of the cross around the penalty spot. The ball bounced just in front of him and he skied the shot.
Another chance came a minute later, when McKennie dribbled up the right sideline and into the middle of the attacking third, made an off-ball run on the left side of the box and helped set up a shot for Musah.
A few minutes later it was McKennie again, pirouetting around Mount to take off on a counter up the right wing that ended with Pulisic firing a weak-footed shot off the crossbar. Between minutes 15 and 45, the United States were unquestionably the better team.
Things settled down after half-time as the United States were content to let Adams lead a defensive unit that held fast at the top of the box and kept England — who, again, had no reason to take risks — from creating much from the wings. By stoppage time both teams were openly playing for the scoreless draw, which all but puts England through and keeps the United States’ hopes alive in the third round of the group stage.
After 92 years of World Cups, the United States has beaten England once, drawn twice and never lost. That’s a good enough result for now.
Next to Punit Mahara’s home in Dhanusha, southern Nepal, are trees filled with mangoes and some of the sweetest bananas you could ever taste. It is harvest season and the yellow of the surrounding rice fields invites promise for the winter. Yet as Punit offers a guided tour of the land he shares with as many as 25 family members, his mind is clearly elsewhere. He should not be here. He should not be unemployed and wondering when the loan sharks will come for him. He is furious, humiliated and concerned.
Punit is wary of saying too much because he has lost faith in the world beyond Dhanusha. It is possible for us to speak to him only because of reassurance from a local fixer. This partly explains why he is accompanied by other men from the village, one of whom he begins an argument with about the causes of his position.
They glare at one another and the tone of the conversation becomes sharper, with fingers pointed. When he is among others who were more fortunate in Qatar, a shame hangs heavily on Punit’s shoulders, having returned home from the 2022 World Cup’s host country in July in significant debt after his job as a labourer disappeared.
A year ago, he was preparing to leave for Qatar for a second stint, with a period working in Saudi Arabia in-between. Punit had loathed both experiences but the birth of his second son meant he had to try again.
Dhanusha is one of the poorest regions in Nepal and the only available work is casual. While the same job in Qatar did not necessarily pay better, it in theory offered more security because contract terms dictate that income is supposedly reliable. This promise led to Punit taking out a credit line of about £1,400 to pay a recruitment agent. Like so many migrant workers, he arrived in Qatar saddled with a debt that would take the entirety of his two-year indenture to pay off. He was working to live rather than to save and prosper.
“If I stayed, I risked being detained at any time. Everyone I knew decided to return to their country” says Punit (Photo: Simon Hughes)
He knew life in Qatar would be a perpetual sequence of bunkbed, bus, building site. He woke at 4am each day and left camp half an hour later. As the heat began to rise through the morning, the work became a lot harder. A lunch break provided an opportunity to rest but he was not paid for that hour.
Punit says during a previous term in Qatar, the temperature would regularly hit 50C (122F) in the summer. Even though laws prohibited working in such conditions and safety assistants would tell him to leave his tools, a building supervisor would sometimes intervene and insist that the labourers continue. The supervisor would also scold workers if he saw any of them taking a breather in the shade.
“It felt like someone was always watching,” says Punit, who would find the strength to push on even if he was feeling faint. “I was there to make money, so I did not have the option to stop,” he reasons. “The World Cup was coming, and everyone was feeling pressure, especially the workers in the stadiums.”
There was limited access to cold water at his worksite. At a cooler, hundreds of workers would queue, but he was conscious of the supervisor and did not want to get on the wrong side of him. There were stories of workers disappearing from Qatar after feeling his wrath. It was much easier for workers to find warm water from street taps but by the afternoon, the temperature was boiling. “I wanted to drink cold water but I didn’t have the money to buy it. I would often drink hot water instead.”
Punit was seven months into that second spell in Qatar and the World Cup was looming on the horizon when government agents entered his camp and told him, along with as many as 6,000 other workers, that his company was in trouble.
For 15 days, workers were locked up inside the camp. Punit says nobody knew for certain what the future held. Amid boredom and fear, rumours began to spread: one was about a building collapsing and workers dying, another related to some of those allegedly responsible facing jail time. It was also suggested that the company had simply oversubscribed its labour force in the rush to be ready for the World Cup’s November start date.
Al Bandary Engineering Trading And Contracting in Doha did not respond to The Athletic’s request for clarification about what happened. A Qatar government official, however, confirmed that the Al Bandary closed in May after “violation reports” were issued. With the company referred for prosecution, arrest warrants were issued against “those authorised to sign” on behalf of the firm.
Punit was desperate to stay in Qatar. Returning to Dhanusha early would bring financial peril because he could not afford to repay what he had borrowed to pay the recruitment agent. While some of the men in his village blame the company, Punit’s grievance is with the state, which he says started deporting workers over the next six weeks.
Qatar is adamant that it did only what any other country would do, stepping in when a big company was in trouble and trying to settle cases by government tribunal. It suggests that before its closure, Al Bandary invited any employee who wished to transfer to another company to submit a request form. The government says workers who did this were transferred and continue to be employed in Qatar. “Over 400,000 workers have successfully changed employer in Qatar since a new law removing barriers to change jobs were removed in 2020,” said a spokesman.
Punit, however, suggests Qatar may have been overwhelmed by the problems facing Al Bandary. Due to the absence of trade union representation, there was a lack of trust in the information he was receiving, a lot of which was second-hand. He was not alone in wanting to stay in Qatar, and the government there, potentially, was faced with hundreds if not thousands of labourers looking for new work at the same time.
The scale of redevelopment and construction in Qatar has been immense and goes far beyond just the World Cup stadiums (Photo: Getty Images)
Punit says the full range of options was never explained to him. Instead, he was strongly advised that working for another company would be risky — the punishment for working illegally was a fine of up to 5,000 riyals (about £1,100) and imprisonment for six months. Meanwhile, Qatar was willing to pay for the cost of a flight to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
“I was afraid,” he says. “If I stayed, I risked being detained at any time. Everyone I knew decided to return to their country. I feel like I have been forcibly sent home.”
A spokesman for Qatar says access to unpaid wages is a “critical part” of the country’s labour rights framework, which over the “past two decades has been transformed”. In 2022 alone, an insurance fund has allegedly paid out $350million. The government confirmed that during its investigations of Al Bandary it discovered missing data from the company’s employment list and it “encourages employees whose financial dues remain unpaid to come forward to claim their compensation from the fund by submitting a complaint online or in person”.
Upon returning to Nepal, Punit received an end-of-service gratuity of 1,000 riyals (about £230), which roughly equates to a month’s salary. Yet he says he has not been paid for the near eight weeks he spent in that labour camp waiting for answers — or for the rest of his contract. It means that in total, he has only received seven months’ pay from a deal that was supposed to last for two years.
In Dhanusha, the countryside is idyllic and there is a sense of community. Punit’s family is preparing for the Chhath religious festival. There is the sound of roti hitting hot stone. Excitement is in the air. I ask myself why anyone would want to leave such a beautiful, friendly place for an existence of continual toil in the dust.
Yet many men like Punit have to, because of unemployment and poverty. Such decisions also come with a risk. It is against the law here to charge more than 10,000 Nepalese rupees (about £64) in recruitment fees, but workers, if desperate enough, will fork out a lot more to move their name further up any priority list. When they are asked at passport control how much they have paid to leave the country, they lie.
Punit’s interest rate with the moneylender is 36 per cent, and he currently has no income. He cannot submit a complaint form in person as he is in Nepal, a five-hour flight from Qatar, and he wasn’t aware of any online application process. I ask whether it feels impossible. He says he does not believe the online system will help him. “I have no hopes,” he says.
At the age of 34, the only way out of this debt spiral, he says, is to go abroad again. It won’t be back to Qatar, though. “Even if they promised me 50,000 rupees a month (about £320), what has happened is too much. I cannot tolerate it anymore.”
He pauses, reconsidering what he has just said amid the sound of crying nearby. In one of the darker rooms at his mud home, pinned together by bamboo, his one-year-old son is coughing badly. Punit thinks he’s got pneumonia but can’t afford medical treatment.
I look into his worried eyes and without saying anything, we both acknowledge where all of this might lead.
There are so many labourers like Punit, without whom the 2022 World Cup simply would not be happening. He helped build a six-storey army barracks in Qatar. Before that, he worked on hotels.
Without the basics of roads, irrigation systems and accommodation, it would be impossible to host the most famous football tournament on the planet.
Qatar, then, would not be in this position without the commitment of migrant workers, who constitute 90 per cent of the workforce.
In the south of Nepal alone, almost half of all households have either a family member working overseas or one who has recently returned. Excluding India, with which Nepal has an open border, last year Qatar was the second most popular destination among migrant workers, behind only Saudi Arabia.
They come not from the Himalayan mountains, but the southern plains, which fewer visitors are familiar with.
Here, most of the land is owned by a minority of rich families from the high castes. The majority have no land and big families to support. There is social pressure to leave. If a father sees someone return from Qatar with enough money to purchase a parcel of countryside, he may ask his son to consider doing the same, if he hasn’t left already.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino told the European Parliament at the start of this year that only three migrant workers had died building the World Cup stadiums in Qatar — based on numbers supplied by Qatar. However, Nicholas McGeehan of human rights organisation FairSquare called that figure a “wilful attempt to mislead” as the eight stadiums only account for about one per cent of World Cup-related construction.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned the correct number will never be known because “Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the causes of deaths of thousands of migrant workers, many of which are attributed to ‘natural causes’.” Nepal’s labour ministry says 2,100 of its citizens have died in Qatar of all causes since 2010, the year this World Cup was initially awarded.
HRW also say many more workers have returned to Nepal and other countries with injuries or illnesses that now render them unemployable.
And yet in Nepal there is very little mention of this suffering in the national conversation. Perhaps this is because migrant work props up more than a quarter of the economy, sending a trillion Nepalese rupees back each year to a country which has a debt of 5million rupees (about £32,000) for every person living there.
During an eight-day stay in Nepal, everyone The Athletic speaks to who has a connection to migrant work has lost something. Each of them uses a derivative of the word “compulsion” when describing why Qatar, any of the other Gulf States, or Malaysia was or continues to be viewed as the only way out of problems.
Qatar was chosen to host the World Cup in 2010, but it was only in a position to do so because of the sacrifices of workers like Lekhnath Khatiwada.
Aged 28, he left Jhapa, in south eastern Nepal in 1999 because there was “no work at home” and went to Qatar. He was unmarried. His parents had no income. His father was unwell. This meant any initial savings accrued working in Qatar contributed towards the dowry payments for each of his three sisters.
It was Lekhnath’s first international trip and he remembers landing in Doha when the doors at the airport were manually opened rather than automatic. Outside, the country was a desert. Buildings were so scarce that he would take photographs whenever he saw one.
“I’d never even heard of Qatar,” he says. “I only knew that I was going to an Arabic country.”
The recruitment fees were a lot lower then, but an agent persuaded him to part with more money so he could miss out on orientation training, which did not seem that important to his younger mind. The same agent promised Lekhnath that he’d be working as a driver for Coca-Cola, but when he arrived in Qatar, he had only a small van and spent his days ferrying goods between convenience stores. “I felt cheated,“ he says.
At the start of each shift, he’d lift more than 450 sacks onto his van, which he later also had to unload. Every day, seven days a week, he would repeat the process. If he missed delivery slots, he was warned he would lose his job. He despised the work and wanted to leave but could not because the government had taken his passport. A return to Nepal would only ever be on Qatar’s terms. “It felt like imprisonment,“ he says.
