It was one year ago on Thursday that Tottenham Hotspur lost 2-1 at home to Aston Villa in front of 10,000 returning fans. When the players did their lap of appreciation, 40 minutes after the final whistle, there were just a few hundred supporters left, and they were only there to continue their calls for Daniel Levy to leave the club. Their heckles echoed around the near-empty ground.
Harry Kane trudged around the pitch at the end, waving to the fans, hoping that this would be his last home game as a Spurs player before a move to Manchester City. Two days after, Kane’s interview with Gary Neville was released, talking up the prospect of a “good, honest conversation” with Levy about his future.
One year on, the picture at Tottenham could hardly look any more different. Just last Thursday the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium had its greatest night yet, a 3-0 win over Arsenal that felt like a justification of the whole £1.2 billion spend in one gleeful evening.
Three days later they hung on to beat Burnley, after which Kane spoke optimistically about next season at Spurs, something he would not have done this time last year. The following night the Spurs players and fans watched on as Arsenal were taken apart by Newcastle United at St James’ Park.
Tottenham now find themselves in a situation that would have felt mildly fantastical this time last year: one small step away from getting back into the Champions League. They are not there yet, but all they need is one point away to Norwich City on Sunday. If Everton get something away to Arsenal that afternoon then Spurs will not even need that.
It is more or less the match equivalent of a five-yard tap-in. There is no guarantee it will go in, and nobody should celebrate until it does. But eight or even nine times out of 10 you would expect it to be converted. And if it is, then all of a sudden next season will look very different: Tottenham would be back in the Champions League.
This has been the broad strategic goal of the club since they last dropped out of it. Ever since the 2019 final, when it was clear the roof was starting to fall in on the Mauricio Pochettino era. Spurs did not stay in the competition long after that.
Tottenham’s last involvement in the Champions League was their 4-0 aggregate defeat to RB Leipzig in the round of 16 in the spring of 2020. Their 3-0 defeat in Germany, played under the shadow of the emerging pandemic, felt like the end of something.
It was Spurs’ last game for three and a half months. And it was their last game in the Champions League. If they complete the job on Sunday, they will be back in the group stage, starting in early September, after two and a half years away.
It barely needs to be re-iterated how important it would be for Tottenham to be back there. The Champions League is the most prestigious members’ club in football. And the modern history of Spurs is of their attempts to force their way in without the financial firepower of the biggest clubs. That, in part, is why they built the stadium, to bridge the gap to their richer rivals. That is why they appointed Jose Mourinho and now Antonio Conte. Get a point on Sunday and so much of the strategy of the last few years would be justified. Levy would have Tottenham back where he has always wanted them.
So, what would it mean for Spurs to be back at the top table of European football?
The first question is the future of the head coach. He has one year left on his contract, and we are still waiting on a clear final answer from him that he will fulfill it. He was brought in with the hope he could get Spurs to fourth (although the thinking last autumn was that Manchester United, not Arsenal, would be their big rivals for that position).
If he completes the job, that is a personal triumph for him too, and he knows how much it would mean. After the Arsenal game on Thursday night he said as much: “This is our target, because we know very well that the Champions League changes your life, for the club, the fans, the manager, the players.”
Being back in the Champions League next season should in theory make staying at Spurs more attractive to Conte. So should the fact that they are on their way to being a very good team.
Only Liverpool and Manchester City have been better than Spurs since Conte took over. And in his meetings with those two, Conte’s Spurs beat City and got the better of two draws with Liverpool. They need a few additions but they have a great spine, two world class players in Kane and Son Heung-min and exceptional players approaching their peak. Throw in the best stadium and training ground in the country and this is a club that can be optimistic about the future again. Fans might well feel that they deserve to hear from Conte that he will see through the next step of the job.
Head coach aside, the next job of Levy and Fabio Paratici from next week will be to strengthen the squad. And there is no question that taking that final point on Sunday will make that easier. First for the obvious financial rewards of those six group stage games in the autumn, with the prospect of the knock-out rounds after the World Cup.
But also the prestige-win of being in the tournament every player wants to play. It is possible to get good players without Champions League football, just look at this season’s signings of Cristian Romero, Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur.
Spurs would like to be ambitious this summer and give Conte the players to take this team to the next level. Their top targets in the left centre-back position, Josko Gvardiol of RB Leipzig and Alessandro Bastoni of Inter Milan, will not come cheap. But if Spurs are in the Champions League again they can present a compelling package (along with the facilities, the stadium, Conte and London) to any talented player in Europe. The prospect of four or five upgrades on top of the team Conte has built should be exciting.
Bastoni, the Inter centre-back, is on Conte’s wanted list (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)
But the final and most important matter is one of timing. There has never been a better time to get back into the Champions League than right now. Whoever gets fourth this season will have benefited from Manchester United’s disastrous season, their worst league season for 30 years, even after their signings last summer. United’s failures opened up this gap, but they will not be this bad forever.
If Erik ten Hag can revive United next season then the competition will get even harder. Then there is the question of Newcastle United, who are clearly benefiting from their first round of Saudi investment, of which there will surely be more this summer. Monday night felt like an ominous warning to the top six of how good Newcastle might be next season.
The English football landscape is due to change again in two years time when the new Champions League format begins. Under that system, two extra places will go to teams from countries with the highest UEFA country coefficient from that season. This opens the door to a fifth English team in the Champions League, and given recent English success in Europe, a fifth place would have been awarded here in four of the last five seasons.
That is great news for Spurs (and Arsenal and Manchester United), all of whom now have a better chance of being in the Champions League in the medium term. It should mean that those clubs will all be more ambitious in the market this summer, because they know there is less of a risk from next season onwards of missing out. But the best scenario, rather than having to wait for the rule change, is to get in the Champions League under the present rules, strengthen the team, stay there and compete. Spurs have to finish the job.
Under Antonio Conte, Tottenham haven’t won ugly very often. Of their 15 Premier League wins under him prior to Sunday, only four of them had been by a single goal. And three of those were with stoppage-time winners, the latter two instant classics at Leicester and then Manchester City.
Scrappy, forgettable wins have been a real rarity — you had to go back to Conte’s first home league match for a single-goal victory in the division without a stoppage-time winner, 2-1 against Leeds in November. And before the weekend it was three months since a single-goal win of any kind, the 3-2 at the Etihad.
But a narrow, entirely unmemorable victory on Sunday was precisely what was needed in the nerve-shredding race for the final Champions League spot. This 1-0 success over Burnley thanks to a penalty in first-half stoppage time was one to file in the “take the three points and move on straight away” category. A victory reminiscent of similarly nervy 1-0 successes over Bolton Wanderers in the top-four races of 2006 and 2010. Or the 1-0 over Sunday’s opponents in December 2018, three days after the emotion of drawing at Barcelona to stay alive in the Champions League.
All that mattered on a grey afternoon was that Spurs somehow got the win — a victory that took them ahead of Arsenal into fourth and piled the pressure on their north London rivals. It feels somehow fitting as well that there are two points between the two teams, which among many other factors can be explained by the fact that Tottenham found a way to edge past Burnley at home, whereas Arsenal were held to a 0-0 draw when they faced the same opponents at the Emirates.
The circumstances dictated that this was unlikely to be a comfortable afternoon. Spurs had been given a brutal turnaround from the high of Thursday night’s north London derby win with the midday kick-off on Sunday afternoon. Their preparations were also disrupted by Dejan Kulusevski, Hugo Lloris, Pierluigi Gollini and Harry Winks picking up a stomach bug that left them vomiting and suffering from a fever. Kulusevski was only fit enough for the bench, and the mind naturally went back to Spurs’ 2006 bid for the top four being derailed on the final day by a sickness bug in the squad.
Lloris was able to take his place in goal, and produced an excellent late claim of a lofted free-kick to help calm everyone’s nerves and preserve Spurs’ lead. “Hugo is our captain and I think that he never wanted to miss this game,” Conte said.
As well as those who had been unwell, a number of the players looked understandably leggy, and so it was a day as much about digging deep and finding something extra as it was producing sparkling attacking play. A chance to show how much tougher Spurs have become mentally.
As head coach Antonio Conte told BT Sport afterwards: “I don’t know if three months ago, to face this type of game, at the end if you can celebrate a win. I don’t know. I think this team has improved in many aspects, not only technically, tactically but also the mentality. This team is becoming stronger in its mind.”
“He is right,” Eric Dier said of Conte’s claim that this was a game Spurs might easily have faltered in previously. “I think coming off the Arsenal game… in the past, if you look at the last Burnley game away, we beat Man City away a couple days before then we lose away to Burnley.”
Conte also said accurately that “Burnley was the perfect team to test our nerves.” Mike Jackson’s team may have been missing both of their first-choice centre-backs but they were extremely well-organised and highly motivated as they desperately try and preserve their Premier League status.
They are also precisely the type of team Spurs struggle against, with Conte’s team having endured plenty of difficult games against low-block defences. Including the reverse fixture in February, which Burnley won 1-0 four days after Spurs had beaten City at the Etihad. Another let-down after the similarly emotional high of beating Arsenal on Thursday was a distinct possibility.
As the below graphic shows, the Burnley players’ average positions effectively meant that Jackson’s side were in a 6-4-0 formation, with half a dozen outfielders more often in their own half than Tottenham’s.
In spite of this, Spurs still created enough chances to win the game comfortably. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min (twice) spurned opportunities that on another day you would have expected them to score. The inspired Nick Pope made seven saves in total, and although this was a struggle of an afternoon at times, it was nothing like those games against Brighton and Brentford last month when Tottenham failed to even register a shot on target.
It was also an afternoon when Spurs’ starting team was without arguably five first-choice picks. In general, those who came in did a good job, with Davinson Sanchez again deputising well for Cristian Romero, including getting forward to help win the penalty. Joe Rodon, who has barely played this season, also did brilliantly to win a late header after coming on in the 89th minute. Conte’s warm embrace of the Welshman after the final whistle told you just how important an intervention it had been.
And when Spurs needed to manage the game, they were streetwise enough to do so — as was the case against Arsenal on Thursday. Lloris was booked for timewasting, and quite a few Spurs players went down with knocks and maximised the time they spent on the floor. This must have been especially satisfying after Pope had taken so long over his first-half goal kicks.
Spurs have produced many brilliant attacking displays since Conte took over, but this was a day when they had to win ugly and be obdurate when required. As the head coach put it afterwards: “In this moment it is not easy to play against us.”
When Antonio Conte talked last week about possibly being Tottenham’s Jurgen Klopp it all sounded vaguely fantastical.
Conte said he would happily “sign” for something like the seven-year reign Klopp has enjoyed at Liverpool; he sketched out how the long rebuild might work, talking up the “patience” Liverpool showed at the start, and then the “big money” they spent to turn the team from contenders into winners.
A nice idea, but could it ever happen? The longest Conte has spent in one job is three seasons at Juventus. Conte is a brilliant coach, as he showed again on Saturday, but he prefers to burn out than fade away. The prospect of Conte still being in charge in N17 in six years’ time feels not much more likely than Spurs changing their home kit to red.
The day after Conte speculated about his Spurs future, Arsenal announced that Mikel Arteta had signed a new contract at the club — one that had been offered to him even after Arsenal lost three straight games in April (to Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton). It was a gesture that almost moved Arteta to tears. He talked about his long-term plan to take Arsenal “to the next level” on and off the pitch, and everything he would do to get Arsenal there.
Arteta has already had two and a half seasons at Arsenal. If he sees out this new contract then he will have done five and a half. Guessing the future is impossible, but this news does at least give Arsenal the sheen of stability going into Thursday’s derby. Tottenham still look like they are in a permanent state of flux.
When was the last north London derby this big? March 2016, when Spurs missed the chance to go top despite Harry Kane blowing the roof off the old White Hart Lane? March 2013, when Andre Villas-Boas boasted he had put Arsenal into a “negative spiral”, only for the reverse to be true? Or April 2017, the last ever at the old White Hart Lane, with all the emotional power that conveyed?
This game has elements of all of those. It is the first derby to be played in front of a capacity crowd at the full stadium, and so the first to be played to full fans in N17 for five years. It might be the biggest game at the new ground, with tickets and passes even harder to come by than the Manchester City and Ajax Champions League ties in 2019. It is Spurs’ biggest game since the Champions League final that same year, and Arsenal’s since the FA Cup final the following summer.
On one level it is a play-off of sorts for Champions League football next season. If Arsenal win they are back in the group stage for the first time for six years. If Spurs win they are back in contention, with huge pressure on Arsenal’s last two games.
But on top of that, this game feels like a judgement on how Arsenal and Tottenham have operated over the last few years. Take a step back and each team has more or less the same strategic issue: how can a side on the fringe of the elite, with a big stadium but no benefactor injections, force their way back to the very top? What do you have to do to even get close to Manchester City and Liverpool? How do you get to be a big club again?
One option is simply to behave like a big club. Even though Conte told Spurs to behave like a “top club” on Tuesday (regarding fixture scheduling), this is what Tottenham Hotspur have been doing over the last three years. Ever since their new £1.2 billion stadium opened in April 2019 it has felt as if every major decision at Tottenham was taken with this in mind. What would a big club do? How would they radiate their big-clubness to the rest of the world? For years Tottenham were all about a gradual rebuild, young players, and planning for the future. But over the last three seasons the direction of the club appears to have pivoted away from patience.
Arsenal opted for a patient rebuild under Arteta, while Spurs tried to ‘win now’ with Mourinho (Photo: Getty)
There was an intoxicating logic behind this. Within two weeks of opening the best new stadium in English football, Spurs had knocked Manchester City out of the Champions League. Three weeks after that they had knocked out Ajax too. Building up to the Champions League final in Madrid, Tottenham felt like the centre of the football universe. They lost the final and were determined to go again, breaking their transfer record to sign Tanguy Ndombele, and inviting Amazon cameras in to broadcast their inner workings to the world.
Soon enough it became clear that the Mauricio Pochettino era was crumbling and so Daniel Levy wasted no time getting rid of him and bringing in Jose Mourinho, believing he had finally appointed one of the two best managers in the world. Coming in 2019, long after Mourinho’s peak, it looked as if Spurs were more interested in behaving like a big club rather than making sound footballing decisions.
At the end of that season, Tottenham arranged high-profile but ultimately low-impact loans for Gareth Bale and Alex Morgan. During the following year they signed up for the European Super League and then sacked Mourinho days before the League Cup final in an attempt to secure a place in the next season’s Champions League.
Tottenham briefly considered a rebuild in 2021, under Erik ten Hag or Graham Potter, but instead decided to stick with the ‘big club’ route. They brought in Fabio Paratici from Juventus, tried for Conte, got turned down, and then effectively employed a glorified caretaker in Nuno Espirto Santo. They dug in and kept Harry Kane, denying him a move to Manchester City. And within months they had convinced Conte to replace Nuno and take over.
Every major decision since the stadium opened, then, has been with an eye on the here and now. About maximising their short-term chances and profile. About projecting Tottenham’s image to the world as a club that is modern, relevant, and ready to win.
Now, maybe this makes sense. Levy has been blamed so much over the years for doing the opposite — for being too cautious at moments of maximum opportunity, like the January 2012 window, or during the peak years of the Pochettino team. It would be unfair to criticise Levy for both patience and impatience. After all, what is the point of having a £1.2 billion stadium if you do not try to win in it? The stadium may be a permanent asset, but Kane and Son Heung-min are not. They are two world-class players currently at the peak of their powers. What good is a five-year plan to an athletic forward in his late 20s who just wants to win something?
(Similarly an argument is also made in defence of the decision to appoint Mourinho that the Spurs dressing room, having played in a Champions League final, would not have accepted an Eddie Howe-level appointment. This may well be true, but it does take as its premise that those were the only two options that autumn, with no one in between.)
But has any of this worked? Spurs finished sixth in 2019-20 and seventh last season. They have reached one cup final and lost it to Manchester City. They have not played in the Champions League since they were knocked out by RB Leipzig at the start of the pandemic. Only in the last few months under Conte have Spurs started to look like a good team again, the best they have been since the peak Pochettino years. By most measures they have been the third-best team in the country since Conte arrived. But the big question going into Thursday, and the final straight of the season, is whether it will be enough.
