Here come the teams!
Back to the top of the table, I wondered if, watching Arsenal against Leeds last weekend, they’d run out of form or won despite a rare poor performance because that’s what the best teams do. Their performance this afternoon suggested the latter, though now they’re through in the Europa, a midweek rest for the first XI might be restorative. The thing is, though, this season more than any other will work in favour of those clubs with big squads, making the league an even greatest test of financial resources than usual.
“A year ago Spurs lost at West Ham, barely scraped past Burnley and got thumped by Ole’s United,” emails Yash Gupta. “So when Conte came in, it was fresh to see players passing the ball around just to feel it instead of always trying to launch a counter. I really enjoyed Spurs since then until the game at West Ham this season when at around 66 minutes this realisation came, there’s no point in watching this game. We ain’t doing anything to score a goal and by the end West Ham should’ve won it. I remember against Southampton under Mourinho on New Year’s day when for the first time I felt at around 55 minutes – there’s just no point. There is no clear plan of how we’re going to string five passes together never mind score a goal.
Spurs fans were staring at another crushing run of mid-table mediocrity before Conte. He brought passion. And so everything felt good. Yes we were never going to win the title or challenge for it this season. But I just want to watch Spurs play without fear. What’s the point in this cowardly play and for what? So we don’t concede goals. If not for Hugo Wednesday night would’ve been a historic shellacking anyway. I hope Conte realises this. Winning ugly ain’t good and here at Spurs, Mourinho found out these players are not suited to that either. I firmly believe Conte will bring success. He just needs to be brave.”
It’s very hard not to watch the teams who’ve beaten Spurs this season and think hmm, managers on the way up and at the cutting edge, versus a manager past his best, from whom the game is getting away. I’m not saying he’s not been brilliant, not at all – his performance in winning the title with Chelsea is one of the best in the Premier League era, but I wonder if he’s prepared to change his principles in line with the way the game has changed since then. I also wonder if those principles are why he’s consistently failed in the Champions League.
Eddie Howe is delighted for Guimaraes, who travelled down alone, late last night and was very emotional to become a father. He wants his team to be adaptable, but they also have a style they want to stick to.
Conte, meanwhile, says Hojbjerg and Romero are injured and today is a difficult game, so the team need the fans to stay close.
“Not sure if I agree with the assertion that Spurs lack class in midfield,” says Kieran McHugh. “Rodrigo Bentancur is one of the most underrated midfielders in the league. He does lack this class in depth though, agreed. Also Leicester won the league by soaking up pressure and using Vardy’s pace and clinical finishing alongside Mahrez.”
I think Bentancur is decent too, but I don’t think he’d get into any other “big six” midfield. And, while it’s true that Leicester won the league in a particular style – though I’d not leave Ngolo Kanté out of any description of how they did it – the standard has gone up massively since then. They’d not be champions now, just as Conte’s Chelsea wouldn’t either.
Looking again at that Spurs side, I’ve a question: from where is creativity supposed to emanate? Skipp, Bissouma and Bentancur have their qualities, but none are renowned for their passing, dribbling or goalscoring while, in wide areas, Emerson and Sessegnon are both raw. And there’s not much on the bench either, unless Conte were to stick Bryan Gil, whom there’s no evidence he rates, inside. I don’t really get it, because even Conte’s Chelsea team that won the title had Fabregas, Hazard and one of Pedro or Willian in the middle of the pitch.
Back to those earlier results, by the way, Leeds have replaced Leicester in the bottom three, while Wolves look in for a long, hard winter.
What about Miguel Almíron, by the way? After scoring just once last season, he’s already bagged five this, most recently a beauty in midweek. He always grafted his behind off, but is now showing the verve we saw in MLS, that is why Newcastle signed him.
Southampton-Arsenal has finished 1-1, meaning Arsenal stay top but just two points in front of Man City – and five in front of Spurs. Southampton move up to 15th while, elsewhere, Fulham won 3-2 at Leeds, Villa marked Steven Gerrard’s sacking by thumping Brentford 4-0 – of their goals, three came in the first 14 minutes – and Leicester clattered Wolves 4-0.