Lekhnath believes the work and the system equated to “modern slavery”. There was no way out of Qatar unless the contract was over. Despite the strength of his feelings, he went back to the country for a second time in 2005. Like Punit, there had been no opportunity to save some money. His salary merely paid for essentials. He wanted to buy some land in Jhapa and build a house, but six years after he left the region, his money situation was roughly the same.
This time, he worked as a machine operator at the Khalifa International Stadium, a venue which he helped rebuild. He also steamrollered the Salwa Road, which cuts through the country, connecting its remoter parts to Doha, the capital. He had another job at a gas plant, “the safest place” of the three because security measures were followed more closely there. He dreaded the Salwa Road job. “It was in the middle of the desert and we had to take our lunch on the tarmac without the protection of shade,“ he says. ”It was extremely hot. People collapsed regularly. Many died.”
At one site he worked on, he remembers one colleague taking a rest in the shadow of a digger. The driver of the digger wasn’t aware someone was lying there. It was only because of Lekhnath’s quick thinking that the man wasn’t crushed.
He says there was a temperature alarm that rang whenever it became too hot.
Workers were also given whistles which they could blow in case of emergency. “But who hears when a worker blows it from the 20-metre-deep ditch? Nobody really cared about the labourers,” he says. “The work was torture. Some died in the ditches because of a lack of oxygen.”
Between 1999 and 2012, migrant workers in Qatar such as Lekhnath could do little to improve their working conditions. Trade unions were banned and protest was often met with arrest. When workers in his camp complained about wages, the police arrived, took the ringleaders away and sent them home. “After that, everyone remained silent,” he says. “Each of the workers had paid money to go to Qatar and they were afraid of being deported.”
Lekhnath had returned to Qatar as a married man. His wife had given birth to a daughter and he missed them terribly. The labour, however, was so intensive that it had a soothing effect. It was only when he returned to his bunk at night that he had time to think. Yet he was so tired he’d often fall into a deep sleep. Then at 4am, he’d wake and do the whole thing all over again.
He becomes emotional when asked about mental health challenges. He knows workers who killed themselves, he thinks because of conditions and loneliness. During that second spell in Qatar, Lekhnath’s wife left him. Fifteen years later, he is estranged from his first daughter, who now lives in Kathmandu. Though he has remarried and has three other children, the memory is still painful and he quietens his voice so his new family across the hallway can’t hear.
Lekhnath says he “lost the prime of my life” by working in Qatar (Photo: Simon Hughes)
“If I didn’t have to go to Qatar, I would still have a relationship with my daughter,” he says. “It broke up my family. There are thousands of families who disintegrate because of this migration. It has a negative impact on every family in some way. I lost most of my savings in the divorce. This left me with very little money. I worked from 28 years to 40 in Qatar. I lost the prime of my life.”
Lekhnath now tries to assist other Nepalese migrant workers via an online forum. He says that despite reforms in Qatar since 2014, lots of the problems for workers remain the same as in his day. They still sometimes work in extreme heat and they cannot easily change their jobs if they want to. Though workers can now access a labour court, he says there are many cases of Nepalese migrants being deported for standing up for themselves.
“Qatar has been built on the blood and sweat of Nepalis,” he says. “What has happened there will benefit generation after generation of Qataris and the country will grow economically for centuries. Meanwhile, the situation remains the same for Nepalis.
“We have sacrificed the golden years of our lives but we are still struggling to survive because we did not earn a fair salary. There was never enough money to save. When we return to Nepal, we are still in the same situation. For Nepal, nothing has changed for 25 years.”
Near the city of Ithari, Lekhnath now runs a motel which is attached to a petrol station serving wagons entering the country on its bumpy roads from the Indian state of West Bengal.
He is a formidable-looking man, with broad shoulders and strong arms. Qatar might have broken his family but it did not break him.
It has been different for others. In Chitwan, an eight-hour drive to the west, Surya Badadur Tamang is battling kidney failure. Though at 50 he is roughly the same age as Lekhnath, he looks like he could be 20 years older.
“Doctors have said that seven years of labour in Qatar did this to me,” he says, as he hunches over his walking stick. Surya comes from an indigenous ethnic tribe native to Nepal, but the pallor of his skin is lighter than the rest of his family because he is unwell. His face is a limey colour, with a warm-looking film. His arms and legs are stick-thin.
Surya helped lay the foundations for Qatar’s successful World Cup bid but suffered kidney failure (Photo: Simon Hughes)
He entered Qatar in 2002 as a carpenter, but was soon working as an electrician and a pipe fitter. He was always willing to do extra work because the money helped his family. His original basic salary was 600 riyals a month (about £140). Only after five years of service in Qatar was there a rise to 1,000 riyals (about £230).
Surya says that working abroad was viewed as prestigious in Chitwan, a region known for its national park. His efforts meant his wife and two children received extra care from other villagers. Again, he lives in magnificent countryside dominated by rice fields and the sound of roosters. Yet off he went, to Kathmandu initially, which was an ordeal in itself because of conflict between the Nepalese state and Maoist rebels. There was checkpoint after checkpoint during the 12-hour bus journey. If he had lost his documents, he risked being tortured or killed.
Three years on from Lekhnath’s arrival, Qatar was still underdeveloped when Surya got there. He worked in a mobile camp that travelled around the country. That made him realise that, outside of Doha, there wasn’t much going on.
Only when the temperature exceeded 52C (126F) did the site close. In the summer, Surya can remember the gauge hitting 48C (118F) and whenever he removed his work boots, they were filled with sweat. PPE masks and suits made the conditions even more unbearable.
“Many people died on the construction sites. Pipe fitting was dangerous because it involved ditches, where it was even warmer and there was less oxygen. Even when the heat crossed the 52-degree threshold, we felt under pressure to return to work,” he says. “Everybody thought that the sooner you returned, the better you’d be viewed by the company.”
Surya says 50 or 60 workers would share a small tank of water each day. After two trips per person, all of it was gone, after which the workers had to source their own. Though what came from the taps on the street was very hot, they had to drink it to survive. If he was working for a particularly demanding supervisor, he would go thirsty and spend the night looking around the mosques for water to bring to work the next day. This meant missing out on rest.
His duties varied, but Surya says the shifts were never shorter than 16 hours long. Sometimes, he would spray new roads with water to stop them melting. The roads, he thought, received better care than the workers. Yet he feared working in the ditches most, due to the reduced oxygen and danger of machines or boulders falling in on top of him.
His room was infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes, although it did have air conditioning. But this caused problems with his nose and throat because of the contrast with the severe heat outside. After seven years in Qatar, his legs began to swell regularly and he’d sweat excessively. A doctor suggested he had a liver problem that could be fixed by rest and a regular pattern of work.
Yet he carried on for another two years before his company recognised he was unfit for work. Once back in Kathmandu, he was hospitalised for six weeks. Only then did he find out he had kidney failure.
Qatar had been more lucrative for him than more-recent workers because he was not paying off recruitment charges for long. With this money, he was able to buy some land, but his condition and the demands of the care meant he had to sell it.
Though the Nepalese state provides dialysis treatment, he has to pay for medicine and travel. He takes a bus twice a week to a hospital two hours away. After four hours attached to a machine, he returns by bus.
Surya left Qatar in 2010, the year it won the right to host the World Cup.
“There will have been a lot of human sacrifice,” he says.
A few days before we arrived in Kathmandu, Pramod Acharya was filming from a rooftop near the city’s airport when a plane from Doha landed on the runway. Porters started removing a procession of stretchers and body bags.
Pramod, a human rights journalist, arranged a meeting with Anupa Hamal in Chitwan. Last year, the mangled body of Anupa’s husband, Dinesh, was returned to Nepal in the same lifeless manner.
Dinesh’s story is slightly different to others in this piece because he did not work as a manual labourer. Instead, he had a relatively safe job as a driver, transporting security staff between camp and work site, seven days a week.
Previously, he had driven lorries across the Himalayas, but that work was irregular. In 2013, with a child on the way, he wanted more guarantees.
Anupa would be woken by the work alarm on her husband’s phone, which was returned to her along with his body (Photo: Simon Hughes)
This meant Anupa was alone, just four months after getting married. She and her daughter, Divya, became accustomed to the “helplessness” of being away from Dinesh. It became especially hard at the height of the pandemic when he was due to return to Nepal only for Qatar to enter a strict lockdown.
For Divya, video calls became important because they meant she and her mother would not forget his face. During seven years of marriage, the family lived together for only four months, but the money Dinesh was paid helped buy a piece of land where they built a small house.
In 2018, Dinesh was commended for his driving skills. Anupa still has the certificate, which recognised his “tremendous effort (…) dedication and exceptional work.”
He rarely complained about anything in Qatar — “maybe to try and reassure me” — but he did find his work schedule punishing because of the lack of days off.
In the summer of 2021, he was issued a new bus to drive. Anupa says her husband told her that the steering was “quite tight”. She says Dinesh told the company about the problem, but as far as she is aware, nothing happened. “Now, I wonder whether he could have been saved if the bus was serviced.”
On August 30, the couple spoke for the last time: a regular sort of chat, where he seemed happy and focused. Dinesh asked Anupa to send him a video of their home and the surrounding rice fields. Right at the end of the conversation, Divya said: “Daddy, take care on your duty.”
He had promised Anupa that he would contact her again that day, once his shift was over, but a call never came. Though she sent messages to him, they went unread. “We were in contact frequently and it was very unusual that he had not seen my message for many hours. I thought about different things. Had he simply lost his mobile phone? I then called his room-mate, but he did not answer.”
At 10pm the next day, a Qatari number that she did not recognise flashed up on her phone. She thought Dinesh was using a friend’s SIM card. “As soon as I answered, I said, ‘Dinesh, why haven’t you called me for so many hours?’. The guy on the line was a supervisor from Eastern Nepal. Bluntly, he said, ‘Your husband has passed away because he had an accident’.”
Dinesh was only two months away from returning to Nepal for good. The couple were looking forward to buying a van and running a company that would deliver dairy products to homes and shops in Chitwan.
That dream disappeared in the haze of Doha.
It has since been explained to Anupa’s father, Rudra Bahadur, that visibility on that day was bad. Other workers have told him there was another bus from the same company parked in the middle of a road bridge, close to one of the city’s stadiums, without its hazard warning lights on.
On collision, the impact was so intense that it is claimed Dinesh’s bus, carrying 35 workers, was cut in half through the middle. Passengers on the same side of the bus as Dinesh lost body parts and seven of them died.
Dinesh, who had been praised for his work, was killed in a horrific accident
Dinesh’s mobile phone and glasses remained intact. They were returned to Nepal, where his phone’s alarm would ring every morning. Anupa did not know the password to change the setting. Thirteen months on, Divya, now eight years old, becomes upset whenever she enters the room where Anupa keeps her husband’s clothes.
As the accident happened at the end of a month, Dinesh was due his salary, which arrived at the same time as his body. Anupa received 700,000 Nepali rupees (about £4,500) from her country’s foreign employment board and a further 1.4million rupees (about £9,000) from a Nepalese incident insurance scheme. The total roughly equates to a three-year contract for a well-paid labourer in Qatar. Anupa is yet to be told what will happen to an insurance payment from the company Dinesh worked for.
European Guarding and Security Services did not respond to The Athletic when it was asked for clarity about the circumstances of the crash or to questions relating to what has happened to any subsequent pay-out. The Nepalese embassy in Doha also did not respond to a request for information.
Anupa says she was able to get through to the embassy in September, when she was told that the insurance case was under review, with money likely to be deposited within a week. “Since, I have called again and again but nobody answers,” she says, as Divya, with quiet energy, skirts around her garden in the gentle warmth.
The further east in Nepal you go, the more rivers there are. Nearly all of them are as dry as a bone. The rainy season has passed but the impact of global warming becomes increasingly visible the closer you get to the Indian border.