There is another way to try to be a big club. You do not have to buy it all in. You can try to grow it yourself patiently. Wind back to the last time that Tottenham could count themselves one of the best teams in the country, not very long ago. They appointed a young manager in Pochettino in 2014 and trusted him to rebuild the team in his own image. They got rid of the senior players who did not buy into his methods. They brought through a new generation of youngsters and signings who did.
Soon enough, Spurs developed their own distinctive style of play, with a team of young, hungry players enthusiastically implementing their manager’s instructions all over the pitch. Now, which current Premier League team does this sound like?
It feels as if Tottenham have forgotten the principles that made them so consistently good under Pochettino. As if they had out-grown them, or as if they believed that Pochettino and his staff were just participants in Spurs’ golden age of 2014-2019, rather than the cause of it. And if Tottenham have discarded those principles as belonging to their last decade, well, then why shouldn’t Arsenal pick them up and try them on instead?
In fact, Arsenal appointing Mikel Arteta in December 2019 was a far bigger risk than when Spurs appointed Pochettino, who had two very good management jobs behind him at that point. But the overall direction of travel has been the same. Arteta has been allowed to get rid of senior players like Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He has largely replaced them with young, hungry players who do buy into his ideas. Player power has largely been extinguished. There is no questioning Arteta’s authority at the club.
Who knows where it will end up, whether Arsenal will stumble and miss out on fourth. But either way, they are clearly heading in the right direction. After two eighth-placed finishes they could even end up third this year, most likely with a points total in the low 70s, their best since 2017-18. That alone is a vindication for the decisions taken over the last few years, of the wisdom to take two steps forward by taking one step back.
The challenge for Tottenham came was when the hunger that fuelled the first half of Pochettino’s reign started to fade in his last few years. Players started to get bored, and had their heads turned by the chance to earn more or win more elsewhere. Pochettino wanted to sell the jaded players and replace them with new hungry ones, but it never happened. It will be fascinating to see whether Arteta’s Arsenal face the same issue, but that is far in the future. That team has not peaked yet.
Because while Arsenal now resemble their own version of Pochettino’s Spurs, the team Tottenham’s recent strategy seems to mimic is Chelsea. They have moved out of their long rebuild phase. They have a core of powerful senior players. They appoint a new experienced head coach on a regular basis and hope that it works. There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy — it won Chelsea plenty of trophies during the Roman Abramovich era. But it does rely on having such a good squad that can adapt fast to whoever comes in.
This is why Conte being at Tottenham is so compelling. If any manager in the world is good enough to make sense of this mini-era at Spurs, it is him. Three wins in the next 10 days and a favour from Newcastle United and he will have guided Spurs back into the Champions League, a huge achievement given where they were in November. It would be a vindication not only of his own work but of Levy appointing him, and his whole strategy of keeping the club focused on their immediate ambitions.
But lose tonight, and lose that spot to Arsenal, and it will feel as if Spurs’ impatience and big-club radiance has — at least for now — been supplanted by Arsenal’s longer view.
What chance do Tottenham have of pulling off a massive upset at Anfield on Saturday?
A small one, clearly, given the phenomenal strength of their opponents. Liverpool are still on course for an unprecedented quadruple and last lost a home league game in front of fans more than five years ago. Tottenham, meanwhile, have won just one of their last 20 matches against Saturday’s opponents, and at Anfield in the league it’s one win in 27, the most recent coming 11 years ago.
And yet… Spurs have made a habit of bloodying the nose of the Premier League’s top two this season. They have beaten Manchester City twice and drew with Liverpool at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium when the teams met in December. That’s seven points against City and Liverpool this season, three more than any other team has managed, and Spurs still have a game in hand in that regard on most. Even with that extra fixture, Tottenham have accounted for more than a quarter (26 per cent) of the points City and Liverpool have dropped to teams other than each other this season.
Kane scored the opener as Spurs drew 2-2 with Liverpool in December (Photo: Getty)
It is also worth remembering that Spurs went into the City win in February as possibly even more of an outsider, given they were on a run of three straight Premier League defeats, while Pep Guardiola’s side had won 14 and drawn one of their previous 15 matches. And even though Spurs’ record at Anfield is awful, the last four meetings have been very close. The first was a 2-2 draw, and since then it’s been three straight 2-1 Liverpool victories — two of which included Tottenham wasting huge openings with the score at 1-1.
So how can Spurs pull off a result that could all but end the title race and give Antonio Conte’s team a monumental boost in the push for the top four?
Retain defensive organisation and take risks playing out
Much was made of Tottenham’s drought in terms of shots on target in the games against Brighton and Brentford, but those matches also showcased a theme that has been far more of a constant of late: that Spurs don’t concede many goals.
They’ve let in just four in their last seven matches (it would have been three were it not for Kelechi Iheanacho’s late consolation on Sunday) and over the last couple of months have become much stronger defensively. Given how much of a weakness this had been over the previous couple of years, it shouldn’t be overlooked how big an achievement shoring up the defence has been. It also helps explain why Conte is so wedded to the current system.
Davies and Romero have helped improve Spurs’ defensive record (Photo: Getty)
Up against Liverpool’s devastating front three, Spurs will surely look to their win against Manchester City for inspiration. On that occasion, Cristian Romero’s controlled aggression helped to subdue Raheem Sterling and sent a message to Spurs’ opponents that they weren’t going to be intimidated. Romero will relish the challenge of facing up to Sadio Mane and Liverpool’s other forwards, and he, Eric Dier and Ben Davies are so in sync with one another that they should be able to keep their shape and not be messed around too much by the world-class movement of Jurgen Klopp’s forwards.
Against City, Spurs’ defenders also took risks in possession, and they will need to do more of that on Saturday or risk being completely penned in. At the Etihad, Spurs’ first goal came when Romero clipped a pass out to Davies, and the build-up to Harry Kane’s winner saw the Argentine drive forward into midfield.
Having that same kind of mindset has been a key message from Conte to his players this week. “We need to be very good without the ball to be good defensively, but if we want to win we have to be very good with the ball,” he said on Thursday. “I said this to my players, we need to play a good game and be brave when we have the ball, don’t be scared for all the pressure and to find the solution.
“You have to be ready, to be brave, to try to understand the way they’re going to press and try to overcome this.”
The alternative, and there is merit in this against Liverpool, is doing what teams like Burnley have done to them with some success and trying to bypass the press by going long. Klopp accused Spurs of playing this way in December (more on that later) and it is an option, but carries the risk that without a massive aerial attacking threat they could find that it just presents Virgil van Dijk and, most likely, Joel Matip, with easy headers.
Both Kane and Son have had joy against Liverpool in their last few meetings.
In the fixture at Anfield last season, Son was given more than 40 yards to run into for his goal.
Advancing easily into the space and finishing clinically past Alisson.
Son did something very similar in the 3-1 home defeat to Liverpool last January after being sent through by Kane, but his “goal” was ruled out for an offside earlier in the move (staying onside against Liverpool’s high line is a challenge).
In December, it was a similar story.
For his goal in the 2-2 draw, Harry Winks’ pass bisects two defenders as Son takes advantage of Liverpool’s unusually ropey offside line.
After Alisson fails to collect, Son rolls the ball into the empty net.
In the first half of that game, Liverpool were so disorganised defensively that Son can be seen here racing through on goal about 40 yards out. In the end he found Dele Alli for an excellent chance that should have made it 2-0.
Earlier in the half, Kane sensed that he too could have joy playing off the shoulder of the last defender, something we see less and less from him nowadays.
Just before his goal, Kane darts in behind but Dele’s pass is cut out.
Seconds later, he tries his luck again, this time scoring from Tanguy Ndombele’s well-weighted pass.
Klopp was so rattled by how effectively Spurs exploited his defence that he gave some pretty sour quotes after the game. “The challenge today was that we played against Tottenham who set up a 5-3-2 and when they won the ball deep in their own half they just kicked it as far as possible and Kane and Son were on their bikes for it,” he said.
Conte wouldn’t answer on Thursday when asked whether his side would opt for a direct approach at Anfield this week.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that Virgil van Dijk is absent from the two games above (three including the game in which Son had a goal disallowed), and his presence on Saturday will make a massive difference. But even with Van Dijk in the team, Liverpool can be susceptible to pace in behind and third-man runs — as the following examples illustrate.
The high line normally works extremely well for Liverpool, but it only needs to falter once for Kane and Son to take advantage. In Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool have a right-back who is breathtaking going forward but is one who Son will back himself against — and will take on at every opportunity. Spurs must also capitalise on the big spaces Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson leave in behind when they both bomb forward to join up with attacks. This was something Villarreal did effectively on Tuesday evening.
Robertson may even finally get a rest and be replaced by Konstantinos Tsimikas, though the expectation is that the former will start.
A large part of Fabinho’s role on Saturday will be stopping Kane and preventing Spurs from countering, but he is also very important to the way Liverpool attack.
As Michael Cox explained earlier this week, a big reason for Villarreal’s struggles in the second half of their Champions League semi-final on Tuesday was their failure to get a hold of Fabinho’s forward runs and clever passes.
This was most evident in his goal, but he also played an important part in Luis Diaz’s equaliser.
Here, Fabinho receives with three opposition players close by.
He then turns away from Dani Parejo.
And finds Naby Keita in lots of space. Keita then picks out Alexander-Arnold, whose cross is turned in by Diaz.
Tottenham, who will most likely be outnumbered in midfield, will need to get a handle on Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Jordan Henderson or Keita if they are to stand any chance in stopping the supply line to Liverpool’s lethal attackers.
Going the other way, Fabinho and Thiago can look a touch slow when forced to run towards their own goal, and that’s something Spurs will need to exploit.
Learn from Villarreal (in the first half) and be aggressive
For 45 minutes on Tuesday, Villarreal did what was thought to be impossible: they made Liverpool look ordinary. Fallible, frazzled even.
Klopp said afterwards he was shocked by the fact that Unai Emery had set his team up to almost mark man for man. Liverpool consequently panicked and kept sending the ball long, completing only 66 per cent of their passes (by far their lowest in a half this season). Only one Liverpool player had a success rate above 75 per cent.
Spurs won’t go man for man, but they will have to be similarly aggressive in the way they mark and press to ensure they are not rolled over.
Liverpool were clearly rattled by Villarreal’s approach, especially after a run of games against opponents who prefer to sit back. Spurs will defend deep but they will also pack a punch on the counter, and it will present Klopp with a different kind of challenge.
Use the occasion to their advantage
The atmosphere on Saturday night will be electric, but there are a couple of elements surrounding the game that could help Tottenham.
One is that Liverpool absolutely have to win — a draw is no good to them. If Spurs can hold their opponents even until around the hour mark, Liverpool will have to start pushing for a winner in a more aggressive way than they would ideally like. This will leave even more space in behind, which will suit Tottenham who like it when teams attack them and they can counter.
It’s also likely that, with so much at stake, Anfield will get a bit anxious and edgy if it looks like a win is in danger. It’ll of course be extremely difficult to create this kind of scenario, but relegation-threatened Everton did a good job of frustrating Liverpool for 62 minutes in last month’s Merseyside derby, demonstrating that it can be done.
Emotions will be running high, and Spurs know from the 2-2 draw in December, when Robertson lost his head and was sent off, that they can wind up the Liverpool players. To get a result on Saturday they’ll have to employ every marginal gain available, and that has to include being smart in the way they manage the game and recognise and exploit how much is at stake for Liverpool.
It’ll be extremely difficult, but the feeling among Liverpool supporters is that this is the game they are most fearing from the run-in; that Spurs, of all the teams in the league, are quite well set up to exploit their very small weaknesses.
Tottenham need to show that these fears are well-founded.
For the fourth game in a row on Saturday, Tottenham Hotspur put in a pretty dreadful first-half performance.
In all four of those games, most felt Conte needed to tweak the system or make some sort of change at half-time. On all four occasions, he didn’t panic and kept things as they were. On two of the occasions, Spurs were brilliant in the second half, scoring four against Newcastle after half-time and then three at Aston Villa. On the other two, Tottenham were precisely as poor as they had been in the first half — in last week’s 1-0 defeat at home to Brighton, and then again on Saturday in a similarly disappointing 0-0 draw at injury-hit Brentford. In both of those latter two games, Spurs failed to register a shot on target.
The Newcastle and Villa matches are worth bearing in mind because Conte’s three-at-the-back system, and his faith in it, had led to Spurs’ brilliant recent form. The form that, before the Brighton and Brentford games, had seen them win six of seven Premier League matches, scoring 25 times in the process. It would be very unfair, then, to suggest that it’s a system that is unworkable with this Spurs team, or that change is always the answer.
But there’s no getting away from how poor Tottenham have been in the last couple of games, how much it’s looked at various points as if they’ve needed something, anything, to change the pattern of the match. Tottenham fans’ frustrations are understandable, especially as they have gone from being three points ahead of Arsenal to being two behind in the space of a week.
As well as the tactical inflexibility, Conte, who was the subject of reports in France linking him with a move to Paris Saint-Germain over the weekend, was once again reluctant to use his substitutes at the Brentford Community Stadium. He didn’t make a change until the 74th minute when, strangely, he brought on Davinson Sanchez for Ryan Sessegnon, moving Ben Davies to left wing-back. It was ostensibly a defensive substitution, and contrasted markedly with Brentford bringing on an attacking midfielder and a striker four minutes later. It wasn’t until the 86th minute that Conte brought on an attacker, replacing Emerson Royal with Lucas Moura and shifting Dejan Kulusevski to right wing-back. Steven Bergwijn was an unused substitute, having come in the 87th minute against Brighton.
Conte’s habit of making late subs and very rarely rotating his team illustrates how little faith he has in his fringe players. It is known that he wants the squad to be strengthened significantly in the summer so he has more options off the bench and more scope for rotation.
With no changes in personnel until the end of the season, it’s unlikely we’ll see Conte deviating too much from his policy on substitutions or rotation between now and then.
The same is true of the Spurs formation, as much as that may frustrate some supporters. Conte is wedded to the system, and given what he has achieved in his career with it, it’s easy to understand why. He has played a back three in all but one of his league games at Tottenham (changing only out of necessity because of a slew of unavailabilities against Chelsea), and in all but three has played a 3-4-3 (the other two were a 3-5-2). He does not play this system to be clever or different or for any reason besides a staunch belief that is the best way to win football matches. Many times at Spurs it has served him and the team extremely well.
But at what point do you have to acknowledge that a degree of flexibility is required? The system relies on good wing-backs, and at the moment Conte is choosing between two rusty looking and low-on-confidence options on the left, and having to play by default a defensive full-back who is patently unsuited to the role on the right. Sessegnon and Royal both struggled badly on Saturday, while Sergio Reguilon’s recent performances didn’t even merit an appearance off the bench when Sessegnon was subbed off.
Without Oliver Skipp, Spurs also lack thrust from the middle of the park, and Conte might need to add another body in there to compensate for Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emie Hojbjerg’s collective lack of creativity. Doing so could also allow Kulusevski to play as a right wing-back rather than Royal.
Kulusevski could change position (Photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)
A tweak of system would also help to give opposition teams more to think about. It was striking hearing the outstanding Christian Eriksen talk after the game about how Brentford’s manager, Thomas Frank, tapped into his inside knowledge of Conte and Spurs, but that realistically most teams know what they’re going to be up against when they play Tottenham.
“This week I’ve been more involved in a set-up towards a game than I’ve ever been before,” he told Sky Sports.
“Of course, Thomas came to me a few times and asked me.
“But he knew, of course he knew. Everyone who plays against Tottenham and against Conte’s system, they know most of the time how they’re going to play.”
Frank himself added: “In some ways, it’s easier to prepare for (against a team when you know their system and approach) but it’s not that easy to stop.
“But no doubt that when you know some clear patterns, and personally I’m like that myself because it also gives structure to the players, but also if you prepare for some clear situations you try of course to stop it. When it works like it did today for us then it’s fantastic.”
Brighton were similarly comfortable cancelling Spurs out last weekend, and their struggles against well-organised defences is hardly a new issue.
So have Spurs been found out? It’s only two games so that may be excessive, especially given the excellent form Spurs were in before the Brighton game. There’s every chance they’ll stick to the same system and make the sceptics look foolish. But it’s worth remembering the problems Conte had in his second season at Chelsea when opponents got wise to his system and became a lot better at nullifying it (often by playing three at the back themselves). The need to refresh and evolve is a task all Premier League teams face.