The thing with Spurs is, and will continue to be, their lack of midfield class. There’s no permutation available to Conte – that Conte has made available to himself – which allows them to outplay a decent side. I think the 3-5-2 is better for them than the 3-4-3 because it means they’re not outnumbered in that area while giving Son greater freedom, but you can’t challenge for titles on the counter-attack.
As for Newcastle, Eddie Howe brings in Joe Willock for Jacob Murphy; Guimarães starts, despite becoming a father a couple of days ago. I’m sure there’s a gag here about watching Spurs play to catch up on missed sleep, but I’m far too mature to make it.
Back to our teams, Conte makes five changes to the side that subsided so abjectly at Old Trafford: at wing-back, Emerson Royal returns from suspension, replacing Matt Doherty while, on the other side, it’s Ryan Sessegnon not Perisic. In the middle of defence, Clement Lenglet and Davison Sanchez are in for Ben Davies and the injured Cristian Romero, while in midfield, Oliver Skipp makes his first start of the season in place of the also-injured Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.
Today’s other lates scores:
Aston Villa 4-0 Brentford
Leeds 1-3 Fulham
Wolves 0-4 Leicester
Before we have a look at the teams in more detail, let me alert you to the closing stages at st Mary’s, where Southampton and Arsenal are locked at 1-1.
Tottenham Hotspur (3-5-2): Lloris; Lenglet, Sanchez, Dier; Royal, Skipp, Bentancur, Bissouma, Sessegnon; Son, Kane. Subs: Forster, Doherty, Gil, Perisic, Spence, Tanganga, Moura, Davies, White.
Newcastle United (4-2-3-1): Pope; Trippier, Botman, Schar, Burn; Joelinton, Longstaff; Willock, Guimarães, Almiron; Wilson. Subs: Karius, Lascelles, Shelvey, Lewis, Targett, Manquillo, Wood, Fraser, Murphy.
Referee: Jarred Gillet (Gold Coast, Queensland)
Football – and modern life – and the human psyche – love a crisis. There’s little more engaging than misery – especially, though not uniquely, when it isn’t yours – and for Tottenham, sitting third in the table amounts to a crisis. I know that’s not the kind of circumstance the word “spursy” was coined to describe, but how absolutely spursy it is nonetheless.
The reason for the angst is, to put a fine point on it, Antonio Conte. At the end of last season, he did really well to confrontationally cajole his team into the final Champions League spot – helped, admittedly, by staggering incompetence elsewhere – then use his achievement to extract money from his board. But that’s where the problems started. Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma and Richarlison are decent players just as Djed Spence is a decent prospect, but even at the time, it looked like more than £100m spent turning a team able to contest the Champions League places but no more into a team still able to contest the Champions League places but no more.
Nor is that it. Pretty much every time Spurs have faced decent opposition this season, they’ve been outplayed – by Chelsea, though they sneaked a draw at the end, by Arsenal and by Manchester United – and in general, play a reactive style that’s hard to watch in and of itself, never mind when you peruse the talent available to make that not so. Teams with far worse players than Spurs play for more engaging football, and you can forgive those of their supporters who are wondering as to the point of it.
Newcastle, on the other hand, are doing things differently. The provenance of that is, of course, to our collective shame, but though they bought Chris Wood, Kieran Trippier and Dan Burn to make sure they stayed up, they’ve also acquired Bruno Guimarães, Sven Botman and Alexander Isaak – youngsters who might develop into top players and a level above those bought by Spurs.
And their hard-running, proactive style is – even now – precisely that with which Conte’s men have struggled this season. There are many ways to go about “winning football matches”, but for a club that has spent so lavishly and for whom good football is a prerequisite, hanging back to hang in there while hoping for a counter or that Harry Kane or Heung-min Son do something, doesn’t feel sustainable.
Kick-off: 4.30pm BST