This has impacted on seasonal employment opportunities; thrusting more workers into a pattern of migration, taking them away from the southern plains of regions such as Jhapa, which is a 12-hour drive from Kathmandu.
The tarmac here is better than in other parts of the country, but any route back to the capital involves roads that are still being built and in parts disappear into rocky moonscapes. Jhapa feels far away from everywhere. Many of the people are unskilled and uneducated. They are unaffected by the scandals of Qatar, a country they are often instead grateful to for giving them a chance to survive.
When I visited Puran Rajbansi and his daughter in-law, Rina, he had spent the previous morning using a rock to catch fish. The bounty from the stream, unless used for their supper that night, was sold to other villagers.
Rina, her daughter and her father-in-law Puran (Photo: Simon Hughes)
Puran has worked in Qatar, but at 54 says manual labour is beyond him now, so he does his best to get by. He does it without his son, Mahalal, who fell from scaffolding in Doha when it collapsed in August 2021, sending him and three other Nepalese workers to their deaths.
Weeks earlier, Mahalal had told his wife he was working on a hotel where international visitors would stay during the World Cup. The couple communicated via video-call every other day. Rina would see him sweating during his lunch breaks. During one conversation, he told her, “It’s too hot here. I won’t come back again once I come home.”
Mahalal is now only photographs in her mobile phone. One of his previous jobs was at the famous Pearl apartment block in Lusail, Qatar’s second-biggest city. In the photo, Mahalal is wearing a yellow hard hat and a hi-vis jacket. There is a more recent snap of him standing on scaffolding. Rina wonders whether it is the one that collapsed and killed him, aged 28.
Mahalal exists now only in photographs
He only had a fortnight to go before he was due to return to Nepal. After his fall, the company he worked for paid the family 50,000 riyals (about £11,500) in compensation and said, verbally, it will send 30,000 rupees every month for the next 10 years (about £190), though neither Rina nor Puran have received this promise in writing.
With nearly every death, there is a woman like Rina and a son or a daughter. Mahalal’s daughter is five years old and she will grow up without her father. Rina is surrounded by family members in the yard outside her home when we talk and I sense it is hard for her to open up about her true feelings.
It was different for Renuka Chaudhary when I met her on the outskirts of Ithari, two hours closer to Kathmandu, later that day. Her husband, Tej Narayan Tharu, died at the Al Wakrah stadium — now called the Al Janoub stadium — in 2018. Like Mahalal, he fell from a height.
The completed stadium will host eight games at a World Cup that is expected to be watched by billions globally and generate billions financially, but which has already devastated the lives of people like Renuka.
She remains uncertain of the exact circumstances of her husband’s death but the company acted quickly to process compensation. She received six million rupees (about £39,000). That was when Tej’s family got involved and, having asked for all of the money from Qatar, locked Renuka and her daughter out of the family home.
There are days when Renuka’s daughter wishes to go to work with her dad (Photo: Simon Hughes)
To settle the dispute, she gave them 600,000 rupees (about £39,000) and abandoned the house, resettling with her mother.
Tej was 24 years old when he died. Since then, Renuka has noticed neighbours gossiping about her whenever she speaks to men. It has prompted her to lead a more reclusive existence in a small tenement block in front of another rice field on the edge of town, where she still lives with her now eight-year-old daughter.
“Four years later, it’s still difficult to live a life without him,” she says. “Sometimes my daughter gets upset, especially when she sees other children with their dads. She says to me, ‘I would go to work with my daddy if he was still alive’.”
(Top image: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic, pictures: Simon Hughes)
“We’ve made a change at the interval,” Tottenham Hotspur’s official Twitter account told the world on Tuesday night.
It was at the start of the second half with Spurs 1-0 down to Marseille, heading for the Europa League and with half the team performing like they’d won a competition to play 90 minutes of Champions League football.
“Credit where it’s due, that is very, very funny.”
“This club is a test to see how far a human can be pushed.”
Antonio Conte was accused of trolling fans, of throwing the match and of wanting to be sacked.
Forty-five minutes later, Spurs reached the Champions League knockout stages with a pulsating, dramatic and very impressive come-from-behind victory, one which took a humongous mental and physical effort to achieve. And Royal was a big part of it.
He added solidity to the defence, he supported the attack at the right times, helped move Spurs 20 yards upfield after they’d sat far too deep in the first period and made dynamic runs in transition which assisted the team in playing in Marseille’s half. He was also a distraction to the home defence with some smart positional play. His pass accuracy was 95 per cent — better than any other Spurs player on the night.
It was one of his best performances in recent months. In short, it wasn’t very Emerson Royal-y.
He didn’t play a no-look pass straight out of play when his team were in need of a goal.
He didn’t wallop a shot that was so vertical it took out a flock of seagulls and diverted an asteroid off its course before landing in the car park behind the stadium.
He didn’t do things which make you question the authenticity of his Brazilian passport.
And it was a welcome change of pace after weeks of discourse that have been overwhelmingly negative — yes due to his underwhelming performances and slapstick comedy behaviour — but also due to him often being the fall guy for his team’s poor results. On social media at least, if the answer is what’s wrong with Spurs, the answer has been Emerson Royal.
“I would pay someone to take him off our hands,” former Spurs midfielder Jamie O’Hara said recently. “I ain’t got a lot in the bank but I’d give you £5million to get rid of this liability because he is costing us every week.”
Tim Sherwood added: “The guy will let you down time and time again. I always say it about him: he has a rush of blood to his head.”
It wasn’t just ex-Spurs players. Chris Sutton chimed in last week: “Emerson Royal is a weak link for Tottenham. He’s got too many mistakes and daft decisions in him, like the needless no-look pass that went out of play against Sporting Lisbon. He’s not good enough defensively and he doesn’t offer much in an attacking sense. Supporters are already asking what incriminating evidence he has on Conte to repeatedly make his starting line-up.”
He has been a weak link at times, which begs the question: why does a manager of Conte’s standing persist with him?
Well, in a Spurs team that lacks pace in a number of positions, that is one useful string to Royal’s bow. It can get him or the team out of trouble defensively, but he also offers a constant outlet down the right wing.
Yes, the end product thereafter is quite often poor (one goal and two assists in 57 Spurs appearances in all competitions), but the point is he’s almost always in the positions Conte wants him to be in. He stretches play, he distracts defences.
Matt Doherty, Royal’s primary competition for the right wing-back spot, has a tendency/preference to drift inside, play one-twos, look for combinations. Royal is a byline wing-back, Doherty is a drifter. Both have their merits but you suspect Conte prefers someone who’s going to stretch that attacking line while his forwards come inside (especially the sorely missed Dejan Kulusevski).
Here’s where Doherty has received passes for Spurs in the past two seasons…
And here’s the alternative graphic for Royal. Notice the brighter colours at both ends of the flank this season, showing he’s received more passes in those areas.
“In my opinion, Emerson had a good start this season and can play in this position. I’m happy with him,” Conte said earlier this season.
“He has improved a lot since last season. Don’t forget Emerson played every game in this period, for sure now he can be a bit tired.
“As a full-back, you can be fatigued because you become a striker when you are going to attack and you have to become a defender when we have to defend, but I’m really happy about Emerson’s performances because you have to think, compare last season and he’s made a good improvement.”
While his goals and assist records are much weaker than Spurs’ other wing-backs (Doherty, Ivan Perisic and Ryan Sessegnon), Royal does compare favourably in other areas.
Looking just at this season, he wins an average of 1.05 tackles per game (behind Sessegnon’s 1.36 but ahead of Doherty on 0.91 and Perisic on 0.82) and makes more clearances (3.02 per game, noticeably more than Sessegnon on 1.82, Doherty on 1.52 and Perisic on 1.23).
He averages 21 touches in the opposition third per game, unsurprisingly fewer than Perisic’s 25 touches but more than Sessegnon (19.7) and Doherty (13.3).
Royal beats all three on successful dribbles per game with 0.93 ahead of Perisic (0.68), Doherty (0.61) and Sessegnon (0.3).
He also receives more passes than them, averaging 40 per game (Doherty 36, Perisic 32, Sessegnon 31), again showing his willingness and ability to make himself available down that right flank.
Yes, he lags behind the others on things like shot-creating actions, expected goals, expected assists, chances created and successful crosses, but there are clearly areas where he outperforms his team-mates, and for any manager — let alone a stickler for details and playing to instructions like Conte — that matters.
We shouldn’t forget Conte’s “I don’t want to lose” barb when asked last month why Doherty or Djed Spence weren’t getting game time, which indicates he trusts Royal more than the other two to play to his instructions.
It’s not yet been a month since Doherty made his first start of the season having struggled to get up to speed following a knee injury in April (just when Spurs were finally starting to see the best of him) and, while he doesn’t look completely match sharp yet, he hasn’t done enough to demand selection ahead of Royal.
Perisic looked uncomfortable when he was tried there against Leicester and Sessegnon looked even worse in Marseille in the week, an experiment which was swiftly abandoned.
The wider issue here is the lack of a top-level right wing-back joining in the summer, something Conte clearly bristles about whenever he calls Spence a “club signing”.
He’s a manager who knows what he wants from his team and his players but he also knows what he doesn’t want.
And if that’s the lack of pace or lack of match sharpness of Doherty, the inexperience of Spence or the uncomfortableness of Perisic or Sessegnon playing on a flank they don’t prefer, he won’t do it.
Tottenham will just “have to deal” with Antonio Conte’s touchline ban for Tuesday’s Champions League Group D decider at Marseille, says midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
The Italian was sent off after Spurs’ draw with Sporting Lisbon and will have to sit in the stands in France.
“No-one can fill his void, but we’ll be together and we have to get through this together,” said Hojbjerg.
“It’s not a difficult situation, it’s a different situation.”
Tottenham have never beaten a French team away from home in Europe and will arrive at the hostile Stade Velodrome knowing a point would see them advance into the knockout stage.
“We have to be successful together. The fact is he won’t be there so we have to deal with that, the staff are well prepared,” added Hojbjerg.
“He is a very good coach and a massive part of the team but thankfully he has very good staff and players who are aware of what they expect of them. The number one key ambition is to go to the knockout phase.”
Aside from their manager, Spurs will also be without forward Richarlison, midfielder Dejan Kulusevski and defender Cristian Romero as they look to top the group.
However, that is unlikely to be easy against Marseille. While currently bottom on six points, two behind leaders Spurs, the French club will progress if they beat Conte’s men. Sporting Lisbon host Eintracht Frankfurt in the other tie, with both sides on seven points.
One player keen to confirm a Spurs exit is former Arsenal favourite Alexis Sanchez, who is joined in the ex-Gunners ranks at Marseille by Matteo Guendouzi, Nuno Tavares and Sead Kolasinac.
“Beating Spurs every time was a great joy. It was very special and those are memories that I hold dear to my heart,” said Sanchez, who also played under Conte at Inter Milan.
“Every single player has motivation to play and win. We all want to bring the victory back.”
Marseille boss Igor Tudor also knows Conte well and is glad his former Juventus team-mate is not going to be in the Tottenham dugout and dressing room.
“He has a good impact on the game so it is better that he is not there, but the players are playing, not the coaches,” said the Croat.
“Tomorrow we have a great game ahead of us. It really is a top opportunity for the boys to reach the knockout [stage] of the Champions League.”
“I’m enjoying every single moment of my adventure in Tottenham,” Antonio Conte said with a straight face.
He made the remark having presided over successive Premier League defeats and a draw against Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League that ended with him being sent off for protesting Harry Kane’s disallowed winning goal. Conte was so angry it looked as if the scolding fury emanating from his mush could melt the fourth official’s face.
But still, enjoying every minute.