With five games of the season left and so much at stake, now is not the time for building for the future or sticking to the process for the sake of it. It’s about being pragmatic and, if required, trying some things that are not sustainable in the long term but could yield decent results in the short term. That could surely include a tweak of system or personnel.
But here again, we return to Conte’s fundamentalism in playing with a back three. He believes in it wholeheartedly and trusts it is the best way to deliver the results Spurs need to secure a top-four finish.
“If you see in the last two games, I consider our work, our system good defensively but in the last two games we were a bit poor offensively,” Conte told The Athletic when asked if he would consider tweaking the system. “I think it’s not the problem of the system. It depends on the way that you attack.”
Conte has a point that Spurs look generally solid defensively in the current shape — no mean feat given the issues they’ve had at the back over the last few years. They have conceded just three in their last six games.
He absolutely believes in the formation, and complaining about it is probably as futile as bemoaning his occasional public outbursts. It’s all part of the Conte package that almost always delivers success.
The question for Conte after the last couple of games is whether rolling the dice and making a change is actually less of a risk than sticking to what he knows.
What changes, if any, do you think Antonio Conte should make for the game against Leicester City next Sunday? Tell us in the comments below, and Charlie Eccleshare and the rest of the View from the Lane panel will discuss the best (and worst) suggestions on Thursday’s podcast.
At midday today, Tottenham Hotspur academy staff and players will gather at the training ground to remember Ugo Ehiogu. Former players and colleagues will also be in attendance, huddled around a bench under a large tree, sharing stories and memories about the beloved former coach who passed away exactly five years ago today. Crash Landing, the song written by one of Ehiogu’s former players Will Miller in his honour, will be played. This gathering has been a tradition on April 21 every year since Ehiogu’s death in 2017, taking place close to the pitch where he went to lace his boots and collapsed.
“I wouldn’t be as solemn to describe it as a memorial service but it’s a pause to remember ‘Uges’ and the impact he had on players and staff and everyone at the training centre,” says Dean Rastrick, Tottenham’s academy manager who worked closely with Ehiogu before his passing.
Ehiogu went full-time at the academy in 2014, having spent a couple of years working with the club on an informal, initially unpaid basis. As a player, he had been a formidable centre-back for Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Rangers, and earned four England caps. But despite his hugely impressive CV and imposing physique (he was 6ft 2in and in excellent shape), everyone at Spurs was instantly struck by his humility and willingness to learn.
In his three years as coach of Spurs’ under-23s, Ehiogu became such a popular figure at the club that his death was a devastating blow. The fact he suffered a cardiac arrest while about to start a coaching session at the training ground added to the trauma. “It was incredibly difficult to deal with,” says Rastrick.
Everyone who knew Ehiogu struggled to believe that their super-fit and athletic friend could really be gone at the age of just 44. And he had touched so many people throughout his life and career that the grief coursed through the football community, far beyond north London.
“It really hit me as hard as anything has in my life,” Gareth Southgate, the England manager who was a close friend of Ehiogu’s and formed an excellent centre-back partnership for Villa and Middlesbrough, tells The Athletic.
“He was a real gentle, caring guy and I saw that interaction with his kids and with people generally around the training ground. Always really, really good manners. Comes from a really lovely family, strong values with his family, and that shone through in his day-to-day behaviour.
“I’ve been very fortunate that my own family have been in reasonable health and I’ve lost very few relatives at an early age. So when you’ve been with someone who is so strong and looks after themselves so well… he was bloody fussy about his food!
“With more awareness and consciousness of heart problems, you realise it’s not just about fitness. But it was just unimaginable in my head then that could happen to someone with that strength. I found that really difficult to get over.”
(Photo: Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Southgate, who read a eulogy at Ehiogu’s funeral, was far from the only one who struggled to come to terms with Ehiogu’s death — many still do.
Look around the football landscape and beyond and his legacy can be felt far and wide. Former Tottenham protegees of his — Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters and Luke Amos at Queens Park Rangers, for instance — still have a photo of Ehiogu as the main image on their Twitter profiles. Anthony Georgiou, who has just returned from AEL Limassol in Greece, is expected back at the Spurs training ground today to celebrate his former coach. While there, he will see the large 12ft x 4ft picture of Ehiogu in the corridor going up the staircase to the second floor of the academy building. These players, along with so many others including current Spurs first-teamers like Oliver Skipp, Harry Winks and Japhet Tanganga, still talk about Ehiogu as a mentor, a friend, a big brother, and very much a father figure.
Ehiogu lives on in them and so many others, and in Miller, he even inspired the song that will be played today — a beautiful track that the ex-Spurs midfielder forward wrote in honour of his former mentor.
The ability to connect with young players and develop this kind of rapport was Ehiogu’s great skill. It was what made him so loved and what made those he worked with sure he would achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a manager.
This, then, is an attempt to explain how Ehiogu touched so many at Tottenham and how his legacy lives on at the club…
Ehiogu’s expertise was as a football player and then a coach, but he had many outside interests. Music was a big passion of his, and he was a co-founder of the Dirty Hit record label, whose acts include The 1975. Fashion was another, and he was also a campaigner for social justice and racial equality.
Having been brought up in the diverse London Borough of Hackney, Ehiogu had an empathy for those from less privileged backgrounds.
“He had good emotional intelligence,” Southgate says. “A recognition that the area where Spurs draw their young players from can be a tough area to grow up. He had come through that a bit, albeit his family support network was very good, and (for) a lot of the boys who come into football that’s not the case.
“Even though his circumstances were a bit different, he’d have been well aware of that, so I guess like most players you know through your own experiences and through watching others while you’re playing how difficult the journey is and where you would have liked help and guidance. We can’t overlook the fact that as a young black coach you’re going to be able to connect with some of the young players in a different way, and that is a factor you can’t ignore.”
(Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
This is something that Rastrick has reflected on as well, telling The Athleticduring a panel discussion for Black History Month in October 2020 that: “Staff have to be reflective of the demographics of the area to build that trust and those relationships. Working with people like Ugo and Justin Cochrane, they start to get you thinking about understanding different cultures. Young players like Joshua Onomah or Luke Amos, these guys were 13, 14 when I first started. How much did I understand about them or did we understand about them as a club?”
This understanding was crucial to the way Ehiogu coached and was something that came very naturally. “It’s no use complaining about things like modern music or social media that are 100 per cent a part of young people’s lives,” Southgate says. “You have to be able to relate to all of that, and that’s part of having that connection — especially when you’re working with emerging players. They need a father figure as much as they need a coach. You have so many roles — you’re a mentor, a teacher, you’re helping them on their journey in life when you’re working in an academy. So that breadth of knowledge and interests helps to build that rapport.”
“He was in a position where he could talk about his journey, the difficulties at times,” says Les Ferdinand, who worked with Ehiogu at Spurs and had many battles on the pitch when the former was an elite Premier League striker and the latter one of its best centre-backs. “So they had someone they could relate to, which is huge.
“As well as being a good coach it was having that rapport that stands out.”
“He was more than a football coach,” says Chris Ramsey, a former colleague in the Spurs academy and one of Ehiogu’s tutors when he was studying for his coaching badges. It was Ramsey, now the technical director at QPR, who along with the then head of the Spurs academy John McDermott (now technical director at the FA), initially invited Ehiogu to come and gain some experience at Spurs. “He had an outstanding sense of humour and personality. You could talk to him about loads of subjects.
“He had a radio station, which I went on. He was a rounded guy, and that definitely helps connect with younger people, especially music. It’s a great leveller — if you understand people’s music, it’s an introduction into their lives.”
This was more apparent in Miller than anyone, who was extremely close with Ehiogu and wrote his song because his coach’s death felt like “a crash landing on the moon”.
“Ugo was an amazing man,” Miller, who quit football and now works in the film and music industry, said in 2020. “We worked with him day in and day out. He was super-concentrated and so gifted. Because he was an ex-player, and because of his personality, he was one of us.
“Ugo was the first person I had ever been close to who passed away. I was thinking: ‘Oh, my God, life’s so fragile’.
“I’d spent two years working every day with Ugo so it was about how difficult it is to comprehend death. I was thinking of him when singing but I didn’t want to make it ridiculously sad. I wanted us to feel how amazing some people are before they pass away.”
Ehiogu and Miller (Photo: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
Ehiogu was acutely aware of how few players in the Tottenham academy would make it into the first team, and that many would leave football altogether. So ensuring they had a rounded education was extremely important to him. Seeing Miller pursuing his other passions would have made him extremely proud.
He also would have approved of how another of his former charges Amos spent the first COVID-19 lockdown learning French. During this period, the QPR midfielder explained to The Athletic why Ehiogu means so much to him and remains the image on his Twitter profile.
“When I think of conversations we’ve had and I was a bit immature, I’d be like, ‘You had it easy’ and you’d realise, ‘No, he didn’t’,” Amos said, echoing the theme of his relatability. “How I felt at that moment, he’d felt like it at some point. An amazing guy — my coach but also a life mentor. He was the perfect mix of football and just a normal guy. What we were going through, he’d been there and done it.
“There are so many stories with him, but one comes to mind. I remember we’d been on the phone for weeks before because I hadn’t been playing. It was when I was (on loan) at Southend, and I’d been on the bench for like 10 games in a row, waiting to make my debut. Then I started and the team were 2-0 down after 25 minutes, so after about 50 minutes I was taken off because the team needed a goal. I was playing well and I remember looking to the stands and he was there saying, ‘Keep your head up. Keep your chin up’. The stand was packed but I looked into the crowd and I could instantly see Ugo.”
Southampton’s Walker-Peters was similarly close to Ehiogu, as was Fulham midfielder Onomah. The pair dedicated winning the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 with England to their former coach.
“Ugo had a massive impact on my life and my playing career, and without him, I wouldn’t have improved as a player,” Walker-Peters added a couple of years later. “I owe a lot to him.”
As well as his hinterland outside of football, Rastrick partly attributes the relationships built by Ehiogu to how collegiate and humble he was in the way he worked: “He coached in a very different way where he didn’t stand at the front of the class like a schoolteacher — he would be in the middle of the guys.
“He was so humble that he was quite nervous at the start, and was always so hard-working.”
His industriousness was such that on a trip to Nigeria to bury his father a year before his own death, Ehiogu spent every night during the week-long visit using the electricity that was pumped through a generator to power his laptop and study clips of the players he was coaching. “He absolutely loved working with the under-23 players at Tottenham,” Ehiogu’s brother Uzo told The Athletic two years ago.
“I was quite surprised by his humility because you have this gladiator in front of you, this man who had achieved so much as a player,” Rastrick continues. “He’d be nervous about something like how big to make the pitch. I remember him asking at the beginning, ‘What if the players aren’t having me?’. I’m looking at him thinking, ‘Uges, they’re having you all day long’.
A big part of the reason the players were “having him all day long” was that — and this may sound obvious — they really, really liked him. They respected him hugely and while he could be stern when he needed to be, this fondness meant they were willing to make huge sacrifices for him. “Players can like you or might not like you — that doesn’t determine if you’re a good coach,” says Chris Hughton, the former Brighton manager and Spurs coach, who got to know Ehiogu from their work together for anti-racism charities like Kick It Out. “But it does help you if you’re liked, it’s a very good asset to have, and I know he was hugely well-liked by his players.
“One thing I keep coming back to when talking about management and coaching is that you have to coach within your personality. When you try to be something you’re not, players see through you.”
(Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
There is an agreement from all these respected coaches that you can’t teach the kind of rapport Ehiogu developed with the players he coached.
“We all take coaching qualifications and improve our knowledge in so many areas, but a lot of those qualities that we’re referring to here are things that are developed over life,” Southgate says. “I’m not sure you can teach it. It’s difficult to pinpoint but it’s a mix of all the different experiences that you go through.”
Other experiences for Ehiogu included being a keen supporter of Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card and the Football Black List event. He also started the charity Side-On, which works to bring access for young people to sports facilities and youth football training. Giving people the right opportunities was always central to Ehiogu’s thinking — something he planned to do in Nigeria and beyond with his brother Uzo.
He also studied for six months for a qualification in corporate governance, as part of the Effective Board Member programme designed to help improve diversity in football boardrooms, by giving ex-players from black and minority ethnic backgrounds a qualification in governance. Hughton was on the course with him and was impressed with how engaging, passionate and interested in wider issues around football he was.
“I always felt he was very conscious of his colour and what he could put back in,” Hughton says. “And in an era where we’ve all experienced racism in our game, and have worked hard to redress the balances and to get people thinking in a different way, he was always prepared to do something to try and change that.
“Ugo appreciated what the game had given him but was also conscious of its disparities. The work he did for Kick It Out and other charities was hugely respected.
“He was very personable — not a screamer or shouter or at all arrogant. He had this wonderful manner of gaining respect from people. He was a big man, he could be quite imposing when you stood next to him. He wanted to give something back. You always had a good feeling in his company.”
(Photo: David Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)
This community spirit was evident in Ehiogu as a player as well, when every year at Villa he would organise a raffle to raise money for his old boys’ club in Hackney.
“It was a standing joke really,” Southgate says, laughing. “Oh, here we go, it’s Christmas, out would come the raffle tickets, and we’d all have to buy one. But we knew he was very genuine in wanting to give back to his community — he never lost that groundedness in his roots.”
Given all of this, it becomes easier to understand why Ehiogu’s death on April 21, 2017, felt so seismic at Spurs. “A wave of oppressive, negative energy, of pain, ripped through me,” the then-manager Mauricio Pochettino later wrote. The upset was such that Pochettino sent the players home early despite their FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea the next day.
For Rastrick and McDermott, from the moment they saw Ehiogu collapse on the Thursday morning, until the early hours of the Friday when his death was confirmed, everything was a blur. That sensation continued for some time, as they first discussed with Ehiogu’s wife Gemma how to make the announcement and then set about how they could manage their own grief and everyone else’s at the club — many of whom were so young they were dealing with a significant death for the first time. As well as the under-23s, Ehiogu worked with groups as young as the under-12s, and the responsibility of ensuring their well-being was one Rastrick and McDermott felt keenly.
Spurs did all they could to help their players and staff. For the academy players, they enlisted the help of an organisation called Grief Encounter, which helps to support bereaving children and young adults. The youngsters also had access to a psychologist, and Rastrick would regularly visit the players at their digs.
“It was all about spending time together,” he says. “We would go out for dinner, all the players. It was about having as much togetherness as possible for the next five to six weeks and until the season finished.”
(Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Southgate is full of praise for how Spurs handled the aftermath of Ehiogu’s death, and as well as Rastrick and many others, McDermott is said to have been a huge source of support for many of those grieving. He constantly checked in with Ehiogu’s family and made sure everything the club did would honour his memory in the most appropriate way.
Rastrick would also turn to McDermott, as well as Ehiogu’s assistant under-23s coach Matt Wells (now the assistant of another Spurs coaching alumnus, Scott Parker, at Bournemouth).
“It was a real challenge, a very tough experience that certainly the manuals and books don’t prepare you for, ” Rastrick says. “It’s still something I’ll talk about with a lot of the guys — be it Joe Pritchard up at Accrington Stanley or Winks or Japhet Tanganga.”
The grief really hit Rastrick just over a year after Ehiogu’s death when, by chance, he ran into the then-Aston Villa youngster Andre Green while on holiday. Because of the Villa connection, Green asked Rastrick about Ehiogu, and it brought a lot of emotions to the surface.
“It just hit me, it really got the better of me,” Rastrick says. “And then you worry about all the young people. You think, ‘Well, I hope they’re coping with it all right’. ‘Should we have done that?’.
“You always look back and think, ‘Did we help enough, did we do enough to try and help everybody?’. Hopefully, we did. We lost a member of staff but we also lost a good friend.”
Spurs’ mission now is to ensure Ehiogu’s legacy lives on, to ensure that his teenage son Obi is aware of how special his father was.
This is done through events like today where Ehiogu is remembered at the club, or through physical monuments like the big picture in the academy building. Earlier this month, Laurence Gant, Spurs head of academy sports medicine and science, completed a five-day charity cycle in memory of Ehiogu to raise money for charity London Hearts, which provides defibrillators and CPR training in local communities.
“The club have ensured his legacy exists, with the way they’ve honoured his memory,” says Southgate. “They’ve embraced what he stood for and have passed those values on, and made their young players aware of that and players who played there or guys that worked there at the time passed it down.”
