Antonio Conte is yet to show he’s Tottenham’s man for the big occasion

It was perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson’s second most famous three-word phrase, not quite ‘football goddamn it’, but an addition to the sport’s lexicon nonetheless. ‘Guys it’s Tottenham’, the gloriously scathing team lingo was true at the time. In the years of Mauricio Pochettino, or in other words in the reign of Antonio Conte, this was rarely the case. The Italian is the ranting antidote to Ferguson’s suspected softness. In his own way, he brings intensity and identity to every club he manages.

But apparently not to one where he hoped to create. His record at Old Trafford is now: played four, lost four. The humiliating part of the Tottenham defeat wasn’t the result as Manchester United won 2-0. It was a different statistic. It was the 28 shots taken by Erik ten Hag’s side that Ferguson watched, the most any team has attempted in a Premier League game this season. Even Bournemouth conceded fewer shots at 0-9. Even Nottingham Forest allowed less in games where signings had to check the backs of their team-mates’ shirts to see their names. Even United only allowed 22 in a Manchester derby where they were gutted and embarrassed.

A few days later, Conte said, not entirely coincidentally, that he didn’t like “playing open and getting six, seven or eight.” A few weeks later, only Hugo Lloris’ brilliance saved his side from conceding six goals. That was Tottenham, but neither was the club’s historic image as inveterate entertainers. Those 28 shots came when Spurs didn’t open the game either: or not on purpose, anyway. Ivan Perisic is on the more attacking end of the full-back spectrum, but otherwise Conte could hardly have named a more cautious team. He brought Yves Bissouma into midfield to join Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg but they felt ineffective on three counts as Fred took charge of the game.

Overloading with defensive midfielders did little to bolster Conte’s impressive reputation as a defensive strategist. This was no tactical master class. But the line-up wasn’t atypical either: instead, quintessential Conte tactics provided an unexpected amount of excitement. Rewind to February and the Italian argued his previous setback at Old Trafford was owed to an inspired person. “We lost against it [Cristiano] Ronaldo, not against Manchester United,” he said. On his return he lost to United, to Fred and to Bruno Fernandes, to Antony and to Ten Hag.

Perhaps he lost a battle of ideas against a manager with a bolder concept. “We were a bit scared,” Conte said, even if that wasn’t an indication of his own game plan. However, when it was a team full of ambition against a team without ambition, he thought it was a mentality problem. His side lacked the necessary fighting spirit. “You have to arrive with a war inside you,” he said. “You have to be ready to fight a war and in the end you or your opponent die.”

The language was melodramatic, but the more relevant part came in the analysis. The table shows Tottenham third; Your season shows the ability to beat the rest. But not the best so far. So far they have a decidedly lucky point out of a possible nine against the big six and the only mitigating factor is that they still have to play their peers at home.

“Every time we’ve played a game at a high level, we have problems,” said Conte. “We are fighting against Chelsea because we drew, but Chelsea dominated the game. And with Arsenal we lost and today against United we lost and sure [when] The level is high, we will fight.”

It was a bleak prognosis from a manager who likes to downplay Tottenham’s chances. “You can’t go from ninth place to title contender in just 10 or 11 months,” he said, although his argument was weakened by the fact his side were overwhelmed by United, who fell short of sixth place last season and now threatens to accelerate past Spurs.

In Conte’s defence, Ten Hag had the more expensive and talented team, Tottenham a mix of a superstar up front, a world champion goalkeeper and a more prosaic defense and midfield. Conte may feel that just to take Spurs back to the Champions League he needs to overachieve, that he needs to bridge gaps in resources and class. Tottenham could feel the Italian should change the game that in the absence of Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison potential match winners were Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son and Conte. At the start of the season, there was a feeling that the Italian was third in a managerial league table behind only Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. So far, his expertise has shown itself in efficiency by finding a way to win the most profitable games. But Conte should be the man for the big events, not just the manager for the smaller games. Antonio Conte is yet to show he’s Tottenham’s man for the big occasion

Fry Electronics Team

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