For the game at Bournemouth on Saturday, The Athletic took a seat close enough to watch the Spurs head coach’s every move and sense just how enjoyable he’s really finding it all as he closes on a year in charge.
It all begins with such serenity. Conte sits, gently stroking his own cheek, as the players emerge from the tunnel.
He slowly rises to stand as the game kicks off. Resplendent in black trousers and a long-sleeved black top, propped up by Hugo Boss black leather trainers. He’s at peace, he looks expectant. But not for long.
Ben Davies hoofs a Bournemouth cross directly behind for a corner and Conte responds with the first in a series of hand gestures from the Italian school of theatrical expression. It’s the “what the hell is that?” signal, purchasing his thumb against his fingers and pushing his hand back and forth.
Conte is renowned for his jack-in-the-box touchline melodrama but, during a first half in which Spurs produce a listless performance, his demeanour in the main reflects that.
After the vast majority of incidents at either end of the pitch, Conte will look straight to the ground in dismay.
Kieffer Moore heads onto the top of the net? Dismay. Spurs play a short corner and end up passing the ball all the way back to Hugo Lloris? Dismay. Moore opens the scoring after Davies is turned over on halfway? Dismay. Oliver Skipp plays a pass straight out of play? Dismay.
A resplendent and despondent Conte as his side slipped to a 2-0 deficit (Photo: Getty Images)
Each time, his head is bowed with a sense of despondency that his players just aren’t doing what he’s instructed them to do. Or they can’t do what he’s instructed them to do.
It’s when Spurs are in possession that Conte comes alive, with most of his instructions centred on cajoling his defenders to move the ball quicker. “Faster, faster, faster,” he yells as Davinson Sanchez and Clement Lenglet rather casually move the ball along Spurs’ back line.
This happens all the time. He wants brisker and more incisive passing, he wants Bournemouth on the back foot, but his players aren’t responding.
He sways and ushers them upfield, incessantly encouraging left wing-back Ryan Sessegnon and left centre-back Davies to make runs down the flank he’s patrolling. He talks to Davies a lot, he wants him to double up with Sessegnon and overlap down the flank.
Occasionally, he turns around and mutters to himself. Sometimes, he clasps his hands together in prayer. When Lenglet misplaces a pass, he slaps both his thighs in unison like he’s conducting an oompah band. It’s not easy being Spurs’ head coach.
Sometimes he’ll yell but because the crowd have upped the volume, none of his players can hear him. In this scenario, he is essentially an angry man shouting at a cloud. When the crowd noise is loud, he’ll use his arms to get the message across, with one diagonally in the air to get the attention of a player and the other pointing in the direction he wants them to run or pass. It’s like watching Robin Williams do semaphore and the signal he’s making is (genuinely) the letter Y. Or: “Why are my players so bad?”
As Bournemouth’s fans shout “ole”, with their team casually spraying the ball around at the end of the first half, Conte scratches his head. The many mistakes he’s watching are met with passivity instead of rage.
Despite the scoreline and the hopelessness of Spurs’ performance — epitomised by Emerson Royal’s volley that lands in the car park behind the stadium — the only time Conte properly loses control of his senses is when Son Heung-min lines up a free kick to the left of the box. Conte wants Sessegnon and Oliver Skipp to run either side of Son and offer him an option. He points left and right to convey this, but both players run to the left. It’s laughable, but Conte doesn’t laugh. He unleashes a tirade of expletives.
There is encouragement, too — lots of applause during breaks in play, but he spends a lot of the half with his hands in his pockets, motionless. He’s not even angry, just disappointed. That’s much worse.
Conte is at times angry, at times encouraging… but often in the first half, he just appears disappointed (Photo: Getty Images)
He’s also probably thinking of his half-time team talk that, seen as Moore adds a second on 49 minutes, you can’t imagine did much good, but his words in the dressing room do eventually seem to work.
“After the first half, my feeling was positive,” he later says. “I only asked that we show more personality to take more responsibility.”
Conte starts the second half by crossing himself, a reflection of his Catholic faith. That divine intervention will be needed after Moore’s second goal, which is another Spurs defensive horror show. He beats Royal and Sanchez to head home an unchallenged right-wing cross.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why some situations happen,” Conte later says.
“These are really good guys and players but sometimes they lose confidence easily. We have to try and work on this aspect.”
Lucas Moura and Royal are at the centre of his thoughts for the second half. Again, the messages about overlapping, playing quickly, combining down the flanks and overloading Bournemouth’s defence are unceasing.
The positioning of his players is at the forefront of his mind. Spurs have awoken now they’re 2-0 down — Davies cannons a shot just wide of the post but Conte completely ignores that and continues telling his players where to run.
There is more eye-rolling and ground-staring as Rodrigo Bentancur plays a pass out for a throw and Royal can’t beat the first man with a cross that doesn’t make it off the floor.
Conte seeks divine intervention to aid Tottenham’s comeback (Photo: Getty Images)
Conte is angry, annoyed and animated now. Spurs have pulled a goal back and this only elevates his blood pressure. The technical area is no longer big enough and a Bournemouth fan no more than 10 yards away demands in a big, booming voice for Conte to “GET BACK IN YOUR BOX”.
The Italian has barely spoken to the officials all game but now he’s pointing to his wrist and shouting, “COME ON ANTHONY, COME ON” at referee Anthony Taylor as Bournemouth keeper Mark Travers takes his sweet time with a goal kick.
Conte rocks and rolls back and forth from heel to tiptoe as Spurs push Bournemouth deeper and deeper, winning a ludicrous amount of corners (19) and drilling or lofting cross after cross into their box.
The equaliser is almost farcically simple, with Davies plonking in a soft free header from Ivan Perisic’s corner. Conte, again, remains completely focused, pointing to his forehead with not just one finger but two and repeating “think, think, think” to his players.
It’s all Spurs now and Conte is fully with them, playing every pass, making every run, taking every shot. He loses himself in a haze of instructions and passion, his voice starts to crackle, his players can’t hear a thing he’s saying but he can’t stop himself, he’s living and breathing the game and talking in tongues.
Chances come and go. Son’s free kick hits the wall and Conte turns his head 45 degrees towards the floor, like a sad owl.
Son shows his anguish (Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
And then before, during and after corners, Conte is telling everyone where to be. He goes absolutely nuts at Sessegnon for not putting the ball back into the box from a cleared corner. The burly Bournemouth fan continues his “GET BACK IN YOUR BOX, CONTE” refrain and fourth official Charles Breakspear shepherds Conte into the technical area. No complaints from the Italian. He’ll be out again 15 seconds later.
And then it happens. All the intensity, the passion, the tempo, it’s reached boiling point… and Spurs get their winner. Bentancur with the volley from yet another corner. Cue Conte delirium? No. While the players and staff go berserk, he turns around and paces down the tunnel, no facial expression, Wednesday’s ruled-out stoppage-time “winner” fresh in his mind.
“I thought in my mind and my heart… I can have a heart attack, to (see us) score and then disallowed… I said, ‘I go down (the tunnel) and stay calm’, and wait for the decision of the referee,” Conte says. “I came back when I knew the goal was regular.”
As the whistle blows, after a handshake with Gary O’Neil, he’s onto the pitch, picking out match-winner Bentancur for a particularly big embrace and also passionately hugging Son not once, but twice (applauding the Spurs fans in-between as they sang his name at full-time for what felt like the first time in a while). He gets Son in a headlock as they walk off together. Even Fraser Forster gets a hug and there’s a hand-slap for Djed Spence.
In his press conference, Conte is exhausted. He laughs when asked if he believed they’d win at 2-0 down (something Spurs hadn’t done away from home since winning 3-2 at Arsenal in 2010). He had wanted overlaps down the flanks, crosses, quicker football and more risk-taking. Eventually, he got it.
“It was great to see the desire of my players, the reaction they had,” he says. “Also the nastiness they put on the pitch. I’ve seen the desire in the eyes of my players the desire to win this game.
“At 2-2, the only thought was to take the ball and start to play again This reaction was really positive.”
Conte takes defeats to heart so much that he’s (in his own words) horrible company the day afterwards. He celebrates wins like a diehard fan, he rails at referees and fourth officials, he expends emotion and passion by the bucketload. But there is intelligence in his histrionic shouting, too.
Conte ended with a smile at Bournemouth but will be banned from the touchline in Marseille (Photo: Getty Images)
“Sometimes it’s frustrating, no? Sometimes you see your team up and down, up and down,” he says. “We have to try and find stability. We’re a work in progress.
“It was vital for us, this win. Especially after two losses in the Premier League. And now this has to give us enthusiasm and passion to play a ‘final’ in Marseille.”
There is no doubt they’ll miss him on the touchline. Well, apart from the fourth official.
It started with an overhit Eric Dier pass. He tried to pick out Ryan Sessegnon on the left wing but it was too high and Sessegnon couldn’t keep the ball in play.
Boos. Jeers. Whistles.
Then Spurs were making a dog’s dinner of playing the ball out from the back with Newcastle’s forwards penning them into the corner like well-trained sheepdogs.
Boos. Jeers. Whistles.
Then the half-time whistle. Two-nil down having self-imploded, masters of their own downfall.
Boos. Jeers. Whistles.
It felt mutinous at this point. There was raw anger at what was unfolding. As the sound of thunder reverberated around north London and unyielding rain cascaded through the mild autumnal air, a storm was brewing in the stands too.
The second half was different. Supporters unleashed an encouraging roar as the teams kicked off, then Harry Kane pulled a goal back (seconds after Newcastle had threatened a third goal… it really could have turned dark if they’d scored another) and rebellion became a cauldron in the space of half an hour.
Harry Kane scores for Spurs but it wasn’t enough to rescue the match (Photo: Chloe Knott/Danehouse via Getty Images)
From this point on, any boos were channelled in the direction of Newcastle ‘keeper Nick Pope, who began taking his sweet time with goal kicks until he was booked for time-wasting in the 84th minute. They also booed referee Jarred Gillett, the substitution of former Arsenal player Joe Willock, the amount of second-half stoppage time given (five minutes), and it continued at full-time, but that sounded like it was for the referee again.
But still, not a happy fanbase. And for distant onlookers, you might wonder why.
Spurs had won their previous 10 home matches in all competitions (a great run and record, albeit only one of those, against Arsenal last May, was against a top-level team and with the stakes really high) and were third in the Premier League table. In fact, they remain third.
So why did it not take much for supporters to audibly show their frustration in sizeable numbers at the end of the first half?
To look at the league table or home form ignores underlying issues eating away at regular Spurs watchers.
The players look nervous when trying to play it out from the back and the fans get nervous watching them do it. Negative feedback loop in action.
Dier almost found the bottom corner of Hugo Lloris’ goal with a backpass that more resembled a shot. It wasn’t a surprise when it happened. Dier has been fallible a few times lately when under almost no pressure.
It’s certainly not just him. Emerson Royal is often hesitant in possession. Sessegnon runs down cul-de-sacs. The centre-backs never really fill you with confidence when playing out. Ditto Lloris whose chip to Sessegnon was intercepted for the second goal.
There have been a few mistakes recently. For Lloris at Arsenal read Lloris against Newcastle; a rush of blood and, whether you think it was a foul by Callum Wilson or not, it’s poor goalkeeping to leave yourself open to that happening.
Callum Wilson and Hugo Lloris clash in the lead-up to the first goal (Photo: Justin Setterfield via Getty Images)
For the second goal, a shuffling Clement Lenglet showed all the mobility of a lorry driver walking into a service station after seven hours on the road when Miguel Almiron sauntered past him.
There’s annoyance at players being picked despite regularly making those errors, particularly in the case of Royal.