Spurs also put on events where they explain CPR to young people and the importance of defibrillators. And they supported the opening of the Ugo Ehiogu Mini Pitch in 2019 (Walker-Peters was in attendance at the opening) — an all-weather small-sided football pitch at Seven Sisters Primary School to help with his desire to see as many young people as possible with access to playing facilities. Ehiogu’s wife Gemma now looks after the Side-On charity he set up.
At Tottenham, everything relating to Ehiogu is underpinned by ensuring that his values of humility, building relationships, care and nurturing remain as strong as possible.
It’s these qualities that those who worked with him at Spurs believe would have shone through once, not if he became a manager.
Ramsey, Ferdinand and Rastrick are sure he would have gone on to take a head coach role eventually. “It was 100 per cent his ambition,” says the latter.
Once in such a role, the expectation is that he would have been firm but fair. “As a man-manager his care for players and understanding of them got the best of them,” Rastrick says. “But he also had a style that meant you wouldn’t mess with him. He wasn’t a screamer or a bawler but he didn’t tolerate nonsense. Not in a confrontational way. He would just get that look.”
Rastrick and Ehiogu had plenty of disagreements while working together, but they shared a bond that the latter enjoyed with so many.
Five years on, the love for Ehiogu is stronger than ever, the feeling of loss just as acute. For those he left behind, the main regret is they didn’t get to spend more time with him.
“We played for around 10 years together,” says Southgate. “That’s a lot of trips, a lot of travel, a lot of time spent chatting. And yet one of the biggest regrets is that we didn’t get to know each other even better.”
For football managers, their time at a club is often framed by what happens after they leave.
Did the team’s struggles continue and reveal that perhaps the now-replaced manager wasn’t the problem? Did their improvement expose the manager’s limitations? Was their subsequent collapse indicative of a legacy that wasn’t sustainable?
With that in mind, how do we look back at Jose Mourinho’s time at Tottenham Hotspur a year on from his sacking?
On the face of it, Spurs’ general good form and revitalisation under current coach Antonio Conte suggest that the allegations of stagnation and aggravation were well-founded.
But only a couple of months ago, after Conte’s meltdown following a 1-0 defeat at strugglers Burnley (which came four days after a 3-2 victory at champions and leaders Manchester City), it appeared he was suffering in a similar way to Mourinho, and that many of the Portuguese’s reservations and complaints about the current Spurs operation were being proven correct; the lack of winning mentality, too few leaders in the squad, the suggestion that the players seemed to either complain that training was too hard or too soft.
Conte though appears to have overcome some of his frustrations in a way Mourinho never quite could — save for that brief spell towards the end of 2020 that included wins over City and Arsenal and a point away to Chelsea — and, in so doing, has reinforced the notion that his predecessor was part of the problem rather than a victim of circumstance.
Though it’s possible the reality is somewhere in between.
Mourinho’s reign ended badly but he’d argue there were mitigating circumstances (Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
A year on then, how can we measure Mourinho’s legacy and assess, with a bit of distance, his time at Tottenham?
The answer lies in a combination of the anecdotal, less quantifiable areas such as contentment behind the scenes, and the more empirical — what the data shows about Spurs’ results and style of play then compared to now.
Starting with the former, the mood has certainly improved substantially from those dark days last April when, in that grim, locked-down world, morale at the club reached what felt like an all-time low.
With the latter, it’s interesting to discover that, stylistically, Tottenham aren’t all that different now from under Mourinho; they are just a lot better at that kind of football. Perceptions around the style of play were a major reason why supporters turned against Mourinho, and surely contributed to chairman Daniel Levy speaking a month after sacking him about Spurs “losing sight of what’s truly in our DNA” and of finding a replacement who would play “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football.
But herein lies one of the important things about Mourinho, and especially his time at Spurs. It’s not necessarily that his tactics are outdated, more that his methods when it comes to elements like fitness and man-management are considered to be out of step with the modern game. The players’ fitness levels certainly have been transformed under Conte.
Beginning with the stylistic and results-based elements, we can see some big changes and improvements from Tottenham in recent months compared to when Mourinho was in charge.
The graphic below shows their expected goal difference over time (so, accounting for the quality of chances created and conceded).
There were some good patches under Mourinho but it was generally pretty up and down. This was also the case in the brief Ryan Mason and Nuno Espirito Santo periods at the end of last season and the beginning of the current one.
But since Conte’s appointment in November, there has been a notably higher xG difference, which shows that they are consistently outperforming their opponents with chances at both ends. Overall performances at both ends under the Italian have hit levels higher than the whole of the Mourinho era — driven by a potent attack.
Our next graphic supports this:
It’s also interesting to note Mourinho’s Spurs dropped 27 Premier League points from winning positions in his 58 matches. That’s down to just five in 32 matches this season with Nuno and Conte and supports the accusation that his version of Tottenham were often guilty of sitting back on leads, surrendering the initiative and paying the price. Appropriately enough, Mourinho’s final five league matches saw 10 points dropped from winning positions. During that run, Spurs also exited the Europa League to Dinamo Zagreb, throwing away a 2-0 lead from the first leg at home.
Relatively speaking though, Mourinho’s points per game (1.6) at Spurs is not bad. It puts his Tottenham team level with Chelsea and Leicester in fourth position across those 58 matches in charge. Conte’s 1.9, incidentally, is the joint-third best in the Premier League since he took over.
Stylistically, there are several different metrics we can use to get a sense of how Spurs differed then compared to now.
Their passes per defensive action (PPDA), which is used as a proxy for pressing intensity, has decreased under Conte. This doesn’t necessarily mean Tottenham are running less as a side now, they’re just making fewer defensive actions per pass made by the opposition.
Where Spurs are more intense under Conte, compared to Mourinho, is in the way they spring forward when they attack.
Their direct attacks (possessions that start in a team’s own half and result in a shot or touch inside the opposition’s penalty area within 15 seconds) leapt up when Conte was first appointed, and although it has come down since (see graphic below) it’s still higher than it was for the majority of the Mourinho era.
Both managers set the team up to be able to break quickly in transitions, but they are doing so with more efficiency under Conte, given how much more often these moves are ending in a shot/touch in the box.
That efficiency is also shown in their percentage of possessions that end in a shot — 10 per cent under Mourinho and currently 13 per cent under Conte, which is a very healthy return. For context, the average for last season and this for Premier League teams in this metric is 11 per cent.
The theme of Tottenham not changing a huge amount stylistically from Mourinho to Conte is borne out by the next chart, though it’s interesting to see that, as the eye-test suggests, they were playing more long balls under the former.
By way of explanation of the above, field tilt is a good proxy of territorial dominance for a team — it looks at the share of passes only in each of the respective attacking thirds. The fact both are below 50 per cent suggests Spurs allow their opponents more touches in their own third, and when they do attack it’s often with efficiency rather than camping out in the other team’s half and pinning them back.
“Direct speed” shows how quickly a team typically advance the ball towards goal (in metres per second — m/s), with a higher number indicating a team who are more willing to get the ball forward quickly. The average Premier League direct speed in the past three seasons has been about 1.4 m/s, so Spurs are just below average in that regard, demonstrating that they generally haven’t been going front to back that quickly, whoever has been in the technical area.
But as the direct attack numbers showed, so far under Conte, they are more likely to get the ball into an area to shoot or get into the box when they move forward. This, coupled with the lower pressing intensity (as shown by the PPDA numbers) suggests Tottenham have more cohesion to get into shape rather than going gung-ho, before springing forward when the opportunity arises.
Looking at the types of passes Spurs are playing now, compared to under Mourinho, our next graphic shows the passing groups of a team that are most distinctive to them, compared to the rest of the Premier League.
As the above shows, the lateral passes between the half-space and the wing on the right are a Tottenham signature this season. In 2020-21 under Mourinho, the vast majority of their most distinctive pass types were either in their own half or, if they were in opposition territory, backwards.
To help our understanding of how a team attack, we can also look at possession value, which is very similar to expected threat. It calculates the average probability that a team with the ball in a certain part of the pitch will go on to score.
Looking at graphics for this season and last, we can see that Spurs are now playing more high-value passes from the wings and the half-spaces, not just trying to go through the middle.
As well as the comparative results and style of play, a big area that merits discussion is the present mood at the club.
This is surely where there has been the biggest shift in the past year. It’s been a rocky road to get here, but the picture now is far more harmonious than it was at the end of the Mourinho era, even with the disappointment of losing at home to Brighton on Saturday.
Last April, tensions were running very high, with Mourinho feeling frustrated by a number of his players and vice versa. Earlier this month Matt Doherty, whose confidence took a major hit under the Portuguese, recalled not even making the squad for the mid-March game at Aston Villa and, because of COVID-19 regulations, having to wait on the team bus rather than enter the changing room before the game. “There were kids, and that’s no disrespect to kids, on the bench,” he said. “(Mourinho) was trying to prove a point to everybody, not just for me but for the players who weren’t there either. But it was not fun.”
But it wasn’t just the tensions between Mourinho and the likes of Dele Alli, Gareth Bale and Tanguy Ndombele that clouded the mood at this time.
Part of the frustration that players and staff had were over his training methods, which they felt left the team underprepared and not fit enough.
As had been the case at previous club Manchester United, Mourinho was not big on using GPS monitors in training and his low-intensity sessions left the players feeling undercooked for matches. Some of them were genuinely worried about losing their sharpness, and there were those at the club who were dismayed that they had gone from one of the fittest teams in the league under Mourinho’s predecessor Mauricio Pochettino to one of the least fit in less than 18 months. One of the biggest transformations under Conte from a year ago is restoring Spurs’ players — take Harry Kane, for example — to their physical peaks and making them once again one of the fittest sides in the Premier League.
This is true also of how Conte has reintroduced detailed patterns of play. One of their frequent complaints this time a year ago was that this was largely absent from Mourinho’s training, leaving some of the players deeply disillusioned (a sentiment they stand by).
A common misconception about Mourinho is that he is overly strict. The reality is that he is regarded by his detractors as being too laissez-faire — believing that he shouldn’t have to spoon-feed the players, that they are elite professionals who shouldn’t need constant instructions about how to keep themselves fit and how to manage every possible in-game situation.
This may seem out of step with the micro-management of modern coaching, but it’s worth remembering many have sympathised with Mourinho’s view that the players at Tottenham seemed to either think training was too intense (under Pochettino) or not intense enough (under him and Nuno). Though the fact that the players are now responding well to and enjoying Conte’s high-energy, extremely demanding training sessions suggests there is a correct balance to be struck.
Mourinho’s view that the squad lacked leaders was also shared by some of the players, including Kane — who remained loyal to him until the end and was very vocal in his support during that famous interview with Gary Neville the month after his sacking. “Jose obviously expected us to be men and act like men on the pitch, have leaders on the pitch,” Kane said.
Spurs were briefly top of the table under Mourinho (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
“To be honest, that’s probably where it didn’t quite work out with Jose — we didn’t quite have enough leadership that we needed at the time.
“I had a great relationship with him. We got on from minute one. I think we understood each other, we had a similar mentality and how we saw stuff on the pitch, off the pitch and mentality in training so we kind of built that relationship.”
One theory that has emerged in the year since Mourinho’s departure is that part of his struggles was down to his choice of backroom staff. Goalkeeping coach Nuno Santos and fitness coach Carlos Lalin were never especially well regarded at the club, while, as The Athletic reported at the time, Mourinho’s assistant Joao Sacramento was generally unpopular with the squad.
Another view of Sacramento is that while he was a great analyst, and understands football and how to run a good training drill, he couldn’t put all that into practice at Spurs because he struggled to connect with the players on a personal level. This was despite him being close to them in age, only in his early 30s, and therefore thought to have more chance of developing a rapport with the squad. This could be something he develops as he gains more experience, and it may have been a question of chemistry with that group of players. Sacramento joined Roma with Mourinho last summer but left the Italian club in January.
It was also felt that whereas Pochettino’s assistant Jesus Perez had been adept at balancing out the manager and being warm and receptive if the boss was in a bad mood and vice versa, Sacramento wanted to stamp his authority and tried to mirror how Mourinho was feeling. This created a situation whereby Spurs could have not one but two angry coaches to deal with on a given day.
The situation wasn’t helped when Mourinho’s tactical analyst Ricardo Formosinho left at the end of the 2019-20 season. Ledley King, a hero and fan favourite from his playing days with the club, came in and was popular with the players, but there were times when Mourinho and his staff would be talking in Portuguese and he’d be a little isolated. Mourinho himself could be volatile and divisive but many of his colleagues appreciated his good humour and personable man-management.
In general, there was thought to be a lack of experience within Mourinho’s staff, and perhaps he would have benefitted from a Rui Faria-type figure.
At Spurs now, there is a real appreciation among the players for Conte’s staff, most of whom are stacked with experience and have been working with the head coach for some time. Gian Piero Ventrone, the demanding fitness coach known as The Marine, has been around long enough that he worked with Conte the player for the all-conquering Juventus team of the mid-1990s. The squad are enjoying working with such established figures, and in general they have responded well to the passion and drive of Conte and his assistants.
But again, it would be unfair to suggest it’s been a simple case of, with Mourinho’s departure, everything has gone from darkness to sweetness and light.
Indeed, part of the improvement in the last year or so has come about because of changes he had demanded.
Mourinho always felt that the mentality of the players simply wasn’t strong enough to make his time at Spurs a success, and this is something Conte has spoken about too. When the latter seemed to be having a blow-up every week at the start of the year and said in February that “The players have to be angry, the same way that I am angry”, it could easily have been Mourinho speaking.
Likewise, Conte’s response at the same press conference to a question asking if he had been mis-sold the job: “Maybe in my heart, mind and head, I thought to find a situation… not better but more ready to fight and to win. And instead, now I found a situation where we have to work.”
Mourinho also wanted to move on several players who have since departed. He didn’t think Moussa Sissoko, Serge Aurier, Dele and Ndombele were conducive to developing the kind of mentality he wanted, and to be fair, neither did his successors. It’s worth making the point as well that Ndombele’s best period at the club came under Mourinho, when he actually seemed to respond well to the head coach’s tough love — even if many at Tottenham felt Mourinho’s ‘confrontational leadership’ didn’t really work with the current generation of players.
Bale was another player he didn’t feel he could pick regularly based on his performances in training. It’s a view that has been shared by Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid this season now the Welshman is back from his loan in north London; even if the vast majority of Spurs supporters feel Mourinho wasted Bale, who could point to how strongly he finished last season under Mason as evidence that he was under-used.
Bale also ties in to the wider issue of the summer transfer window (the only one of Mourinho’s Spurs tenure) in 2020, when he felt the priority should have been signing an established centre-back, that he was well-stocked in the forward area and didn’t especially need the former Spurs star. Tottenham have since overhauled their recruitment department and their biggest and most successful signing last summer has proved to be Cristian Romero — the kind of rugged defender Mourinho was desperate for.
There are, of course, parallels here with Mourinho’s view of events from his two and a half seasons at Manchester United. The failure to sign him a centre-back in his final summer at Old Trafford has been a frustration for him ever since his sacking in December 2018, while for his view of Bale, we can more or less substitute the name Paul Pogba.
For Mourinho’s detractors, these recurring issues can be held up as evidence of the fact that, given the same situations keep repeating themselves at different clubs, surely he is the problem rather than those he has issues with?
The alternative view is that many think he was right about several issues at United, and so his opinions about what went wrong at Spurs shouldn’t be totally dismissed.
One suggestion that has been made is that the players buckled last season at the first sign of trouble — the agonising 2-1 loss away to Liverpool in mid-December that saw them lose top spot and precipitated a run of four defeats in their next eight league matches which caused them to plummet down the table until, two months to the day after going to Anfield as league leaders, they were eighth.
Though again, usually, the responsibility for this sort of fragility stops with the man in charge. Mourinho wanted to move on players such as Dele Alli (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Ultimately, we return to the initial hypothesis: that a manager’s tenure is partly defined by what happens after he leaves.
Were we discussing this during the brief Nuno interregnum over the first three months of this season or up until things started to click for Conte last month, our framing of Mourinho’s 17 months at Spurs might be very different. There might be more sympathy for his explanation as to why things fell apart.
By the same token, our view of Mourinho at Tottenham could drastically change depending on what happens in the next year or so. At Tottenham, but also at Roma or wherever Mourinho ends up.