There’s frustration at seemingly not knowing how to unpick the lock of defences. It’s taken only one injury to Dejan Kulusevski to leave Spurs sometimes looking dry and fairly predictable, though in the first 30 minutes here Oliver Skipp and Harry Kane caused no end of problems with quick, positive, vertical passes from midfield.
But most of all there’s a lack of patience (a word Conte calls for a lot) for the head coach’s inflexibility and stubbornness, and for his approach which often prioritises functionality over flair. So when results aren’t good, the fact the football isn’t great to watch either just compounds that. And that’s when the boos start.
“It’s very important to cope in this difficult moment, to make experience, try to go until November in the best possible way,” Conte said after the defeat, praising the attitude if not the performance of his players (apart from the first half an hour) after chastising their mentality following the midweek defeat to Manchester United.
“Today, no complaint about the attitude, desire or will of my players. The effort was really strong and really big, but sometimes it’s not enough.
“I’m frustrated because I’d like to play this type of game, or Champions League, with the best team (and make) three, four or five good substitutions.
“But we knew this. When I spoke to you before, I always said: ‘Look, we’ve just started the process to bring Tottenham in the best possible position, to be more competitive to fight for something important’.
“For this reason, we needed to cope with the situation. For me, it’s not easy, not simple, but we have to cope, to stick together.”
That’s the message from the head coach, to stick together, get through a difficult and intense period of matches and take stock during the break.
It sounds simple and the fans are still very much with Conte, but the relationship between supporters, him and his football is a complicated one. And as Sunday showed, there are cracks beneath the surface.
Tottenham winger Dejan Kulusevski will miss a seventh successive match because of a thigh injury.
Richarlison is out with a calf issue but defender Emerson Royal returns after serving a three-match ban.
Newcastle midfielder Joelinton is a doubt after he suffered a knee problem during the midweek win over Everton.
Talisman Allan Saint-Maximin remains sidelined after suffering another minor setback in his recovery from a hamstring issue.
Tottenham have beaten Newcastle United in seven of the past 10 top-flight meetings (D2, L1).
However, Magpies have won 10 Premier League matches at Spurs, their joint-best away record in the division against a single opponent along with West Ham.
Spurs have won 10 consecutive home games in all competitions, scoring 27 goals during that run.
The Lilywhites are vying to win their opening six home matches of a top-flight season for the first since 1964-65.
Antonio Conte’s side have lost two of their past four league fixtures, as many defeats as in their previous 21.
Harry Kane has five goals and three assists in his past five Premier League appearances against Newcastle, although he has only scored once against them at home.
Newcastle have only lost once in 14 matches in all competitions (W7, D6).
Eddie Howe’s side have kept five top-flight clean sheets this season and have the division’s best defensive record.
Newcastle beat Fulham 4-1 in their last Premier League trip to London; the Magpies last won consecutive league visits to the capital in 2019, when a 4-0 win over Fulham was followed by a 1-0 victory at Spurs.
Miguel Almiron has five goals in 11 Premier League games this season – it took him 64 top-flight appearances over the previous two campaigns to score his last five.
Albert Einstein said the measure of intelligence was the ability to change. After 80 minutes of this utterly comprehensive defeat, in which they had been outplayed from the 10-minute mark onwards, Tottenham had changed absolutely nothing.
OK, there may have been the odd tactical tweak or slight positional shift here and there, but it was the same 11 players, the same formation, the same approach. Antonio Conte either felt unable or unwilling to alter the course of their meeting with Manchester United at Old Trafford.
From minutes 82 to 89 he then made a quintet of substitutions but, as in the recent defeat at Arsenal — which was as thorough and deserved as this one — the changes were made to rest his first XI and to keep the score down. Basically the white flag was raised while there was still time to theoretically score two football goals and draw the match. Same deal as at the Emirates.
In fact, there are more worthy comparisons with that game just under three weeks ago.
And, in what’s becoming a theme of the season, they also allowed the opposition to muster a large amount of shots at their goal — 28 in total. It was 22 in the Arsenal defeat and also 16 in the draw at Chelsea in August, when Tottenham conjured up an unlikely comeback having been outplayed for much of the game.
So that’s three away games at three of the “Big Six”, one far-fetched point and two defeats which, if they weren’t heavy in terms of the scoreline, were considerably bulky in terms of the weight balance of play. And they’ve conceded 66 shots in those games, plus a total expected goals against figure of 5.49.
While logic may dictate you endure more suffering against the better sides, the discrepancy between Spurs showing competency, control and composure when beating teams such as Brighton, Everton and, for long spells of the game (before a dodgy last few minutes), Eintracht Frankfurt in the past couple of weeks, to the inadequacy but also at-times sheer incompetency against the big boys, is stark.
Against United, they failed to complete basic tasks including short passes, decisive clearances and tracking runners. They repeatedly failed to close down opponents, leading to that ridiculous shot count. United’s full-backs, with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min tucked in, had the freedom to exploit space and pin Tottenham back, which they did all night.
Hugo Lloris pulls off a remarkable save against Manchester United (Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
Kane wasn’t given much of an opportunity to inspire the team but even he wasn’t himself, registering a 53 per cent pass completion rate in the first half (21 per cent lower than any other outfield player), although it should be noted he played one of the passes of the season when finding Matt Doherty.
But they all gave the ball away regularly, leading to a barney between Conte and Bentancur at the end of the first half after the latter ceded possession yet again. Bissouma’s second touch was usually a recovery. Eric Dier fluffed his lines, Cristian Romero kept being caught out of position, Ivan Perisic kept showing Antony inside. Only Hugo Lloris emerged with credit after a string of very good saves helped keep the score down.
What would you say in mitigation? It was, in home manager Erik ten Hag’s words, United’s best team performance of his short reign (he also said “you need a good counter-press against Spurs… from there you can create chances”), their aggression and press was just too much for Tottenham to handle. So yeah, United were good.
Spurs were also missing two key attacking options in Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison, but it shouldn’t take two injuries and one suspension (Emerson Royal) to leave a head coach seemingly not able to change his team despite the original XI being so painfully second best.
While the lack of options leads to mostly the same players playing every match, Conte pointedly chose not to blame fatigue when analysing why his team came up so short in this one. In fact, his quotes were telling and are worth revisiting.
“Not a good game for us, (and) I have to be honest, this was not the first time for us this season,” he said. “Despite that the table is good. Every time we play a high-level game, we struggle. Against Chelsea, they dominated the game, Arsenal we lost and today we lost. When the level is high, we’re going to struggle.”
Conte then described how sometimes he hears that Spurs may be title contenders. And he began laughing to himself at that prospect.
But most pertinently of all, when analysing why exactly his team have struggled in those big games, he didn’t question their ability, or their fitness, or the depth of his squad, but their mentality.
“We can improve, we need to continue to work and for sure it is right the club analyse why, when we are playing this type of game — where the level is very high — we are struggling.”
There was no rant from Conte here — no anger, just dismay and despondency.
The intelligence to change may be there, but that change is going to take time.
(Top photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford dropped out of the starting line-up against Newcastle following illness but could return on Wednesday.
United will monitor Christian Eriksen, who was too unwell to feature on Sunday, while Scott McTominay returns from suspension.
Anthony Martial remains unavailable because of a back problem.
Dejan Kulusevski is again doubtful for Tottenham because of a niggling hamstring issue.
Emerson Royal serves the final game of a three-match ban, while Richarlison is likely to be out for two weeks with a calf injury.
Manchester United are vying to win four consecutive Premier League games against Spurs, a feat they last achieved in 2010.
Spurs have lost 38 Premier League matches versus United, more than against any other opponent.
Manchester United have won an unrivalled 72 Premier League games on a Wednesday.
However, United are winless in each of their last six league fixtures played in October (D4, L2).
Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in each of his seven most recent appearances against Tottenham, including four games for Real Madrid.
He has eight Premier League goals versus Spurs – his joint best record against any side.
Ronaldo is two short of 500 league goals in his career.
Marcus Rashford is two goals shy of 100 in all competitions for United.
Tottenham are vying for a fifth consecutive victory in league and cup, which would equal their longest winning streak under Antonio Conte.
Spurs’ total of 23 points from 10 games is their highest at this stage of a league season since 1963 (once readjusted to three points for a win).
This month’s 3-1 defeat at Arsenal is Tottenham’s only loss in their past 16 league games (W11, D4). They have scored 35 goals in those matches, conceding just 12 and keeping eight clean sheets.
Conte has lost all three of his away matches against Manchester United – against no side has the Italian lost more away fixtures in his managerial career.
The Londoners have scored 99 goals in all competitions under Conte, with Harry Kane (30) and Son Heung-min (25) contributing over half of these.
Kane is the fourth player to have scored 30 Premier League penalties, with his conversion rate of 88.2% superior to the three other players to have passed the milestone (Alan Shearer, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard).
Tottenham forward Richarlison is set to play despite suffering a knee problem in midweek.
Dejan Kulusevski is still absent with a thigh injury, while Emerson Royal serves the second game of a three-match suspension.
Everton winger Anthony Gordo is banned after accumulating five yellow cards.
Abdoulaye Doucoure is back after missing out last weekend because of a family issue, but Yerry Mina is ruled out following an injury setback.
This match comes too soon for Mason Holgate and Nathan Patterson, while Ben Godfrey and Andros Townsend are also unavailable.
Tottenham’s 1-0 defeat by Everton on the opening weekend of the 2020-21 season is their only loss in the past 19 Premier League meetings (W9, D9).
That game is also the Toffees’ only win away at Spurs since 2008.
Tottenham have won seven successive Premier League home games, their best run since a 14-match streak between November 2016 and May 2017.
Victory would give Spurs their highest points tally after 10 Premier League matches, surpassing their haul of 22 points in 2011-12.
Teams managed by Antonio Conte have kept a clean sheet in all six of his Premier League meetings with Everton – only former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has faced a specific opponent more often without his side ever conceding in the competition, doing so seven times against Wigan Athletic.
Harry Kane has scored 13 goals in 14 Premier League appearances against Everton, including six braces – only Alan Shearer has netted multiple goals more often against a particular opponent.
Kane is vying to score in five consecutive top-flight fixtures for the first time in his career. This is the sixth occasion he has netted in four in a row.
Everton have lost 84 Premier League games away to London sides, a joint high with Newcastle.
The Toffees are winless in seven league visits to the capital since beating West Ham 1-0 in May 2021 (D2, L5).
Defeat against Manchester United last time out ended Everton’s six-match unbeaten league run (W2, D4).
They are looking to secure back-to-back away league victories for the first time since May 2021.
Frank Lampard’s side have conceded nine Premier League goals this season, a joint low alongside Brighton, Manchester City and Newcastle.
“To play every three days is a big effort,” added Conte. “We have to try and manage the situation in the best possible way.
“You know you have to make rotations and at the same time you need to get results otherwise there is a lot of criticism.
Tottenham striker Harry Kane has scored eight goals in nine Premier League games this season, but is yet to score in the 2022-23 Champions League.
“I want to score in every game and I’ve been disappointed not to score yet,” said Kane.
“It’s a really important game and we’re at a big stage in the group with two home games coming up. We have spoken about how important it is to win.”
Eintracht Frankfurt beat Rangers on penalties to win the Europa League final last season and qualify for the Champions League. They are eighth in the German Bundesliga and lost 3-0 at Bochum on Saturday.
Whether it was Antonio Conte crying before the game or Harry Kane breaking down in his post-match interview, or Hugo Lloris holding up the personalised shirt to the away fans at the end, the marks were everywhere that this was a Tottenham Hotspur performance summoned from the empty depths of grief.
This has been an impossible few days for everyone at Spurs. It was only at the end of last week that Gian Piero Ventrone complained of a fever and asked Conte if he would be allowed to miss a training session for treatment. Ventrone returned to Italy and, on Tuesday evening after the game against Eintracht Frankfurt, Conte learned that his beloved coach was gravely ill. On Thursday morning, Conte had to find the words to tell his players that Ventrone had passed away.