As it stands, his first season in Rome has been pockmarked with some of the same issues as his time in north London and Manchester. Temper tantrums, rows, some catastrophic defeats — alongside some good results and, at the moment, a respectable fifth place in Serie A.
Mourinho remains very popular at Roma, and in Italy more generally, having steered Inter Milan to the title in 2009 and the treble a year later. Roma are also into the semi-finals of the new Europa Conference League, meaning he could continue his run of, with one exception, winning a trophy at every club he’s worked for since leaving Uniao de Leiria in his homeland for Porto 20 years ago.
That only exception, of course, are Tottenham — evidence to the Mourinhoistas that they, rather than he, were the problem, especially since he was eventually sacked less than a week before their first domestic final in six years.
Mourinho’s appointment clearly failed, but it did make some sense at the time. Spurs were in a very different place from where they had been when they appointed Pochettino five years earlier, and an equivalent figure — someone such as Eddie Howe — would not have been well received by the club’s fanbase or have had the necessary clout for how much bigger the club and the job had become.
Another theory is that Levy was enticed by appointing such a big name who had previously turned down the job and appeared out of Tottenham’s league. To be fair, the idea that Mourinho’s famed winning mentality would drive a team who had come so close to lifting silverware with Pochettino over the line was shared by many at the time.
In the end, it proved to be a disaster, and to get a sense of where Mourinho’s relationship is with Spurs a year on, there is probably not a single person associated with him or Tottenham who would swap what they have now with 12 months ago.
For all parties, it still feels a bit like a bad dream.
Other contributors: Jack Pitt-Brooke and Mark Carey
It was one of those small moments that said a lot.
Tottenham had just beaten Newcastle United 5-1 with a thumping second-half performance. The post-match press conference, as is often the way after a win, involved different journalists asking Antonio Conte to talk positively about different players.
Conte was happy enough to talk about them all, but he also had another point he wanted to make. “Also Pierre, no one asked me about him,” Conte said. “But in every game, he is doing a fantastic job, with the ball, without the ball, and is strong physically. Every player is improving their level and for this reason, Tottenham is going up and up.”
Tottenham are having a great time right now, enjoying their best league run since 2017 as most of their players rightly attract a lot of praise. Kane is in the form of his life, Son Heung-min is starting to score again, and Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur have taken to Premier League football far quicker than anyone expected.
But not many people — Conte aside — are talking about Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg right now, even though he has played every minute of their run, which takes in seven wins from nine games. He looks as important to the functioning of the team as ever before.
To some fans, Hojbjerg may be the last name on the team sheet right now, just occupying his space until Oliver Skipp finally gets over his groin problem and returns to the team. Skipp is yet to play one minute with Bentancur, who made his debut after Skipp first picked up his injury. Ask many Spurs fans who they would want in the middle of the pitch and they would say Skipp and Bentancur. (I ran an unscientific Twitter poll on this on Tuesday afternoon: after more than 5,600 votes, a narrow margin of voters preferred Bentancur and Skipp to Bentancur and Hojbjerg.)
That so many people would consider dropping Hojbjerg, even with Spurs playing so well, underlines the fact that even now, almost two years into his time at the club, Hojbjerg divides opinion among fans. In one sense, this might be a surprise: Hojbjerg is consistent and dependable, the opposite of the type of mercurial maverick who some fans take to and some do not. So what is it about Hojbjerg that seems to rub some people up the wrong way? Why is he not as popular as he might be?
Throughout his two seasons at Spurs, Hojbjerg has been almost an ever-present in the team, an impressive feat for an outfielder who does plenty of running for a team that often plays twice a week. He played every minute in the Premier League last season and this season, only Kane has played more minutes in all competitions than Hojbjerg.
Add the two seasons together and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has played the most minutes of all with 7,560. But Hojbjerg is a very close second with 7,533, before Kane with 7,367 and then a large gap before fourth-placed Son on 6,735. Across Hojbjerg’s two seasons, there have only been two league games that he has not started. And only one of them — the 2-0 defeat to Wolves this February — when he was dropped.
Just think how many of Spurs’ signings in recent years — Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso, Steven Bergwijn, Ryan Sessegnon, Sergio Reguilon — have struggled to get fit and stay fit, or have missed long spells through injury. The fact that Hojbjerg has played more minutes than any other outfielder ought to count in his favour.
Hojbjerg has started nearly every league game at Spurs since joining two years ago (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
On the other hand, there have certainly been moments over the last two seasons when Hojbjerg has looked tired, as if he were close to running himself into the ground. And there is a view at the training ground that at times, Hojbjerg is too keen, insisting to the coaching staff that he is fit to play even if he is carrying an injury. Of course, senior players always want to play every minute of every game — Kane is famous for it — but there is a feeling that a good professional might tell the staff when they are not right to play.
Whether or not a player can be too keen to impress is an open question, but it is something that Hojbjerg has been accused of in the past. He has spoken of himself as being a “Viking”, understandably proud of his resistance to injury. (He posted on Instagram on Saturday evening a photo of his legs, with ice packs on both knees and a cut down his right shin.) And he enjoys the side of the game — big tackles, fist-pumping to the fans — to get the crowd going.
But it does lead some people to wonder whether this is all part of an act or a performance on Hojbjerg’s part, to convey a carefully maintained image. Some Spurs players rolled their eyes when, on Conte’s first morning as the new head coach, Hojbjerg made sure that he was the first player in at the training ground, just so that he could get some early face-time with the new boss.
Whether you think that is being a top professional or a teacher’s pet (and both views certainly exist), it is also quintessentially Hojbjerg. He is a player who always wants to be close to his coaches, and was just as supportive of Jose Mourinho as he now is with Conte. (Mourinho, like Conte, always valued Hojbjerg’s willingness to learn and saw him as an example to his team-mates.)
At the start of every training session, Hojbjerg loves to take the bibs and hand them out to his fellow team-mates. At the end of every session, he likes to stay behind for 15 minutes to talk tactics with the coaching staff, hoping to learn and absorb as much as he can.
Ultimately, the proof has to come on the pitch, and the evidence of the last few months is that Hojbjerg is playing better now than he has done before. It is not easy playing as part of a midfield two in a Conte team, and it involves plenty of hard work and suffering for the team. (Note how Ndombele, Lo Celso and Dele Alli, who were not judged able to do this, were moved on in January.)
Hojbjerg gets through a lot of physical work — running, tackling and pressing to try to win the ball back. He would not get in the team without it. (He has routinely finished top of Spurs’ distanced covered stats, and he ranks fifth on FBref for total pressures and 11th for tackles in the Premier League this season.) He does not have the same natural grace as Bentancur or the same technical skill as Harry Winks but it is not true to say that he is just a clogger or a water carrier.
For a start, Hojbjerg is an integral part of how Spurs move the ball forward on the pitch. Rank all Premier League players by progressive passes this season, and Hojbjerg is fifth with 156, only just behind Aymeric Laporte (167) and Bruno Fernandes (162). (None of them is anywhere near Trent Alexander-Arnold on 241 and Joao Cancelo on 225.)
Hojbjerg has always scored high for simply keeping possession but a look at the stats shows that he is more ambitious and penetrative with his use of the ball this season. His progressive passes figure (5.47 per 90 minutes) is the best of his career, comparing to 5.08 per 90 last season. His completed passes into the opposition penalty area — 0.98 per 90 — are again almost double last season’s tally (0.53 per 90).
This is not just all numbers on a screen. We can see it on the pitch with our own eyes. Hojbjerg has added a new string to his bow this season, playing incisive forward passes to create chances for the team.
Take this chipped through ball at St James’ Park in October that allowed Kane to score his first league goal of the season.
Or maybe this one for Matt Doherty, setting up Bergwijn’s equaliser at Leicester City, just before the winner, one of the games that turned Spurs’ season around.
Or this one at Elland Road, again to Kane, who put Spurs 3-0 up after 27 minutes.
Maybe this is part of the Hojbjerg issue too.
He is so defined in the eyes of many as the hard-tackling “Viking” that perhaps some of the good work he has started to do in possession gets forgotten too.
(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
The Argentinian defender arrived last summer from Atalanta and has made such an impact that he already feels like a club legend in the making. Spurs head coach Antonio Conte has described him as “perfect” for the Premier League. Former Tottenham captain and fellow centre-back Ledley King claimed this week that “he’s going to be a top, top player”.
Romero, still only 23, is not just an elite centre-back. He is also a ferocious competitor, someone who has made a big impression on his team-mates despite not being the most vocal. He possesses the sort of sometimes-unhinged aggression that makes you so relieved he’s on your team and not the opposition.
You can feel Romero’s presence when he enters the room, as he did this week at Tottenham’s training ground for his first interview with a UK publication.
“I love life here,” Romero, who is naturally quiet but has an aura of self-assurance, tells The Athletic, reflecting on a momentous eight months since arriving on loan from Atalanta — in a deal that will be made permanent in the summer for £42.5 million. “Right at the start it wasn’t easy. I think when change happens in our life you always need a certain amount of time to be able to adapt and settle in. First and foremost, the language is quite a basic thing and you need that to get by. But gradually I feel I’ve settled in.”
Romero conducts the interview in Spanish but he is picking up bits of English. Over the course of our conversation he explains how much he is enjoying living in north-west London, and the impact of becoming a father for the first time in December. The contrast between his sentimental side as he proudly discusses his “three month and one week-old” son Valentino and the hugely physical, aggressive defender we see on the pitch is striking.
As for that highly confrontational approach Spurs fans have become accustomed to and relish, Romero says: “I’ve always had that spirit and desire and aggression. And I think if I ever lost that, I’d have a problem.”
Most would agree with Romero at the moment (certainly to his face), and it’s hard to think of many more in-form defenders in the Premier League right now. Romero was voted man of the match by the club’s supporters after Spurs’ last match against Newcastle, and is a key reason for the team’s much-improved defence. Tottenham have conceded just four in their last six Premier League matches, five of which have been wins.
They are up to fourth and suddenly look like a good bet to qualify for the Champions League.
Romero puts much of the turnaround down to the appointment of Conte in November. “Since he’s arrived, the morale in the squad and certainly among the fans has changed totally around.”
But he also singles out January signings Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur for praise, and on a personal level remains grateful for Eric Dier for the way he helped him settle after joining Tottenham last summer.
Away from Spurs, Romero reflects on an action-packed few international breaks with Argentina and explains why playing for the national team means so much to him and his compatriots.
Romero will be reunited with a couple of them this evening when Spurs take on Emi Martinez and Emi Buendia’s Aston Villa.
It’s a game Tottenham must win to keep the pressure on Arsenal in the top-four race, a goal Romero feels he and his team-mates are well capable of achieving.
“When I look at the squad I can just see the quality of the players we have,” Romero says. “We have it within us and we have what it takes to be able to achieve that target.”
As we are introduced, Romero says he is happy to be called “Cuti”, the nickname that has stuck since childhood. It originated when one of his uncles noticed that he was the spitting image of a local lad with that name and started using it with young Cristian. It is now how he is universally known.
Something that stuck out about young Cuti back then growing up in Cordoba, and remains the case now, is his aggressiveness on the football pitch. Romero started playing football seriously aged five and he says he’s always had that fire in the belly.
“I think it’s something where I’ve just grown up like that. That’s been my style of play,” he says. “In Cordoba where I grew up as a player, we were encouraged to play in that kind of way. Defenders in Argentina are encouraged to be aggressive and show aggression. I think if you lose that spirit and that desire that you have inside you… the three years I played in Italy, for example, were great for me as a footballer but throughout that period I always had that spirit and desire and aggression.”
Romero has thrived in Tottenham’s defence since returning from injury in February
As with most highly-charged footballers, it is a question of balance. How to ensure a player doesn’t overstep the mark without losing the hunger that drives them.
Romero appears to be finding this balance, having only been sent off once for Spurs (and never in the Premier League). That may still sound like one too many, especially alongside 11 yellows in his 25 appearances across all competitions, but it’s an improvement on his record in Italy. Sent off in just his second game for Genoa in October 2018, across his three seasons in Italy Romero picked up a staggering 39 yellows and three reds in 102 games. He was substituted on several occasions last season for fear he would pick up a second booking.
Conte did something similar when withdrawing Romero after 52 minutes of the 5-0 win over Everton last month, and said a few weeks ago that “sometimes he gets a yellow card he can avoid… sometimes you can’t explain this in a good manner. You have to shout!”
In general, though, Conte has been hugely impressed by Romero, who since returning from a three-month hamstring injury in February has been outstanding. Upon joining Spurs, sources in Italy said that based on his performances with Atalanta, Romero could have the same transformative effect on the Tottenham defence as Ruben Dias and Virgil van Dijk have had on Manchester City and Liverpool’s respectively.
Eight months on, those predictions don’t seem far-fetched. Romero’s calmness and quality on the ball have lifted his fellow defenders, who also can’t fail to be inspired by his commitment. Take Sunday’s win 5-1 over Newcastle for instance, when within seconds he cleaned out Alain Saint-Maximin with a firm but fair tackle and then made a brilliant block to deny what looked like a certain goal from Joe Willock. “What a block!” former Liverpool and England centre-back Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports. “He’s a top player, him.”
Romero also has the attitude, edge and star quality that Spurs have been lacking for so long. It genuinely feels that Spurs will soon have a third superstar at the club after Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, if they don’t already.
Though, temperamentally, Romero is very different from those two. As well as his aggression, he is regarded as a master of the dark arts — a characteristic many feel Spurs have been missing for a while. Jose Mourinho called the team “too nice” while he was in charge.
Romero is someone who is happy to feel contact and go down if it benefits the team, but also to stand over others accusing them of simulation. As he did to Pablo Fornals in Spurs’ 1-0 defeat to West Ham in October.
There was also the incident in last month’s 3-2 loss at Manchester United when he appeared to goad Harry Maguire after the defender had scored an own goal.
“I think sometimes things happen in football and maybe if you capture a moment with a single photo it can seem like something that wasn’t really happening,” Romero says of the incident at Old Trafford. “I’ve got nothing but respect for Harry Maguire. He’s a top player who is having a great career. And generally I always respect my opponents so I think people who don’t know about the game get hold of a story and run with it and talk about something that’s not really there. Maybe on that occasion I didn’t quite do the right thing but I had no bad intentions.”
As well as adapting to a new country and new team this season, Romero has also had to learn a new position. At Atalanta he predominantly played as the middle centre-back in a three, but Conte has used him as the right-sided centre-back.
It’s taken some adjustment but it looks to be the perfect role for Romero — showcasing his excellent one-on-one defending and allowing him to start Spurs attacks with his outstanding distribution (as he did for Spurs’ opener in the 3-2 win at Manchester City), and sometimes even finish them (as with his fortuitous goal at Brighton. It was also his presence by the six-yard box that spooked Maguire into his own goal at Old Trafford). It also makes him less vulnerable to crosses, where he can look uncomfortable.
“I played in the middle of the three in Serie A, and so I found it tough at first because I was slightly out of position compared to what I was used to but the great thing about Conte is I feel I’ve improved tactically,” Romero says of his tweaked role. “My positional awareness has improved as well. He explains the detail and what he wants in a really perfect way.
“I hope my performances are the same in either role. I feel comfortable doing either. Even if he puts me as goalkeeper, as long as I’m playing that’s the main thing.”
As well as being solid defensively, Romero has been given clear licence to get forward and help Spurs overwhelm opposition defences: “What Antonio says about football is: join in (with the attacks) when you can and it’s all about enjoyment. Enjoy the game with responsibility, with all your tactical responsibilities and stuff like that. If you get the opportunity to join in then do so.
“I like to do that.”
Romero says Conte “explains what he wants in a really perfect way” (Photo: Getty)
In general, Romero feels that Conte’s arrival has transformed the team — a group that were clearly suffering under Nuno Espirito Santo.
“Since he’s arrived, the morale in the squad and certainly among the fans has changed totally around,” says Romero. “The morale and the spirit in the dressing room is totally improved.
“It’s tough for a manager coming in almost halfway through the season. So to turn things around 100 per cent in the way he would like is never easy. But I think he’s doing well, we’ve consolidated as a squad and as a team, and he’s got us playing pretty much how he wants us to. Tactically we’ve improved where we are on the field and that sort of thing. I think there are still things that need to be just tweaked, perfected.”