It is difficult to describe how hard it is to give news like that, or how shocking it is to receive it. The players and staff at Spurs must have felt as if they had been tipped upside-down and emptied out all over the ground. Conte said in his post-match press conference the players were “devastated by the pain”.
Ventrone was more than just another member of Conte’s coaching staff. He was the heartbeat of the whole operation, providing so much energy and enthusiasm, as well as the expertise to get the team as fit as they were. And he was more than just a fitness coach, Conte repeatedly referred to him as a “scientist”, who had put a lifetime of hard work into being at the cutting edge of his field. He symbolised everything good that Conte has brought to Tottenham.
Ventrone was not just a part of Conte’s team, but an inspiration and mentor to the Spurs manager. Back when Conte played for Juventus, it was Ventrone who pushed him to make the best of himself. When Conte started his coaching career at Bari, Atalanta and Siena, Ventrone was one of the first people he called to work with him. Describing them as colleagues does not do their relationship justice.
When Conte was a player, he worked with Ventrone at Juventus for 10 years. These Spurs players only worked with Ventrone for 10 months and yet, as Conte perfectly put it on Saturday evening, he “went through the hearts of everybody”. That much was apparent when the social media tributes came in for Ventrone on Thursday, and from how committed the whole Spurs squad were to marking their respects on Saturday.
All of which goes a very small way to suggesting what it must have been like on Thursday morning when Conte broke the news to his players. There was no prospect of the players training after that, Conte said they were “too involved emotionally” to do anything, so they only managed a light jog before going home. It was only on Friday that Conte and his staff could put on a training session to prepare them for their latest fixture, a difficult away game against an in-form Brighton.
It feels an age away now, but remember Spurs played a tough Champions League game away in Germany on Tuesday evening. That game came on the back of a difficult north London derby on Saturday, where they were beaten 3-1. The players would have naturally been tired by the physical effort even before they had their world turned upside down on Thursday morning.
Conte would normally challenge his players before a game like this, to press their buttons in order to get them up for it. “Many times we try to find the motivation, to push these players and to create a situation to increase the tension,” he explained. But not this time. Conte knew there was no point in finding any source of motivation or reminding them of the stakes. “I tried not to push them to play this game,” he said. “Honestly, I did nothing under this aspect. I left them to face the situation.”
Tottenham’s players pay tribute to Gian Piero Ventrone (Photo: Getty Images)
It is impossible to predict how grief will affect people. Whether they will want to continue with their lives and jobs, clinging on to a sense of normality while the rest of their world is in flux. Or whether they will be so lost in their grief that even completing their normal routines is impossible. There is no right answer, other than to remember that whatever a grieving person is feeling is valid and right.
We cannot know precisely how the Tottenham players felt on Saturday afternoon when they drove down from London to Brighton, or warmed up on Saturday in their tribute T-shirts — with “always in our hearts, Gian Piero” written across the front — or even when they took the field.
But what we do know is that they found it within themselves — and each other — to put in one of their most impressive performances of the season so far, or even, given everything, of the entire Antonio Conte era. They worked ferociously hard and did not look like a side who had been to Germany and back in midweek. Pierre Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur were exceptional in the middle of the pitch, given extra protection by the presence of Yves Bissouma, shutting down Brighton and driving Spurs forward. Hojbjerg’s clever pass to Son Heung-min allowed him to cross for Kane to head in the game’s only goal.
As ever, Spurs conceded plenty of possession in the second half, but they were almost inch-perfect in defence, with Ben Davies, Eric Dier and Cristian Romero blocking everything, never allowing Brighton enough of an opening to get back into the game. As the second half wore on and Spurs dropped deeper, there was a real air of defiance to their display.
Even now, physically and mentally drained, with their backs to the wall, they stuck together, summoning extra reserves to fight to see out the win.
It would have been a very good team display under normal circumstances. Under these, it was a remarkable show of unity and spirit. At the end, it was impossible to control the emotions they had kept a lid on all afternoon.
Perhaps we should not draw too clear a line between the result here and the events of this week. Simply because if the game had gone differently, if Brighton had scrambled a late equaliser or even a winner, this would not have been any less of a tribute from the players to their departed coach. We should not overdo the language of ‘bravery’ in grief because if any of these players had not felt able to play, that would have been a valid response, too.
All we can do is report what Conte said at the end, during a 10-minute press conference that was moving to be part of, never mind to deliver, at the end of a long run of media commitments. “I’m really proud of my players because I said to them I know that before they are good players, they are really good people,” he said. “They showed me to be really good people, top men. I said to them just now that I’m proud to be the coach of this team.”
Conte, like many Spurs staff including Daniel Levy and Fabio Paratici, flew to Naples on Sunday morning for the funeral. He talked about the importance of supporting Ventrone’s wife, Cinzia, and children Ivan and Martina.
“I’m sure that Gian Piero will stay with us forever, forever, I’m sure about this,” Conte said. “I will keep his teachings in my heart and in my head.”
(Top photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
When Antonio Conte blamed the quality of his Tottenham Hotspur side’s final pass on Saturday, after their 3-1 derby defeat away to Arsenal, it felt like one theory among many.
There was some evidence for such a shortcoming but it might also have been a political distraction from the other failings of his team.
But when Conte blamed the same problem three days later, after this 0-0 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt in their third Champions League group game, it felt like inarguable scientific fact. No other theories or interpretations or hot takes are required.
“If I have to find a situation that we need to improve after this game,” Conte said in his post-match press conference, “for sure, we need to be more clinical. Today, we created chances to score but you know very well: football is simple. To win, you have to score.”
Scoring, especially away, and even more so from open play, is something that Tottenham have struggled to do recently.
No Spurs player has scored a goal from open play away from home since Harry Kane’s header at Nottingham Forest on August 28, more than four whole games ago. No one other than Kane has done it since Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg at Chelsea two weeks before that.
Last night’s match in Germany was broadly consistent with what we have seen before.
It was different to Saturday’s north London derby (for a start, Frankfurt are nowhere near as dangerous as Arsenal) but the fundamental issue with the performance was the same. Tottenham had plenty of openings, promising counter-attacks, threatening overloads and the rest. And they simply could not score.
The issue is not as simple as profligacy. It is not as if they are creating stacks of glaring chances but failing to put them away. Even here, most of their best chances here felt slightly fractional; opportunities that maybe, on Kane or Son Heung-min’s better days, they might convert, but not much more than that.
The real problem, just as Conte explained it at the weekend, was with the “last pass” — or rather, with Tottenham’s play on the edge of the Frankfurt box, just as they tried to convert their promising territorial position into a real chance on goal. There was plenty of space out there for them, even more so as the game went on; and Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur in midfield were their two best players, winning the ball back and moving it on.
But almost every single time Spurs went forward and the ball came to Kane, Son or Richarlison in a good position, the execution would go wrong.
Sometimes, this was a poor touch: the forward failing to control the ball and allowing a defender to recover. Sometimes, this was a poor final pass: overhit, underhit, or just played straight to one of Frankfurt’s defenders. Sometimes, it was a case of the run not being quite right to meet the path of the ball and sometimes, it was the finish itself.
But the sum total of all of this was the same thing we have seen before: Spurs failing to turn their best openings into goals.
There were dozens of examples of this, but here are some especially relevant ones.
Their first real opening came after 11 minutes when Cristian Romero and Kane both missed Son’s classic inswinging cross with his left boot.
After 25 minutes, another connection between Son and Kane carved out Tottenham’s second big opportunity of the game. Clever play between Emerson Royal and Richarlison freed Son down the right to cross, and he was in the perfect position to drill the ball in low for Kane to convert.
But the South Korea captain hit his cross too high, too hard, and his England counterpart failed to make meaningful contact.
It will not go down as a shot on target but in reality, it was a high-percentage opening that Spurs wasted.
Then, just before the break, another incisive move: Bentancur to Kane to Richarlison to Royal, again getting in that space to the left of the Frankfurt back three. With a perfect cross, Royal maybe could have picked out Son but instead it was deflected, and while the ball did find its way to team-mate Ivan Perisic at the far post, his shot hit a defender and went wide.
Tottenham did not play so well in the second half, but the overall principle was the same.
Their first opening, five minutes after the restart, came when Hojbjerg won the ball and Kane played it to Son, who rolled a pass forward to the overlapping Perisic. The wing-back was in a perfect position but his first touch was slightly heavy, and when he crossed, Kane was effectively blocked off by two Frankfurt defenders.
Sometimes, the issue was as simple as one bad touch, and there were plenty of those on the night — like two minutes after that Perisic cross towards Kane, when Bentancur drove down the middle of the pitch and passed through to Son in a central position, whose first touch saw the ball bounce away from him…
…or when Son tried to play Perisic through but scooped the ball straight out of play.
Sometimes, two of Spurs’ forwards got in each other’s way — like when Perisic crossed from the left, Kane was in a good position, but Richarlison fouled Makoto Hasebe, gifting Frankfurt a free kick.
One final example here, with 18 minutes left — another promising counter-attack that breaks down as Richarlison overhits this through pass to Kane.
The point here is not to single out Son or Richarlison or Royal or Perisic for excessive blame and criticism. Equally, it is clear that Tottenham have struggled to create good chances recently and some of these moments in Frankfurt were not too different from what we saw at the Emirates on Saturday.
After Son’s hat-trick against Leicester City in the club’s final game before the recent international break, the hope was that this would launch his season. But this week, the 30-year-old has been more like the player who struggled through its first weeks.
Son has been integral to everything good about Spurs over the last few years, so the sooner he can recover his best form, the better for Spurs.
Richarlison is still at the start of his Tottenham career and he has shown plenty of energy and personality so far, and scored some good goals, but the case has not been made yet that playing Kane, Son and him together is a winning combination. Having all three on the pitch at once leaves Conte’s team slightly unbalanced: too many strikers, not enough creators. And when Son and Richarlison are off their game, as they were here, there is not enough precision when it matters.
Last night was the second game in a row he has missed with a hamstring injury.
So many of these openings, especially those that fell to Royal, Son or Richarlison on the right, were in positions where Kulusevski thrives. He has proven at Spurs that he is a brilliant link between the front line and the rest of the team, and his statistics prove how efficient he is in the final third.
When asked before the game whether Spurs were dependent on Kulusevski, Conte was insistent that “the team does not depend on one player” but watching them fail to turn their openings into chances and goals for the second time in four days, it was impossible not to wonder how the game would have gone with him on the pitch.
Tottenham have had two direct free-kick attempts at goal so far in the 2022-23 season.
One was against Marseille. The other against Fulham. On both occasions, Son Heung-min raised his arm just before the free kick was taken. However, the raised arm appeared to merely signal that Son wasn’t going to take said free kick because Harry Kane and Eric Dier took them instead.
Which, if you’ve seen any of Son’s recent free kicks for South Korea, you may be slightly bemused by.
That was him scoring against Costa Rica last week.
And here’s Son scoring another free kick against Paraguay in June.
Pretty good, right? Oh, and here he is beating Chile ‘keeper Fernando de Paul, also in June.
Power, precision, curl, whip, bend and finesse… Son is pretty good at taking very good free kicks — and scoring from them. Three goals for South Korea from free kicks in the past four months.
So why the bejesus has he only taken five direct free kicks in 239 appearances for Spurs? Yes, that’s worth repeating: five in 239.
This wouldn’t be so much of a talking point if someone else was taking and scoring free kicks for Spurs or, at the very least, taking free kicks and almost scoring for Spurs.