Romero knew plenty about Kane and Son and their quality before joining Tottenham, but he has also been struck by how much of a difference Spurs’ January signings have made: “The person who’s really surprised me is Kulusevski because I think he’s really added something either we didn’t have or didn’t see so often. He’s a really bright and intelligent player who’s become a vital cog in our system.
“Bentancur I was aware of from Italy, I always thought he was the kind of player who could cut it in the Premier League. What’s surprised me is the level at which he’s doing really, really well. How important he’s become for us so quickly.
“The performances of the team in general speak for each player but in particular speak for him and how well he has done for us.”
Moving to another country where you don’t speak the language would be tough at the best of times, but the circumstances of Romero’s first year have made it especially challenging.
The England he arrived in was still feeling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, his wife was preparing to give birth, and only a month after arriving he was caught up in the storm that saw Argentina’s match against Brazil postponed in Sao Paulo after a few minutes. Romero, along with Martinez, Buendia and Giovani Lo Celso faced deportation from Brazil after being accused of breaking the country’s rules on entering the country by allegedly failing to report that they had been in the UK during the previous 14 days. For COVID isolation reasons, Romero then had to quarantine in Croatia before returning to London, missing two Spurs matches in the process.
Thankfully things have generally been a lot calmer for Romero since the turn of the year — a feeling of contentment fuelled by the birth of his son in late December.
“At first the feeling was almost fear, trepidation because it’s all new being a dad,” he says. “But now I’m getting used to it, being a good dad I think.
“It’s such a happy occasion. We’re together as a team, me and my wife. She’s fantastic, just a great, great person. Credit (to) her because all the time I spend here at the training ground, travelling the night before we go to games. I don’t spend as much time as I’d like to with my baby.
“But as soon as training’s finished or I get home from a game it’s just spending time with that little lad, along with his mum. That’s my life at the moment, that’s our life. We’re always together.”
Romero laughs when it’s put to him that perhaps the young boy could one day be eligible to play for England. “I don’t think so because he’ll have an Argentinian passport,” he says.
The three of them are very settled in their north-west London home, and Romero says he’s fortunate to live in such a nice area. They’re enjoying seeing the sights — Big Ben has been a particular highlight — and having a coffee in central parts of the city. Romero visited London while playing in Italy and has always found it “a fantastic place, a beautiful city”.
Tottenham’s players are “a close-knit group” according to Romero (Photo: Getty)
He also name-checks Hugo Lloris, who lives nearby. In fact, the two live so close that they drive into training together. Do they take turns to give the other lifts? “No, it’s always me driving!” he responds, laughing. “He uses me as his own taxi driver.”
Dier is another who has made a big impression on Romero: “He was instrumental when I joined. We’ve always got on well on and off the field. The fact he speaks Spanish really helps with our on-pitch understanding as well. He was instrumental also in bringing me into the group.
“From the day I arrived, he was really good at introducing me to everyone and making me feel at home as well so I was grateful for that. But first and foremost, what a great season he’s having — he brings a lot to the team, loads as a player.
“I’m guessing it is his objective to get back into the international set-up. We all feel he’s doing well and it can’t be long with the form that he’s showing before he’s back in the England squad.”
Romero hopes soon to be able to converse with Dier and the rest of the team in English, and says: “I’m not there yet to be able to have regular dialogue and conversations in English, but I’m getting there. Considering I had absolutely zero when I came here. I’m really regretful that in English classes in school I never paid attention.
“I’d just say to myself, ‘Why would I learn English? I’m never going to leave Argentina. What’s the point?’”
He did not come through at one of the country’s biggest clubs, instead joining the youth set-up at Club Atletico Belgrano (a Cordoba-based side currently in the second tier) in his mid-teens, before making his debut for the first team as an 18-year-old in 2016. It’s striking, watching footage of him back then, how mature he looks already — more weathered veteran than callow youngster. His father joked last year that “he is 23 years old but looks 30”.
As a child Romero says his life was “all football”, and his father believes his maturity and old head on young shoulders comes from playing with his older cousins and brother as a youngster. Romero also has an older sister.
His impressive performances for Belgrano, then in Argentina’s top flight, earned him a move to Serie A side Genoa in 2018. Romero joined Juventus a year later, in a move overseen by the now managing director of football at Spurs Fabio Paratici, but was instantly loaned back to Genoa. He then spent last season on loan at Atalanta, where his outstanding displays won him the prestigious Serie A defender of the year award. Atalanta exercised their option to buy at the end of the campaign and sold him to Spurs for what will become a big profit when he moves permanently this summer.
But it wasn’t until June that Romero made his debut for Argentina. He was an instant hit and was a key part of the side that won the Copa America a month later — being named in the team of the tournament despite missing a chunk of it through injury. Lionel Messi was so impressed he urged Barcelona to sign the defender.
In the end they couldn’t afford the deal and Spurs pounced.
The experience of winning the Copa was a magical one for Romero, and it’s important to try and understand just how much playing for Argentina means to him and his compatriots. It is a very different mentality to the pervasive one in England, which, certainly in fans’ eyes, sees club football as way more important than its international counterpart. Back in the mid-2000s, Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano was amazed when he moved to the Premier League how blase many of the English players seemed to be about playing for their country.
This may have changed now but it was the polar opposite of the pride Argentines felt and feel about playing for their country. In this context, it becomes a little easier to understand why Romero (and Lo Celso, Martinez, Buendia and others) have been willing to endure the trials of representing their country in a COVID-19 world amid all the associated obstacles.
Romero was speaking following a Tottenham Hotspur Foundation free sporting session at N17 Arena
Romero exhales as he begins to explain what representing Argentina means to him. “For me, those two weeks you spend with the national team when you’re away and playing the World Cup qualifiers, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that feeling anywhere else,” he says.
“I think the feelings and passion we have for that shirt and pulling on that shirt and representing our country and the millions of Argentinians who watch is just, as they say, el maximo. It’s just the best feeling you can get. The greatest feeling. And the chance to make those fans happy, or try and make those fans happy who on occasion aren’t having the best time of things back home, it’s something I’ve always dreamt of.
“And now I feel that I’ve become a regular member of the squad, which is really, really great. The chance to spend time with those players both as athletes and as people, because there are some world-class players in that squad. And some great people as well, and to get to know them, and to consider them as friends is great. I enjoy that tremendously when I get the chance.”
Romero is at pains to not make a comparison as such between club and international football, just to explain the uniqueness of representing Argentina.
“It’s not that you wouldn’t swap it,” he says. “When you’re with your club it’s international, very different, there are lots of different cultures mixed together. But when it’s just you and your other fellow Argentinians you can’t really recreate that anywhere else.”
Later this year Romero will hope to inspire Argentina to a first World Cup success since 1986 (and a first for South America in 20 years). He laughs and says “we’ll see” when asked who will do better out of England and Argentina — but the prospect of him marking Kane if the teams face each other is a tantalising one.
For now though the focus is fully on Tottenham and achieving that precious top-four spot, starting with tonight’s trip to Aston Villa (thoughts about the north London derby will have to wait, he says).
“It’s a very, very important target to get into the Champions League,” says Romero. “It depends on how results go; other results, our results. But we have many players here who can make the difference and with hard work I think we can continue to move in the right direction.
“Because we’re building something really positive here.”
Romero was speaking following a Tottenham Hotspur Foundation free sporting session at N17 Arena. Throughout the Easter school holidays, sessions are being delivered to keep local families fit and active. Free and open to people of all ages and fitness levels. For information, email email@example.com
There are still eight games left for Tottenham Hotspur this season, but work is already underway for the summer. Fabio Paratici is trying to build a better team for Antonio Conte next season, and they have decided on this summer’s priority: a left-sided centre-back.
Conte has played with a back three in all but one of the games since he took over at Tottenham in November. And in all but two of those, he has started Ben Davies on the left side of the three. Davies has performed incredibly well, but this summer Tottenham want more competition in that position and are ready to pay for it.
This has been a priority for Tottenham since last year, even before Conte arrived. Last summer Paratici tried for Pau Torres from Villarreal but he turned down a move. So with Torres out of the running, Spurs have already drawn up a shortlist.
Top of the list are Josko Gvardiol of RB Leipzig and Alessandro Bastoni of Inter Milan, two players who are among Europe’s best on the left side of a back three. But they would be expensive, and Tottenham would likely have to pay at least as much as the £42 million they committed on Cristian Romero last summer.
Perhaps if Paratici can land another defender as good as Romero, it would be deemed worth the outlay. If not, they have other options too…
Josko Gvardiol (RB Leipzig)
Spurs’ list is headed up by 20-year-old Croatia international Gvardiol, who is also the youngest of these four players. Even though he is only in his first season in one of the major European leagues, he is already one of the most in-demand young defenders on the continent.
Gvardiol started at Dinamo Zagreb and even by the end of his first season (2019-20) in the first team, he was attracting attention from bigger clubs across Europe. Victor Orta and Marcelo Bielsa saw him as a perfect option for Leeds United’s first season back in the top flight. They were impressed by his aggression and assuredness on the ball and even brought him over to Leeds to try to convince him to join. Gvardiol has subsequently admitted that he was very close to saying yes.
But he had another offer that summer from Leipzig, who have made it their business in recent years to sign the best undervalued talent from around Europe — earlier that year they had already raided Dinamo for the brilliant Dani Olmo. Leipzig offered Gvardiol the chance to spend the 2020-21 season back on loan in Zagreb, so he decided to sign for them (Leeds quickly moved to sign Diego Llorente from Real Sociedad), and Gvardiol won the Croatian double with Dinamo in his final season there.
Last summer, Gvardiol broke into the Croatia senior team, starting all four games at the European Championship for Zlatko Dalic’s team. He played left-back in those games but is just as happy playing on the left of a three, the role he has been playing for Leipzig this season, and the role Tottenham have targeted him for. Even though this is just his first season in the Bundesliga, he has become an integral part of the team. Gvardiol has played 2,107 minutes so far — only Christopher Nkunku and Peter Gulacsi have played more. He is extremely highly rated at Leipzig, so much so that if Tottenham wanted him they would likely have to pay a club-record fee to sign him.
On the pitch, what stands out most about Gvardiol is how comfortable he is on the ball. He averages 79.4 attempted passes per 90 minutes (using data from StatsBomb via FBref), which puts him in the top eight per cent of Bundesliga centre-backs. If you look at his on-ball actions via smarterscout, he loves to bring the ball out of defence (carry and dribble volume 72 out of 99), and his 63 carries per 90 puts him in the top six per cent of Bundesliga centre-backs, making him perfect for how Conte likes to play.
This is also coupled with an above-average propensity to play it upfield (progressive passing 63 out of 99), contributing strongly towards getting the ball into dangerous areas (xG from ball progression 79 out of 99).
When it comes to defending, Gvardiol looks to be well-trained in the aggressive Leipzig way. He is always active in getting tight to his man (defending intensity 99 out of 99). He is also above average in his frequency of ball recoveries and interceptions (79 out of 99), highlighting how much he likes to step out and read the play.
If he has a weakness it is that he struggles in aerial duels. Looking at his duel ratings — which account for the strength of the opponent faced in a one-v-one — Gvardiol is ranked low from open-play (11 out of 99) and set-play headers (8 out of 99).
Alessandro Bastoni (Inter Milan)
The next most likely option on Spurs’ list is someone who Conte has worked with before.
When Conte arrived at Inter in 2019, Bastoni was a 20-year-old who had not yet played for the first team having spent the previous season out on loan at Parma. But Conte wanted to build with Bastoni, so he was in the Inter squad for the 2019-20 season, and Bastoni was thrilled. It did not take long for him to say that Conte was “the Messi of coaches”, praising his “exceptional football ideas”.
Bastoni was not a regular until December 2019, but he soon settled well into Conte’s improving team, starting 21 league games. And he played on the left of the back three, precisely the position Spurs want him for this summer, mainly alongside Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar. He started the Europa League final in Cologne, which Inter lost 3-2 to Sevilla.
Last season, Bastoni was a key player, starting 33 of their 38 league games, helping Inter to win the Serie A title Conte was so desperate for. This season, under Simone Inzaghi, he has continued to be integral to the side still fighting to retain their title.
Bastoni, like Gvardiol, is a defender who shines in his use of the ball from the back — arguably more of an Alessandro Nesta than a Fabio Cannavaro. He attempts 70.9 passes per 90, putting him in the top five per cent of Serie A centre-backs, although his game is more about keeping the ball (ball retention ability 86 out of 99) rather than opening the opposition up with penetrative passes from the back (progressive passing 15 out of 99).
Bastoni’s ball-retention ability is rated more favourably than Gvardiol’s (66 out of 99), and his link-up play volume is rated at 84 out of 99 (Gvardiol is 46 out of 99), reinforcing the idea that he is perhaps more of a ball-playing centre-back.
Like Gvardiol, Bastoni scores highly for defending intensity (94 out of 99) — showing how active he is in his defensive approach — but is not especially dominant in the air, shown by his low duel ratings from headers.
Bastoni is precisely the sort of player that Inter would like to build around for years to come, given that he is only 22 and is likely to be a mainstay for the national side when Giorgio Chiellini announces his retirement. Inter would be reluctant to sell Bastoni but they are not awash with money, and they may even need to sacrifice him this summer if an offer of at least £50 million came in.
Sven Botman (Lille)
The next option would be Botman, who is known to Premier League fans most for Newcastle United’s repeated attempts to sign him in the January 2022 window.
Botman has always been open about his desire to one day come to England. In 2021 he said in an interview with The Athletic that the Premier League is “something special”. “It’s the football I like and that fits me. The style of play, the emotion — I like to see the fans with such big emotions in the stands.”
Botman is seemingly less aggressive in his defensive actions than Gvardiol and Bastoni — his defending intensity is rated at 38 out of 99, while both Gvardiol and Bastoni are in the 90s. With this, his volume of defensive actions (eg, tackles, blocks, clearances) is much lower as shown by his disrupting opposition moves rating of just 14 out of 99 (compared to Bastoni with 90). This does not mean Botman is worse defensively, it just suggests his approach is less interventionist.
Although Gvardiol and Bastoni stand out for their use of the ball, but are not so towering in the air, Botman is a more physically-imposing centre-back who is stronger in the air than those two. His ratings in aerial duels are good (above average from open-play and set-play headers), and his game is more about physically dominating his opponent. “I’m tall, I’m big, I like to clash with my striker,” he told The Athletic last year, picking out Virgil van Dijk and Sergio Ramos as the players he took most inspiration from.
Another difference between Botman and the first two options is that Botman is more of a conventional centre-back in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, which is where he played for Lille as they won the Ligue 1 title last season. He does not have the same week-in-week-out experience of playing on the left of a three that Gvardiol and Bastoni have.
Botman has been another hugely successful signing for Luis Campos at Lille, given that he arrived as an unheralded 20-year-old in 2020 after just one good Eredivisie season on loan at Heerenveen. The challenge, should Spurs eventually decide to go for him, is that other clubs might be ahead of them in the race. AC Milan are big admirers of Botman too and have already made progress in discussing personal terms with him.
Nico Schlotterbeck (Freiburg)
Fourth on the list, and probably the player least known in England, is Freiburg’s Nico Schlotterbeck (not to be confused with his older brother Keven, who also plays in defence for Freiburg.)
Nico Schlotterbeck has been one of the most dependable parts of Christian Streich’s Freiburg team this season, as they have put together a strong campaign for European football next season. They are fifth in the table and Schlotterbeck has started all but two of their Bundesliga games. This is his first season there as a regular, after going to Union Berlin on loan last year, and he is already attracting attention from Europe’s biggest sides. He has also forced his way into Hansi Flick’s Germany team, starting both of their March friendlies, putting him in line to play at the World Cup this November.
Schlotterbeck is stylistically more similar to Gvardiol and Bastoni, an aggressive front-foot defender who rates at 96 out of 99 for defending intensity, 81 for defending impact and 77 for ball recoveries and interceptions. In that sense, he looks like a defender who would naturally fit with how Conte wants to play.
When it comes to using the ball, his passing numbers are not as strong as the others (ball retention 33 out of 99), but his carry and dribble volume (84 out of 99) is the highest of the four in this particular area, and shows how much he looks to bring the ball out from the back.
His xG from shot creation and ball progression is the best of the four, even better than Gvardiol. This reflects his strength from set pieces, having scored four goals already for Freiburg this season. While Gvardiol and Bastoni may not be so dominant in the air, Schlotterbeck — who is 6ft 3in — has a duel rating of 76 out of 99 from open-play headers, again the best of the four.
At Freiburg, Schlotterbeck has had to play in a back three and a back four, meaning he should be able to slot into the Tottenham system next year. But the issue is that Paratici is not the only one to have noticed how good he is. There is interest in him too from Bayern Munich — and Borussia Dortmund were also keen — meaning Tottenham would face competition if they tried to get him out of the Bundesliga.
Antonio Conte is addicted to coaching and winning, and the buzz for Tottenham’s head coach has never looked as real as it did in the aftermath of their 5-1 home win over Newcastle United.
Those who know Conte best say that football is like a drug to him. However much he might like to moan and complain in press conferences, and act like he is never truly happy in whichever job he holds, the reality is the opposite.
Conte needs this. He needs to be on the training pitch every day, working his magic with the players, teaching them his patterns. He needs to be on the touchline every weekend, screaming orders. And he needs the rush of vindication that comes with every victory. (People often wonder why he took the Spurs job in November after turning it down in the summer. A big part of the answer is he did not want to spend another whole year sitting at home, out of the game.)
There have been a few good moments in Conte’s brief Tottenham tenure so far, but rarely will he have felt that dopamine surge from victory and adulation quite like on Sunday.
Yes, clearly, the 3-2 win away to champions and league leaders Manchester City in February was his best result with Spurs, but even at the time that felt like it might have been a one-off, after losing the prior three league matches.
Harry Kane celebrates scoring in February’s win over Manchester City (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
But Sunday felt different.
In front of a home crowd of 57,553 fans — this was precisely the sort of performance the new stadium was built for — Conte received wave after wave of the fans singing his name in the second half. When he was celebrating with the players at the final whistle, it looked like they were all thrilled with their work.
What has made the last few Spurs games so satisfying for Conte is that it looks as if the team has finally clicked.
Since that defeat at struggling Burnley just four days after beating City, when the Italian looked like a man close to throwing in the towel, they have won five out of six league matches, scoring 19 goals and conceding two in those five. They lost the other one, 3-2 at Old Trafford, but were the better team against Manchester United that day for long spells, only to make defensive mistakes and misfire in the attacking third.
Even so, take those six games as a block and Spurs’ haul of 21 goals scored and 15 points earned are marks of a team who have really found their groove. With every game, the team look more comfortable with Conte’s style of play.
“The hard work is paying off,” he said on Sunday. “They understand that this is the right way.”
Tottenham are tight enough at the back, and are able to create plenty of chances going forward. When they do attack — just look at the goals scored by Son Heung-min or Emerson Royal against Newcastle — they do so in a distinctly Conte way. No other coach gets his teams to play quite like this.
So, when was the last time Spurs were this good? Certainly, at the start of last season, they had a good run, winning five out of six (or six out of eight) in the league under Jose Mourinho. But that was a different style, more minimalistic, creating fewer chances, scoring fewer goals, and more dependent on the finishing of Son and Harry Kane. And it was not built to last: their form collapsed and Mourinho was sacked in the April.
To go back to the last time Tottenham were consistently winning games and winning big, you would have to go back to the middle of 2018-19 — Mauricio Pochettino’s last full season as manager. Spurs won five out of six in the January and early February, following a run of five straight victories in the December that included a 6-2 at Goodison Park and a 5-0 at home to Bournemouth either side of Christmas.
This is the first time, then, for three and a bit years that Spurs have been in this type of form.
But even that period, looking back, was the end of something, even if we did not know it at the time. That was Tottenham’s last good run in the league under Pochettino.
That team was on its last legs, after the failure to refresh it by selling those Pochettino wanted out — or by bringing in anyone at all. They had nothing left to give, which made their run to the Champions League final even more miraculous in retrospect.
What Tottenham are just starting to glimpse now, which they have not seen since the peak Pochettino years, is the sense the team is upwardly mobile, with good young players as well as experienced ones. (Dejan Kulusevski is 21, Cristian Romero 23, Rodrigo Bentancur 24.)
They look like a team whose next season should be better than this one. And every football fan knows what a powerful feeling that is.
We do not know how this season is going to end. The race to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League will be very tight but Tottenham must be buoyed by Arsenal’s 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace last night.
If Tottenham tail off over the next couple of months, miss out on fourth, and are consigned to a year in the Europa League or a second straight season in the third-tier Conference League, then, to some, the Conte experiment may look like a failure. Even though he has clearly transformed the side.
At that point, the questions will start again about Conte’s future.
He has not publicly committed himself to seeing out the final year of the contract he signed in November. He has raised the possibility that he might “stop” in the job if he does not feel his vision is aligned with that of the club. If he does not feel good about next season, about Spurs’ capacity to challenge and the players coming in this summer, he may well consider whether he would be better off elsewhere.
Then, connected to the future of Conte, is the future of Kane. Manchester United certainly want him this summer and the England captain, who has not committed his long-term future to Tottenham, would be curious to hear them out. But even though Kane has another two years left on his contract after this one and turns 29 in July, the idea that chairman Daniel Levy would sell him to domestic rivals sounds fantastical. Especially given what it would signal to Conte: that Spurs were not interested in competing next season.
But even if Conte does have his ears open to possible options elsewhere, what offers would he have, given how high-maintenance most clubs consider him to be? And, crucially, would the 52-year-old be able to work there, wherever that is, better than he can at Tottenham right now?
Paris Saint-Germain have been interested for a while and if Pochettino, their current head coach, leaves this summer then Conte would surely be top of their list.
At first glance, PSG have better players than Spurs, can guarantee Champions League football every season and play in a much more winnable domestic league.
But Conte will have noticed how difficult it is for any manager to impose his ideas on that club, given how powerful the players are. Pochettino has struggled to establish his pressing game, given he has to build around Lionel Messi and Neymar. Why would Conte fare any better?
Then there is talk of Roma back home, in case they decide to replace Mourinho this summer after a single season in charge. There may well be an attraction for Conte to go to a club who have not won Serie A for more than 20 years, and where he would be a hero if he could return them to the top.
But there are no guarantees. And many of the problems he would face in the Italian capital would look too much like the ones he currently has in London.
It could be trying to replace a long-term losing culture with a winning one, and convincing the players they could compete. Or trying to instil his ideas on an unreceptive squad, selling the players who did not buy into his way, and replacing them with some who did. But wherever he might go, Conte would face the same early-tenure challenges he has just faced at Spurs. And you wonder whether it would really be worth it to go through that same painful process again.
Because Tottenham no longer look like a team in transition. They look like a bona fide Conte team now — just one in need of a few additions.
Conte has done the hard yards with them over the past five months. Whether they finish fourth, fifth or even sixth or seventh this year, next season should be better for Tottenham than this one.
Why would he not want to be part of that?
(Top photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
Tottenham Hotspur defender Ben Davies is set to be available after he returned to the club following Wales’ win over Austria as a precaution.
Oliver Skipp and Ryan Sessegnon will return to training next week.
Newcastle United’s Martin Dubravka and Fabian Schar have both trained after withdrawing from international duty due to illness and injury respectively.
Jonjo Shelvey is back in contention, while Callum Wilson could return before the end of the season.
Tottenham have won just two of their past seven Premier League home games against Newcastle. They have failed to score more than once in any of those fixtures.
The Magpies’ only victory in nine league meetings since returning to the Premier League came away from home in 2019.
Newcastle’s Premier League record of 22 wins in this fixture is bettered only by their 23 victories against Aston Villa.
Tottenham have won four of their past five league games, having lost four of the previous five. They scored at least twice in each of their five most recent fixtures.
Spurs have recorded nine wins and eight defeats in 17 matches in all competitions in 2022. Only Brentford and Everton have lost more often this year, with nine defeats apiece.
They can win three consecutive matches for the first time since October. The third victory in that run was at Newcastle in the reverse Premier League fixture.
Tottenham need just one more league victory at home to match their total number of 10 from last season.
Spurs have benefitted from six own goals in the Premier League this season, three times as many as any other side.
Harry Kane has been directly involved in 25 or more goals in eight consecutive seasons.
Son Heung-min has scored eight goals in his last eight top-flight home appearances. His overall tally of 10 home goals is the most of any player and the first time he’s reached double figures on his own ground.
Newcastle have lost consecutive Premier League games following a nine-match unbeaten run. Both defeats have been by a 1-0 scoreline, with the goals coming in the 89th and 90th minute.
Their solitary point from eight away fixtures this season against teams in the top half of the table came in a 1-1 draw at West Ham on 19 February.
Newcastle haven’t conceded more than once in any of their last 11 Premier League matches, letting in eight goals in total.
Chris Wood has scored 18 Premier League headed goals since the beginning of 2017-18, a joint-high alongside Harry Kane and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Eddie Howe lost all five Premier League away games as Bournemouth manager versus Spurs by an aggregate score of 16-2.
On Monday afternoon, the European Club Association was presented with the details of a new proposal for a qualification model for the Champions League.
There will be four new places up for grabs from the 2024-25 season.
The ECA has now told UEFA, European football’s governing body, how it wants them to be distributed.
Of those places, two will go to teams with the best historical performance who finished outside the Champions League spots in their domestic league the previous season, another to the fifth best-performing league in Europe, and one to the ‘Champions’ pathway in qualification.
However, it is not as simple as it might seem on paper.
The Athletic has taken a look at the ECA plan, the Champions League reforms and how they would have impacted the tournament if applied in recent seasons.
Wait. What exactly is the new format for the Champions League?
The Champions League will use the so-called “Swiss model” from the 2024-25 season.
The present group-phase system where 32 clubs are drawn in eight groups of four will go out of the window. Instead, all qualifying clubs will be together in one giant table for the new-look group phase.
However, these teams will not play all the other sides. Instead, they will be guaranteed 10 matches each at that stage. That is, of course, four more than the current six that each team plays in the group stage.
The same number of teams — 16 — will go through to the first knockout round.
Crucially, though, this shake-up will see 36 teams reach the competition proper, compared to the 32 who currently play in the Champions League each season.
This is where the big decision comes into play — how, exactly, those four places are dished out.
So how are UEFA going to fill the four extra places?
One of the four spots is an extra place for the fifth best-performing league in Europe.
That would currently be France’s Ligue 1, although there is a suggestion it would instead go to the side outside the current qualification places in Portugal as Benfica and Sporting Lisbon are both performing well in Europe this season, reaching the Champions League’s quarter-finals and last-16 respectively.
The other, more traditionally distributed place, will go to an extra team qualifying from the ‘Champions’ pathway of the pre-group phase play-offs.
The two most controversial additional spots have often been referred to as ones for historic performance. This has been seen as a way to get underperforming but commercially-significant teams — like, for example, Manchester United, currently sixth in the Premier League, or Arsenal, who missed out on European football entirely this season — into the competition every year.
The agreement the ECA has come to will see teams who have not qualified for the Champions League by normal means but rank highest in the coefficients reach the competition, as anticipated. But they will need to have finished in the first spot outside their domestic division’s Champions League places — or in the next one after that if the team above them have also qualified via this ‘historic’ route.
An extra spot for clubs who have performed well historically could benefit the likes of Arsenal (Photo: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)
This could mean one or two extra qualifications from teams who are historically significant and have performed well over the last five years — the period in which the coefficients are calculated — but are not able to leapfrog teams above them who do not qualify this way.
So, for example, if Manchester United finish fifth in the Premier League, and are the highest-ranked team in terms of coefficients who did not qualify through traditional means, they would get into the Champions League.
If they finished sixth, behind, say, Brighton, who have a poor or non-existent European record, they would not be able to leapfrog them and it would go to the next ranked team elsewhere in Europe.
But there is scope for United qualifying if they finish sixth behind Arsenal, who, like them, have a strong coefficient based on their historical performances.
Who would have qualified in the extra slots in each of the last five seasons?
The qualifiers over the last five years based on their historical performance and league position
Whose league position would have kept them out in recent seasons?
Last season, Arsenal were 10th in the coefficient rankings — and had the highest UEFA coefficient of any team who did not qualify for the Champions League — but finished eighth in Premier League, so would not take one of those historical spots.
Ditto Roma, who were the next highest at 13th, but finished sixth in Serie A.
Tottenham also ranked high in the UEFA coefficients — 15th — but their seventh-place finish would not have given them a spot. Nor would it in 2019-20, when they were 14th in the coefficients but finished sixth domestically.
The presence of Leicester City and West Ham United over the last two seasons would have, essentially, made it impossible for a team finishing sixth in the Premier League to qualify for this competition through the historical placings.
In 2018-19, Sevilla finished sixth in La Liga behind Getafe on head to head record after they both earned 59 points. Both went into the 2019-20 Europa League — and Sevilla ended up winning it. However, one extra domestic point for Sevilla that season would have seen them qualify for the Champions League from fifth place, under the coming system, as they had ranked seventh in the UEFA coefficients.
So why will this new format appeal to UEFA?
You only have to look at the seasons between 2017-18 and 2019-20 to understand why UEFA would want this change.
Commercially, the Champions League having two extra qualifiers from the Premier League would be a big boost.
This would especially be the case if it were the likes of United or Arsenal, teams who have performed badly at times in the last half-decade but still bring plenty of value in sponsorship and broadcasting terms to competition organisers.
Intriguingly, however, separate sources countered that the coefficient places may yet be protected by UEFA, as the increased likelihood of an extra English team or two in the competition is perceived to add value when selling broadcast rights and seeking sponsorship.
A well-placed source told The Athletic: “These places are important to big clubs — and also UEFA. This is the thing being missed. Those spots are a significant value driver to a new Champions League. The revenues from UEFA club competitions… when they grow, the distribution to European football as a whole grows significantly.
“UEFA’s desire to grow the value of the Champions League, which these four spots are very important for, is unabated.”
Having more historically-strong clubs in the Champions League could benefit UEFA in terms of broadcast-rights revenue (Photo: Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
And how could all this help stimulate the club game?
Imagine if, say, Juventus, Manchester United and Atletico Madrid are all struggling to finish in the top four of their respective leagues in a single season. Currently, they are eighth, ninth and 10th in the UEFA coefficients respectively. In this hypothetical scenario, all three sides are fifth in their leagues, one place outside the usual Champions League qualifying spots.
United fans might prefer to keep an eye on Juventus’ final game of the season against, say, Sassuolo rather than West Ham’s one with Norwich City, as they could be more likely to finish fifth and then qualify through this new route than by doing it the old way in finishing fourth.
La Liga could then receive a boost in terms of UK viewership if British viewers tune in to Atletico’s hypothetical shock loss to Getafe.
This example would see United into the Champions League, along with Juventus, as the two highest ranking sides in UEFA’s coefficient who didnt qualify through the traditional means.
Will this change definitely happen?
It’s not guaranteed. This is the ECA — the clubs’ lobbying body — rather than UEFA. That should not be much of an issue, though, as this is the crucial step towards final approval.
UEFA’s deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti explained all this to Europe’s top sides in a hotel in central Vienna today. It is expected to be discussed by UEFA in April before it gives the plan the green light in May.
This article is part of a series looking at how historic transfer fees would look today. The modern-day values have been compiled using a system devised by Kieran Maguire and Jason Laws that adjusts the fees for increases in football inflation, based on revenue increases over time. You can read the full series here.
Did you know that Tottenham Hotspur paid more for Jason Dozzell than they did for Tanguy Ndombele?
No? Well, that’s because… they didn’t.
But if you factor in football inflation, Dozzell, who signed from Ipswich Town in 1993, cost Spurs £54.3 million in today’s money. That’s more than not just Ndombele — their record signing — but also many of the club’s more successful acquisitions of the Premier League era.
To paint a more accurate picture of how transfer fees have changed over time, and therefore what players such as Alan Shearer, Roy Keane, and, yes, Dozzell would cost now, The Athletic has called upon football finance expert Kieran Maguire and his colleague Jason Laws at the University of Liverpool. They have developed a calculator which adjusts for increases in football inflation, based on revenue increases over time.
Those calculations convert historic Premier League transfer fees into the equivalent cost today. The fees are based on 2019 money, as that was the last year not distorted by COVID-19, and give a much more realistic reflection of the spending power on show in the modern game.