Instead, in basic terms, Kane and Dier (for the most part) take free kicks and don’t really look like scoring. Since the start of 2017-18, they’ve taken 59 between them and not found the net once.
The same goes for the rest of Tottenham’s squad, with Son the only current player to have scored a free kick in that time and, to be honest, it doesn’t really count as he was sending over a cross against Watford at the start of last season.
That equals a poor record compared to other Premier League teams. Of all the sides to have taken 50 direct free kick attempts (including blocked free kicks) since 2017, Spurs have one of the lowest conversion rates at just 3.2 per cent, below the average of 5.5 per cent.
Direct free kicks 2017-2022TEAMATTEMPTSGOALSCONVERSION
Spurs, along with Manchester United, have had more attempts than any other team in that time.
Of those 124 direct free-kick shots from Spurs, Kane and Dier have taken 47 per cent of them without success.
The others have been split between Christian Eriksen, previously Spurs’ foremost free-kick taker (two goals from 35 attempts in that time period); Erik Lamela (nine attempts); Gareth Bale (seven); Kieran Trippier (one goal from five attempts, which came against Fulham at Wembley in August 2018 shortly after his World Cup semi-final free kick for England); Son (one goal from five); Giovani Lo Celso (three attempts, no goals); and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (his solitary shot came in that aforementioned Watford game, a 40-yard daisy-cutter which deflected off a two-man wall and drew a sprawling save from ‘keeper Daniel Bachmann).
And if we look at that in terms of expected goals (xG), the picture isn’t much better for Spurs. The average xG on a direct free kick is about 0.07.
Graphic by John Muller.
Southampton — no surprise — top that graphic, too, scoring twice as many goals as expected from their free kicks.
Of the 17 free kicks Spurs have had in all competitions in 2022, most have been poor.
Marseille (h), Kane, into the wall
Fulham (h), Dier, into the wall
Newcastle (h), Dier, off-target to goalkeeper’s left
Brighton (a), Kane, off-target to goalkeeper’s right
Man United (a), Dier, into the wall
Middlesbrough (a), Kane, falls over, ball into the wall
Middlesbrough (a), Dier, forces goalkeeper into good save to his left
Wolves (h), Kane, straight at Jose Sa
Wolves (h), Son, into the wall
Leicester (a), Kane, into the wall
Chelsea (h), Kane, into the wall
Chelsea (h), Lo Celso, into the wall
Morecambe (h), Lo Celso, easy save for goalkeeper
Morecambe (h), Lo Celso, into the wall
Morecambe (h), Harry Winks, scores from a cross near the corner flag
Chelsea (a), Kane, good save from goalkeeper
Kane actually scored a free kick in pre-season, albeit a deflected one, suggesting new set-piece coach Gianni Vio may have made an instant positive impact.
The only direct free kick Kane’s ever scored in a proper game for Spurs was also deflected, though nobody quibbled at the time as it was a last-gasp winner at Aston Villa in 2014, which may have saved Mauricio Pochettino’s job. Spurs were 11th then and had won three of Pochettino’s first nine games.
“For me, that goal was an amazing goal because it meant for us, for everyone, the possibility to stay here today,” Pochettino said in 2017.
Eight years later and Kane has yet to follow that up with a second goal from a free kick.
Add in Spurs’ generally poor record at free kicks and there’s a conundrum to be solved. Although perhaps it’s a conundrum that isn’t too complicated.
If you’re of a Spurs persuasion, just hope that Son puts his hand up to actually take a free kick, rather than to signify someone else hitting it.
Campaigners have highlighted human-rights abuses there including the illegality of homosexuality, the deaths of thousands of migrant workers and five-year prison sentences for protest.
Now, human-rights groups have expressed concerns to The Athletic over the reporting of incidents of sexual violence at the tournament this November and December, owing to precedents set by Qatari law.
FIFA — world football’s governing body — and the Qatari government have responded by stating they are happy with existing measures, with the latter saying they “protect and promote the rights of women”.
Yet several recent cases have seen the victim of a sexual or physical assault accused of extra-marital sex instead of receiving physical and emotional support.
This crime carries a prison sentence or, if the defendant is Muslim, the prospect of flogging — being beaten repeatedly with a stick or whip.
Flogging is prohibited by international human-rights law and is considered to breach the UN Convention against torture.
Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells The Athletic: “At any major sporting event, the risk of sexual violence increases greatly.
“In Qatar, women who face sexual violence — whether by their partners, colleagues, friends, or strangers — can find themselves prosecuted for extra-marital sex.”
May Romanos, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Amnesty International, adds: “The testimonies we have already heard from domestic workers are harrowing. They ended up not wanting to report the case in court and wanting to return to their own country because they know they’ll probably lose their battle.
“You go to the police, and instead of being the victim, you become the accused.”
Survivors of sexual violence could also find themselves unable to access basic health services, such as emergency contraception or specialist antibiotics, without a marriage certificate.
Qatar’s supreme committee, which oversees the whole World Cup 2022 project, argues that “Qatar protects and promotes the rights of women, and this extends to all women visiting for the World Cup”, while FIFA insists “any fan who reports a sexual assault will have access to Qatar’s high-quality healthcare system irrespective of marital status”.
With travelling supporters from across the globe facing this possibility, and female fans disproportionately affected, The Athletic will explain:
Laws surrounding extra-marital sex, and how it is policed in Qatar
Repercussions for cases of sexual violence
Why major tournaments are a hotspot for these issues
The vulnerability of migrant workers
Whether Qatar is expected to relax its laws during the World Cup
How FIFA and Qatari organisers have responded
What are the laws in Qatar?
Qatar’s penal code contains a series of laws related to sexual intercourse, described by the Islamic legal term “zina”. Accusations of extra-marital sex are colloquially known as “love cases”.
Sex between unmarried couples is illegal in Qatar and covered by Article 281 of the penal code, which states: “Whoever copulates with a female over 16 without compulsion, duress or ruse shall be punished with imprisonment for a term up to seven years. The same penalty shall also be imposed on the female for her consent.”
Importantly, zina cases are interpreted through Islamic law, leading to different sentences if the defendant is Muslim. In the case of extra-marital sex, this could lead to a sentence of flogging — with 100 lashes a typical punishment.
These are among the most brutal sentences in the region. For example, in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, a six-month prison sentence can be conferred only upon a complaint by a spouse or guardian of an involved party.
Until 2012, Qatar publicly announced the number of individuals convicted for having extra-marital sex. Typically, around 100 cases occurred per year, with 40 of those leading to flogging sentences. Public reporting has since stopped.
Similar laws exist for alcohol consumption, also regulated under Islamic law, with drinking only allowed in a small number of licensed public places. Public drunkenness is also illegal. However, flogging sentences are rarely passed for this offence.
In recent years, human-rights groups have sought to establish how widespread the implementation of flogging sentences has been. It is understood that while not always carried out, lashes can be the result if the defendant is physically fit.
Often, the defendant will spend one to three years in prison before then being deported from Qatar.
Why are there concerns for those who report sexual violence?
Multiple issues have been raised, beginning with the claim that zina laws disproportionately target women.
According to Human Rights Watch, this occurs for two reasons. “One is that women can become pregnant as a result of sex or rape, which means there’s evidence of the so-called crime,” Begum tells The Athletic.
“Second, women are far more likely to be victims of sexual violence. When they come to report it, that can be seen as an admission of guilt. If the person they accused claims it was consensual sex, that’s all that needs to happen for authorities to prosecute the survivor for extra-marital sex.”
Several cases have unfolded in this way, with Qatar’s rape laws — generally bringing life imprisonment for the guilty, or even the death penalty in certain scenarios — ensuring the accused will often claim mitigation by stating the sex was consensual.
This is acknowledged by the UK government, which warns in guidance on the foreign, commonwealth and development office website about visiting Qatar that “the survivor of the rape and/or sexual assault also faces being charged with having sex outside marriage”. The government do not explicitly recommend reporting the incident, instead leaving it to personal “choice”.
The United Kingdom Football Policing Unit, which works with the Home Office to provide policing and guidance for matches involving UK teams, confirmed to The Athletic that it would recommend the same advice.
Photographs of unmarried men and women together in a public space, without a facial covering, have been used as evidence in zina cases. Possessing your attacker’s phone number, or willingly getting in their car, might also be seen as proof.
Additionally, survivors of sexual violence are expected to show evidence of physical abuse, such as cuts or bruises, as part of their allegation. Without this, cases are often not seen to fulfil the penal code declaration that pardons extra-marital sex if done under “compulsion, duress, or ruse”.
This is a major concern for travelling supporters before the World Cup.
Qatar will host the World Cup (Photo: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A 2018 study by the University of Glasgow found that 90 per cent of rape and sexual assault survivors knew their attacker — under current interpretations of Qatari law, that majority risk prosecution.
Aside from the legal risk, reporting sexual violence in the country brings other concerns.
“You might need immediate assistance,” explains Begum. “Emergency contraception, specialist prophylaxis (antibiotics) to reduce the risks of HIV/AIDS, testing for STIs (sexually transmitted diseases) — these are not available without a marriage certificate.”
The UK government also warns the survivor may have their passport withheld during any police investigation, or be subjected to travel bans.
In response to a direct question from The Athletic that asked whether travellers would have access to emergency contraception and antibiotics, the Qatari government claimed antibiotics and other “necessary treatment” would be available without a marriage certificate.
It did not comment on emergency contraception, which is not available in that country.
FIFA added to The Athletic that “health-care provisions apply to any fan, irrespective of marital status” but several sources, anonymised to protect their livelihoods, claim this is not always the case.
What cases have there been?
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have recorded dozens of zina cases over the past decade, with not all defendants publicising their stories amid Qatar’s restrictive reporting laws.
However, several examples can be described.
In June 2016, a 22-year-old Dutch woman, named only as Laura, was convicted of extra-marital sex, fined 3,000 Qatari riyals (£580 then) and given a one-year suspended sentence.
Laura claimed she was drugged in a nightclub in Qatar before being sexually assaulted. She was arrested by Qatari police immediately after reporting the incident.
The defendant, who claimed the sex had been consensual, was sentenced to 140 lashes but not convicted on rape charges.
The following year, The New Humanitarian documented the story of Jo, a 26-year-old Filipino woman, who was sent to prison after her pregnancy was reported by her employers. She was released when her baby son was seven months old, on the condition she married the child’s father.
Qatar has faced questions over human-rights issues (Photo: Christian Charisius/Getty Images)
Paola Schietekat, a Mexican national, was working in Qatar for the World Cup’s delivery and legacy committee, focusing on health and sustainability.
Last summer, she was the victim of a physical assault by a fellow member of the Latin American community in the country. She reported the assault and burglary to the authorities, but the defendant claimed he lived at Schietekat’s address to avoid those more serious charges.
Both parties were instead prosecuted for extra-marital sex. Schietekat, as a Muslim, faced the prospect of flogging.
Interrogated in Arabic, the police refused to believe she was not in a relationship with the man. After her case was referred to the public prosecutor, she was forced to relive the assault in front of an all-male courtroom.
It is understood the supreme committee was in contact with Schietekat throughout the process.
Though Schietekat was eventually found innocent, she was forced to leave her dream job in Qatar, having not wanted to remain there after the court process.
Why do major tournaments increase the likelihood of sexual violence?
Qatar’s issues with reporting sexual violence will become even more of a concern during the month-long World Cup, with cases expected to rise.
Although the host nation’s strict alcohol and drug laws could dampen down some aggravating factors.
“The issue with the World Cup, or any major sporting event, is that the risk of sexual violence increases,” Human Rights Watch’s Begum explains. “It’s not just for fans, but for low-paid migrants such as hotel workers.”
The Athletic submitted Freedom of Information requests to the police forces of all cities that hosted matches at the men’s European Championship last summer, requesting a comparison between sexual violence figures before, during and after the tournament.