It tells us Tottenham have overpaid on underperforming strikers for longer than they might like to imagine, and have often been left wanting when they have sought to make ‘statement signings’…
Dozzell’s new price tag doesn’t make him Spurs’ most costly signing — in fact, it doesn’t even place him in the top 10 of their inflation-adjusted deals during the Premier League era.
A glance down that list will likely send a shiver down the spine of any Tottenham fan — or accountant. These are certainly not the 10 best signings the club have made in the last 30 years…
Spurs’ top 10 ‘inflated’ transfers Player Signed From,
£55.1 * fees as per transfermarkt.co.uk ** based on revenue inflation
Some of these calculations translate to the modern game better than others.
Were Spurs to show interest in Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu this summer, £60.5 million wouldn’t feel an entirely mad price tag, given the fees paid for centre-backs such as Nathan Ake, Ben White and Harry Maguire in recent seasons. Like Salisu, Dean Richards quickly developed into a hugely impressive Premier League defender over the course of two years with Southampton. Were he playing now, he could easily demand a fee in that ballpark.
Yet it’s hard to imagine a club paying a similar fee for a highly-rated youngster at a club who had just finished ninth in the second tier, regardless of whether he’d impressed against top-flight opposition in the FA Cup the previous season. As good as Darren Anderton was for Portsmouth during their run to the 1992 FA Cup semi-finals, surely those performances alone wouldn’t be enough to convince a club to stump up £61.1 million for the equivalent player in modern football.
The inflated fee for Sergiy Rebrov is also eye-catching, given it breaches the three-figure mark Spurs haven’t even come close to reaching with contemporaneous fees.
The £16.2 million they paid Dynamo Kyiv for the Ukrainian was a big gamble. Rebrov had thrived in the Champions League — his partnership with Andriy Shevchenko helping Dynamo reach the Champions League semi-finals in 1999 — but at the age of 26, he had never played in one of Europe’s major leagues and struggled to adapt to English football, despite some flashes of brilliance in his first year at White Hart Lane.
The converted fee neatly contextualises exactly how big a punt chairman Alan Sugar and manager George Graham took on Rebrov. While it could be argued that it isn’t entirely dissimilar to what Atletico Madrid paid Benfica for teenager Joao Felix in 2019 (he hadn’t played in a major league at that point either), it’s more than double what Liverpool paid for Luis Diaz, who feels a better comparison given his age (25), two months ago.
It also perhaps gives some insight into the changing face of the club’s largesse in the transfer market.
Seven of Spurs’ top eight inflation-adapted deals took place before Daniel Levy and ENIC took over the club in December 2000, the exception being Darren Bent, whose £22.28 million move in 2007 translates to £78.6 million today.
Tottenham have famously made a point of looking for players with great potential and sell-on value over the last 15 years or so, a policy that hasn’t hit the mark every time but has undeniably helped moved the club on to another level.
Giovani Dos Santos, Heurelho Gomes and Luka Modric all joined Spurs in 2008 (Photo: Getty)
Luka Modric, who ranks as the club’s 10th most expensive signing when adjusted for football inflation, was certainly an example of that policy working like a charm.
Signed from Dinamo Zagreb at the age of 22 for £20.25 million — £55.1 million in today’s money — Modric ran the midfield of a side that twice finished in the Premier League’s top four, before leaving for Real Madrid after four years in London, earning Spurs a decent profit.
The Belgian trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Mousa Dembele coming in at a combined £85 million also still feels like shrewd business — Levy and managing director of football Fabio Paratici would surely be willing to pay a lot more to replace them with players of the equivalent standard.
There are a few other points of note beyond that top 10.
Ben Thatcher (£47.1m) cost more than Gareth Bale (£46.7m), Chris Perry (£44.1m) cost more than Son Heung-min (£41.5m), and Kevin Scott (£25.1m) cost more than Hugo Lloris (£24.9m).
The 2005 January deadline-busting double deal for Andy Reid and Michael Dawson now coming in at just over £50 million certainly ‘hits different’, as does Moussa Saib, who was a Spurs cult hero for all of 20 minutes in 1998, costing £26.3 million.
Yet the inflation-adjusted £28.9 million forked out to Newcastle for David Ginola still feels a decent deal given what he achieved at the club, even if it’s hard to imagine Tottenham spending that much on a 30-year-old smoker in the year 2022 — remember the sell-on value…
(Top photo: Michael Craig/EMPICS via Getty Images)
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Tottenham Hotspur’s January transfer window did not feel like a triumph at the time.
They failed to get Adama Traore or Luis Diaz, and got rid of four players and replaced them with just two. When Antonio Conte went on Sky Italia and talked about losing four “important” players and suggested the club might have focused on signing players with more experience, it felt like another difficult window, and another missed opportunity.
Five weeks on, the picture looks quite different.
Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski have settled into Conte’s first team and instantly made it better. Each player could claim to be the best that Tottenham have in his role. These are still very early days — and Spurs’ season might still tail off and end in another fifth- or sixth-placed finish — but right now the early talk that these two players were merely Juventus cast-offs looks to be wide of the mark.
Tottenham have struggled in the middle of the pitch since the break-up of the partnership of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, and Bentancur already looks like an instant upgrade on what has come before him. He is clearly a very gifted footballer: comfortable in possession, able to take the ball in tight spaces and move it forward quickly and cleanly. He is able not only to keep the ball but to play difficult, incisive passes too — the type of distribution that starts an attack, like his assist for Harry Kane at Brighton last week, or his pre-assist to Kane, who then set up Son Heung-min, against West Ham on Sunday. In a team that has struggled recently to build through the middle of the pitch, Bentancur already stands out.
As well as that, Bentancur has proven to be a very willing worker without the ball, happy to run all day and put pressure on the opposition at the right moments. Given how important it is to Conte that his players are willing to “suffer” for him, that defensive diligence is invaluable.
Kulusevski, too, has notably improved Tottenham. Playing on the right of the front three, he has proven to be the link man between Kane and Son and the rest of the team — something that they have not had since Christian Eriksen was sold two years ago.
During the first few months of his tenure, Conte tended to play Lucas Moura in that role. And although Moura always worked hard for the team, and often chipped in with his share of goals, he has not traditionally been a player who elevates the others around him. His game is more about making the difference by himself. Now that Kulusevski has effectively replaced Moura, the team is better balanced and better at creating chances.
Kulusevski celebrates his second goal for Spurs in the 4-0 win at Leeds (Photo: Getty)
According to FBref.com, Kulusevski already has seven goal-creating actions (GCA) for Spurs in the Premier League — only Kane (13) and Son (nine) have more in that time. If you look at GCA per 90 minutes played, Kulusevski’s rate of 0.93 is only bettered by Bryan Gil, from a much smaller sample size. He is far ahead of Bentancur (0.59), Steven Bergwijn (0.54) and Kane (0.48).
Not only have Kulusevski and Bentancur been good as individuals, then, but they have clearly enhanced the team. It is easy to forget sometimes, given Conte’s erratic outbursts, and the gap that still exists between Spurs and Arsenal, but the simple fact is that Tottenham have been steadily improving for a while and these two players are a big part of that. Take a step back and look at their league form and they have won five of the last seven, or four of the last five. Their last league defeat at Old Trafford was painful to take, but Tottenham were the better team for long spells of the game. Yes, they still need an Arsenal wobble for them to get fourth, but Tottenham themselves are heading in the right direction.
What has been so impressive about Bentancur and Kulusevski is how quickly they have hit the ground running, with seemingly no time required to settle into the Premier League. We are all used to the idea that recruits from abroad need time to adjust, and sometimes that never quite happens.
Tottenham spent two and a half seasons waiting for Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele to look fully settled, and while each player did have a few good spells in the team, they both left a sense that they could not quite unlock their talents at Spurs. Whether that was because of a lack in their own efforts, an incompatibility with the coaches who followed Mauricio Pochettino, or bad luck with injuries is open to debate. But the fact that both players were loaned out in January — and Tottenham do not look like they have missed them — shows how difficult these signings can be.
In the context of Tottenham’s recent struggles to recruit good players, the most recent window looks even better. That simple fact — two players came in and immediately improved the first team — already makes this window stand out in recent Tottenham Hotspur history.
Just ask yourself: when was the last transfer window when Spurs signed two players who were instant upgrades?
Bentancur was hugely impressive in Sunday’s 3-1 win over rivals West Ham (Photo: Getty)
Some may argue it was as recently as the summer of 2020, when Spurs signed Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Sergio Reguilon and Gareth Bale, but in truth it took Reguilon a while to get up to speed (and even now he is not a guaranteed starter), and Bale’s brief impact only came in the second half of that season. The fact that Jose Mourinho was sacked in April 2021 suggests that window did not turn out quite as well as it looked at the time.
Beyond that? Spurs signed five good squad players in the summer of 2017 (Serge Aurier, Juan Foyth, Paulo Gazzaniga, Davinson Sanchez and Fernando Llorente) but none of them were an instant first-team upgrade.
You could go back to the summer of 2015, when they signed Toby Alderweireld (a huge upgrade), Son and Kieran Trippier, as well as getting Dele Alli back from his initial loan-back to MK Dons. But even then, Son struggled to make an impact in that first season, and Trippier was initially back-up to Kyle Walker.
Arguably the Gareth Bale replacement summer of 2013 (Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli and so on) fits the bill. Or the summer before, when Spurs appointed Andre Villas-Boas and bought Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Dembele.
So, as a window, you have to go back almost 10 years to find something equivalent. And if you only look at January windows rather than summer ones, you have to go back even further. Spurs have had a difficult time in January windows in recent years, with Moura’s arrival in 2018 being a rare exception. The Louis Saha and Ryan Nelsen window in January 2012 was in infamous let down. Younes Kaboul and Eidur Gudjonsen in January 2010 was more successful — both played a part in Harry Redknapp’s team finishing in the top four at the end of that season.
Redknapp’s first window, signing Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe, Pascal Chimbonda and Wilson Palacios in January 2009, was the last time Spurs have made such an impact at that time of year. And that was 13 years ago, in a very different world.
Perhaps the early success of these two players — as well as the brilliance of Cristian Romero — should push us to re-evaluate how well Fabio Paratici has done since his appointment as managing director of football last June.
Clearly, Paratici’s tenure started in a difficult way as he presided over the shambolic head coach appointment process. One of Paratici’s first acts in the job was to pull out of the move for Paulo Fonseca before trying to appoint Gennaro Gattuso, only for Tottenham fans to make that untenable. Paratici eventually went for Nuno Espirito Santo, who was sacked by Daniel Levy after 10 league games.
But now that Tottenham do have an elite coach in Conte, Paratici can focus on the work of trying to build the squad that Conte needs for Spurs to challenge. This is something that Tottenham have struggled with over the last few years, trying to find players who can improve their first team. More often than not, they have not quite managed it. If Paratici does have three successes to his name already, that is progress.
For far too long Tottenham have been a two-star team, carried by Harry Kane and Son Heung-min up front, and with not much else in terms of brilliance, personality and that sense of magnetism that the very best players have.
Cristian Romero has all that in buckets. There are not many centre-backs who are so compelling that you struggle to take your eyes off them, but you try to watch a Tottenham game without having your eyes drawn to the 23-year-old. He is arguably the most exciting defender in the country.
His performance at Brighton and Hove Albion was a case in point — brilliant in defence, snapping into tackles, throwing himself in front of shots, making one goal-saving tackle on Neal Maupay and then another on Danny Welbeck with Tottenham trying to preserve their 2-0 lead.
The reward for all this was a clean sheet. That might not sound like much against a team as blunt as this Brighton side, but this is a Tottenham team who have struggled defensively all season. It feels as if they might slowly be turning a corner in this sense; this was their third clean sheet from their last four league games, and before those, their last one was on New Year’s Day. But judgements on this point still feel provisional. Tottenham will need to keep out better teams than Brighton before they point to this certain improvement.
Still, the last time Spurs played Brighton, in the FA Cup on February 5, they won 3-1 without convincing. Brighton dominated in terms of possession and shots. Last night, after winning this game 2-0, Conte said his Spurs team played “a better game” than in that FA Cup tie, where the result was “a bit unfair, because Brighton shot a lot and were unlucky”. Maybe that does point to a defence slowly moving in the right direction.
The defensive side of the game is only one part of what Romero does. There are other defenders out there who defend like he does — trying to be first to everything — but what makes Romero so special is that he is arguably the best ball-playing centre-back in the country too.
Anyone who watched Spurs play when Romero was out knows how hard the team found it to build up from the back with Davinson Sanchez and Japhet Tanganga in the back three. The whole Conte game plan is based on inviting pressure from the other team and then passing through them. With Sanchez and Tanganga in defence, that simply was not possible. Now Romero is back, every attack starts with Hugo Lloris passing the ball short to the Argentina international waiting ominously to his right.
Take the definitive performance under Conte so far, the 3-2 win at the Etihad Stadium. Spurs’ first and second goals both started with Romero. The move that saw Ederson save from Harry Kane started with Romero intercepting the ball. The winning goal started with Davies, but the move involved Romero twice. (He also started the moves for Spurs’ first two goals in their 5-0 rout of Everton earlier this month.)
Not only does Romero start Spurs’ moves now, but he is increasingly involved with progressing the ball even further after that initial pass. He is a nuisance not only to opposition attackers but to opposition defenders too, forcing Harry Maguire into the mistake that drew Spurs level at Old Trafford last Saturday. (This led to Romero’s infamous taunting celebration which, it must be said, looked bad at the time and even worse given how the game turned out.)
At the Amex Stadium there were more signs of how dangerous Romero can be high up the pitch. The opening goal came from a move that Romero drove forward, leading to patient possession on the edge of the box, and eventually a hopeful shot from Dejan Kulusevski. But it was Romero, the right-sided centre-back, who was there in the area, deflecting the ball into the net.
Romero is key to how Tottenham want to play under Conte (Photo: David Horton – CameraSport via Getty Images)
In the second half, as Spurs tried to double their lead, Romero was always there at the heart of it. At one point he drove forward with the ball, too powerful for Alexis Mac Allister, to set up Son whose shot was blocked by Joel Veltman, before having a follow-up shot blocked himself. Not many centre-backs are this desperate to influence the game in the opposition half or, more to the point, are this good at it.
On evenings like this Romero looks the complete package, and there were none of the set-piece switch-offs that cost Spurs at Turf Moor and Old Trafford. But when asked afterwards about Romero, Conte, who said Romero had “a really good game,” was also keen to point out there is a lot of work left to be done.
“Cristian Romero is a good player, and he has to be focused in every moment of the game,” said the Italian. “If he is focused in every moment of the game, with the ball, without the ball, he is a really good player with a lot of space for improvement.”
And it is the prospect of Romero improving that should be so exciting for Tottenham. Kane and Son have been in their peak for a while, so it is some time since Spurs had someone who was on their way to reaching the top level in the game.
Fabio Paratici has had plenty of criticism during his time at Tottenham, but his decision late last July to agree to pay the full purchase price of €50 million (£42.5 million) that Atalanta wanted will go down as one of the best in his tenure. Tottenham’s initial offer of €40 million (£34.3 million) had not been enough to secure the player and the question was whether Paratici would stretch to the extra €10 million for the player he signed for Juventus from Genoa in 2019.
Perhaps in hindsight, it is surprising Spurs did not face more competition for Romero. Lionel Messi was arguably the biggest obstacle. The Argentine had captained his country to the 2021 Copa America and over the course of the tournament fell in love with Romero. Even though the defender only made his Argentina debut in June, he played in two of their first three games and, after picking up a knee injury, he recovered in time to play in the final against Brazil.
When Messi returned to Barcelona — while he was still negotiating a new deal there — he insisted they buy Romero from Atalanta before anyone else. Barcelona did not see things Messi’s way and were never serious contenders. Some senior Barcelona officials were desperate for Tottenham to sign Romero, simply to stop Messi from pestering them to sign him. Paratici paid Atalanta the money, Barcelona were relieved, and their attempts to keep Messi collapsed anyway and he ended up at Paris Saint-Germain.
Seven months later, Paratici’s decision to invest in Romero is looking remarkably shrewd. We still do not know how this season will turn out, success or failure, and there is no point trying to predict the future from here. But we do know that anything good Spurs do will have Romero at its heart, and that Conte’s team cannot play the way they do without him. If Romero has as much room to improve as Conte says, he may one day turn into Spurs’ biggest star of all.