In London, the North West BCU (the policing unit in which Wembley Stadium, which staged five tournament games that month, is located) had a record 188 reports in June, higher than any other month on record.
Narrowing the focus to Brent, the borough in which Wembley Stadium is situated, last June saw 73 reports of sexual offences, then July, when both semi-finals and the final were played at the venue, saw 72. Those months’ figures were the highest recorded in five years, and significantly higher than the numbers for the May and August on either side, with the June number just one below the record high.
More widely, across the entirety of London, last June recorded more sexual offences (2,247) than any other month on record, with July only narrowly behind (2,153). The June tally was eclipsed by those for last October.
In the Spanish city of Seville, which hosted four games between June 14 and 27, there were 39 cases of sexual violence that month, 70 per cent higher than any other June on record. In Romania’s capital Bucharest, also the venue for four matches, there were 34 cases that month — 62 per cent higher than any other June.
Information supplied by police in Danish capital Copenhagen, another city to stage four games during the finals, revealed no statistically significant increase.
When contacted by The Athletic, domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, which helps to address sexual violence, said in a statement: “Football does not cause abuse — there is no excuse for abuse and using football, alcohol, or other external factors as reasons or justifications for abuse, denies the true responsibility, which always lies with the perpetrator.
“However, increased alcohol consumption and the strong emotions associated with the game can cause existing abuse to increase in both severity and frequency.”
Why are migrant workers particularly exposed?
The World Cup should, of course, not be viewed in isolation. Migrant workers in Qatar have been experiencing these laws before the tournament, they will be dealing with them after it ends on December 18, and they are particularly vulnerable to their impact.
“The whole system is biased against the victims, especially when it’s a woman, let alone a migrant worker who is already discriminated against by laws such as the kafala system,” Amnesty researcher Romanos explains.
“Your sponsor could cancel your ID, and you become an illegal in the country as well as having this case to fight.”
Migrant workers will typically live in their employer’s home, raising the likelihood of being reported, while the unequal power dynamic can lead to further issues.
A United Nations report details this, writing: “The most vulnerable live in abject terror, reinforced by the threat of ‘absconding’ charges and the reasonable fear that their abusers will use morality laws, which criminalise premarital sex, to accuse them of zina.”
It adds that racial stereotyping could heighten issues, reporting that “sub-Saharan African women are presumed to be sexually available”.
There are also concerns over the language barrier during police investigations, with interrogations frequently occurring in Arabic, sometimes without a translator present.
Additionally, a person accused of having extra-marital sex will require legal aid or potentially the funds to leave Qatar.
“If you’re a migrant domestic worker, you do not have access to that,” Begum says. “You cannot always leave the employer’s home without permission. They are much more at risk of arrest and imprisonment, potentially flogging, and then deportation.”
Is Qatar likely to relax these laws during the World Cup?
Some observers have suggested the Qatari authorities may loosen the laws detailed here during the World Cup to avoid controversy amid the attention of the tournament.
However, no survivor or expert spoken to by The Athletic thought this would be the case.
Around the tournament, the main change is the creation of extra zones in which the purchase and consumption of alcohol will be allowed.
More widely, Qatar changed its kafala laws — a traditional system of labour-force governance — after international pressure in January 2020, making it easier for migrant workers to leave their employers without legal reprisal.
Asked about extra-marital sex, Begum said: “They haven’t done anything to change the laws. It was scary how in Paolo Schietekat’s case, a more privileged case, they went out of their way to prosecute her.
“By ultimately dismissing her case, the court were sending a message that, ‘Our judicial system works’.
“But the truth is that’s terrible. However you’re going (to the World Cup) — a fan, staff, working, whatever — you should not be in a situation where you’ve experienced violence and are being prosecuted by the state.
“Qatar should repeal all laws criminalising consensual sex, ensure measures to assist survivors to report sexual violence, and provide healthcare including emergency contraception and prophylaxis for HIV without requiring a marriage certificate.”
How have World Cup organisers responded?
The Athletic asked the Qatari government and the country’s supreme committee for delivery and legacy the following questions:
Will it be safe for female supporters to report sexual violence at the 2022 World Cup?
Will fans have access to support, translation and healthcare in the aftermath of an accusation of sexual violence?
What steps has the supreme committee taken to reduce the risk of sexual violence in Qatar?
Does the supreme committee recognise that visiting fans could be sentenced to flogging — a practice that breaks UN regulations on torture — for extra-marital sex or drinking?
What support did the supreme committee offer Paolo Schietekat during her case?
In response, a Qatari government official told The Athletic: “All visitors are protected by Qatari law. Assault is criminalised under the penal code and access to justice is a guaranteed right for all through Qatar’s legal system.
“The government operates women’s shelters and support services for victims of violence, including sexual violence. We have a process in place to ensure that protection, care and support is provided.
“Qatar protects and promotes the rights of women, and this extends to all women visiting Qatar for the FIFA World Cup 2022.”
It is understood the supreme committee will deliver an awareness session for all of Qatar’s hotels focused on harassment, abuse, and exploitation, while the organisers are also in dialogue with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) over support for assault victims.
However, with the NHRC being a government-run body, questions remain over whether Qatar will be marking their own homework.
What about FIFA?
The Athletic asked FIFA:
Will it be safe for female fans to report sexual violence at the World Cup? Does FIFA have any concerns?
Will FIFA pressure the supreme committee to ensure survivors of sexual violence have access to support, translation and healthcare?
Has FIFA put out any guidance around reporting and preventing sexual violence at this World Cup?
Has FIFA put out guidance on how to report and prevent sexual violence at previous World Cups?
What steps has FIFA taken to reduce the risk of sexual violence at previous tournaments?
Has FIFA received any assurances that zina laws will be relaxed during this World Cup?
How can FIFA guarantee a safe tournament in Qatar?
In response, FIFA claimed the legislation in place at the tournament fulfilled a “duty of care” to potential victims of sexual violence. Despite this, it also revealed it was still working to provide “psycho-social support to allow for the required care”.
FIFA also insisted that “any fan who reports a sexual assault will have access to Qatar’s high-quality healthcare system irrespective of marital status”.
A spokesperson told The Athletic: “FIFA has a zero-tolerance policy towards abuse, harassment and exploitation. FIFA’s commitment to protecting any individual from all forms of sexual violence is steadfast and we are implementing wide-ranging safeguarding measures across FIFA’s activities, including during FIFA competitions.
“In that respect, FIFA requires the hosts of all its competitions to ensure the safety and security of everyone participating at FIFA events, including a duty of care for potential victims of abuse. This will also be the case in Qatar, as the host country of the FIFA World Cup, and the legislation in place during the tournament allows for the implementation of this requirement.
“Furthermore, any fan will have access to Qatar’s high-quality healthcare system in case of any form of health hazard whilst in the country.
“In addition, FIFA operates its own human-rights grievance mechanism through which potential victims of abuse can report cases and is looking to collaborate with local institutions specialised in providing psycho-social support to allow for the required care.”
Up until that 70th-minute switch, Leicester had been the better team. They had taken the game to Spurs, which made for a surprisingly open and compelling contest.
They had had more shots (15 to 10), enjoyed more of the ball (59 per cent to 41 per cent), scored two goals and forced Hugo Lloris into some fine saves. It felt like an equaliser was inevitable, while at the other end Spurs’ joy had come from set pieces (Leicester’s kryptonite) or a horrible Ndidi mistake, fully taken advantage of by Rodrigo Bentancur who pounced on Ndidi’s dalliance in possession facing his own goal and advanced to clinically dispatch his first Spurs goal.
From the 70th minute, possession was split 50/50, Spurs had six shots to Leicester’s four and they ran out comfortable winners as Brendan Rodgers’ team wilted.
This is how the team lined up after the change, with Harry Kane (No 10) dropping deeper to help launch counter-attacks, of which Son was the main beneficiary.
Two goals came from counter-attacks and having an extra ball-winner in midfield helped increase the number of transitions, obviously factoring in that Leicester were also pushing further forward as they attempted to get back into the game.
Earlier in the game, Spurs had lacked control in midfield and Leicester exploited the space offered to them. Here, Wout Faes gallivants out of defence and only has to play a basic pass to dissect the midfield.
But he succeeds only in directing the ball back at Faes, who plays Patson Daka through on goal.
Daka should score but places his weak attempt too close to Lloris.
Spurs had been on the attack before this happened but even allowing for a quick transition, they should not be sliced open so briskly and easily by a centre-back darting 30 yards upfield.
The game state from 70 minutes has to be taken into account but there’s no doubt Spurs looked more resolute with that extra man in midfield, as you would expect them to. But having the extra cover of Bissouma also allowed Bentancur (on the right of the midfield three in the image below) to press a little higher.
Bentancur, having dropped in here to cover for Emerson Royal who is further upfield, immediately closes the Leicester player down in this example…
… leading to a hurried pass infield that Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg slides in to intercept. Leicester were now finding it much harder to play their way upfield.
For the fourth goal, Bentancur can push a little further forward and, with fewer passing options for the Leicester player, he wins back possession…
… and plays to Son who has two Leicester players to run at and goes on to score from 20 yards out.
For the sixth goal, it’s Bissouma who wins the ball back just outside his own penalty area.
Hojbjerg takes over and drives forward into the space vacated by Leicester who have committed players into the Spurs half.
And Hojbjerg slots in Son (clearly onside, lino), who completes his hat-trick.
“When I decided to bring Bissouma in and play with three midfielders and move Sonny nearer to Kane to exploit the spaces it was really good because it gave us more balance and we exploited the ability of Kane and Son,” Conte said.
It is a tactic Conte may be less reluctant to exercise from the start of a match given his penchant for 3-4-3 and the fact he would have to sacrifice one of Son, Richarlison or Kulusevski to accommodate an extra midfielder. Playing Kulusevski as an attacking right wing-back (given the assurance of having three centre-backs and three midfielders covering behind him) would be bold but the idea has its charms — it would free up Kane to be that link man in the No 10 slot, Son could dart in behind defences to latch on to through balls, and Bentancur might push a little further forward to press the opposition midfield and make use of his technical ability higher up the pitch.
Conte was asked before the Leicester game if he had considered playing with a midfield three, which he has only sporadically done in his 10 months in charge, notably for the pulsating 2-2 draw against Liverpool last season when his squad was ravaged by COVID-19. The absences forced him to play a midfield trio of Harry Winks, Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele, none of whom are now in his plans or squad. Kane and Son played up front and scored. Conte also went 3-5-2 for the closing stages of the recent 2-0 win away to Nottingham Forest.
“We tried to sign a player with the characteristics to play in a two,” he said last week. “Then it happened during the game when sometimes we were winning to play with the three midfielders. In the past, I’ve played with two strikers and three midfielders but when you have players like Sonny, Richarlison, Kulusevski and Kane, the best system we can play is (with two midfielders).
“We need only a bit of time to work with (Bissouma) for him to understand well. Now we have two reliable and important players in Hojbjerg, who made important progress and now he’s a really strong player. The same for Bentancur. Don’t forget Skippy (Oliver Skipp), who is really young (22).
“We’re talking about a prospect but he’s always been reliable. Skippy is an important player as a midfielder and gives me the opportunity to rotate.
“We need all the players in the squad because every game is massive. We need to have energy, energy, energy. If we think we have to play with the same players we’re not going to have good results.”
Energy was certainly lacking in the first half against Leicester and as much as the formation switch created new angles in attack, simply introducing fresh legs was crucial. Suddenly, Spurs’ midfielders were snapping at Leicester’s heels and Son was buzzing around in the final third.
But for certain opponents or to change the state of a difficult match, 3-5-2 looks to be a viable option.