How Conte’s Commandments Got Spurs Back In The Champions League
Antonio Conte comes with guarantees. Short-term, but more importantly, success. Follow his commandments and thou shall follow. No better example has been Tottenham Hotspur, an unbalanced and unstructured mess, which he was able to reform mid-season to make a miraculous recovery and reach a precious Champions League spot.
Written by Joel Parker.
Principles are king in forward planning. Come unprepared, prepare to fail. It’s the lack of ideas that saw Tottenham’s Joséification turn sour. Conte was the dream appointment after he stepped away from Scudetto winners Internazionale, but Nuno Espírito Santo was the man available come summer.
In theory, this was an appointment that made some sort of sense. A manager who also bounces between 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 formations and loves transitions. However, Nuno failed to install his style, which had seen him respected at Wolves. Three consecutive 1-0 wins was a good start, but structural issues were aggravated in poor performances against the likes of Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Spurs dismissed Nuno with the club sitting in ninth place, losing five of their first ten games, but their dream appointment was within reach. Antonio Conte was announced the next day and the reshape soon followed. Tottenham is short in a few positions, noticeably in their wing-back and defensive areas, but this is a team who has drastically improved by building on automated attacks.
After an inconsistent winter period, Spurs blossomed in spring. Just one defeat in their last eleven games, winning eight of those matches, saw Tottenham go from eighth to taking the final Champions League spot, pipping Arsenal in the process. This is the tactical story of how they were able to stride back into Europe’s biggest competition.
Back three to back four
A lot of Spurs’ success has come against teams that press. Wins against Manchester City and draws to Liverpool highlight the effect of their deeper 4-2-4 passing structure and why teams find it so difficult to cage Tottenham in.
It’s this arrangement that put Conte in his coaching comfort zone. With the opposition team stepping up, it creates space for the three attackers to craft their combinations, and often hit the last line with great pace. Press Spurs in a dysfunctional manner and you are bound to be punished.
From goal-kicks, Eric Dier and Cristian Romero split on Hugo Lloris, with Ben Davies pushing further out on the left side. This makes Spurs very expansive and capable of quickly distributing the ball towards Davies or Emerson Royal on the right.
With Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg staying narrow in these phases, it stops the opposition wingers from reacting quickly to this pass out wide and Tottenham keeps their expansive shape to draw teams towards them from higher up.
3rd minute, versus Man City: Classic Tottenham combination. With Sessegnon occupying Walker, space opened for Son’s curved run round on the right of City’s defense. This further created space for Kane to drop and receive, with Rodri following Son’s run. (Grey ball, first pass: black ball, second pass.)
Their first goal in the 3-2 away win to Manchester City perfectly shows how difficult they are to press in these scenarios. Davies was afforded the time and triggered a predetermined move that opened the hosts’ 4-2-3-1 press. Ryan Sessegnon dropped deep to drag Kyle Walker, whilst Heung-Min Son sprinted into the space to evade Rodri. Harry Kane opened the passing lane, by being able to receive in the space Rodri moved from and put the ball behind the City defenders for Son to run onto.
It’s this organization that helped Spurs evade Liverpool’s press too, Romero was often able to fire the ball to Dejan Kulusevski, positioned inside of the opposition fullback. Although Spurs had phases when they lost the ball from deep, this often came from a poor choice of pass, instead of Liverpool’s press truly kicking into gear.
The 4-2-4 deep build not only helps them jump through pressure, but is the launchpad to build semi-transitional attacks themselves; with the center of the field more open and space for patterns to connect.
As well as building from deep, rotating into a back four can also apply with the ball higher up the field. Højbjerg interacts more with the center-backs, which can encourage them wider and force an opposition midfielder out of their defensive block – hugely beneficial to their three forwards.
Part of the reason they broke Crystal Palace down, at home on Boxing Day, was that Højbjerg being deeper resulted in Conor Gallagher moving more forward, and a three-versus-two was created from the Tottenham trio against the Palace double pivot. Two central midfielders next to each other.
23rd minute, vs West Ham: Buildup to Tottenham’s second goal. Lane opened by Kane’s lateral movement away from the ball and center-backs were pinned back by direct runs.
A more obvious example was seen in how their setup stretched West Ham’s defense and opened up the center. Wide positions from Ben Davies and Matt Doherty parted the opposition midfield for Bentancur to feed the ball into Harry Kane, as Souček pressed Bentancur and Kane evaded Rice. Both Son and Kulusevski hit the center-backs with direct runs towards the goal, creating more space for Kane to receive.
It is no secret that the combination of Son and Kane has thrived in transitional moments. Their offensive work had genuine talk of Mourinho’s Tottenham kicking up a title challenge before Christmas 2020, their incredible finishing run masking the fact that they did not take too many shots at goal. Under Conte, these attacks are more coordinated and prescripted.
Great 11v0 Conte training goal. pic.twitter.com/zOCzT0gmfX— Erik Elias (@erikelias_) November 5, 2021
Spurs have the setup to build fast attacks, but their forwards are so effective in ramping up the offensive charge. When Son and Kulusevski drop deep to receive, it is so common for them to beat the presser on the turn, thanks to the aforementioned setup that creates central space. Kulusevski is so effective in this area, the perfect asset to Kane’s lateral presence and the explosive/out-to-in runs that Son makes towards the goal.
This is the pattern that is most effective for Tottenham. With two forwards that constantly aim to move behind the last line, Kane is usually the perfect anchor point that connects the play. This reinvention of Kane’s role was seen in Mourinho’s time: the striker dropped more to the left, which enabled the wider forwards to run into the vacant space between full-back and center-back. Kane’s influence from deep has become more and more common throughout his career, but in previous years (and especially with England) it is up against a rest defense with the entire opposition team back.
He is still combining in the same areas of the pitch, but Conte’s automatisms have produced this in a completely different setting. As the opposition team are still high up the pitch, Kane can easily join the attack on its second phase or as a potential passing option if the attacker is slightly slowed down.
Passes from wider areas into Kane are a common theme, but Spurs are also incredibly effective in supporting Kane on the long ball too. By working in proximity to one another, the striker can provide one-touch layoffs and put the supporting forward through between the center-backs.
Kulusevski’s goal, away to Aston Villa, is a good example of turning such balls into dangerous attacks. From Lloris’s kick, Kane was able to pin Matty Cash and Ezri Konsa to Kane, whilst Kulusevski ran into the space in front of Tyrone Mings. The Swede still had a lot of work to do to finish, but it shows how effective the support is in a phase that rarely sees teams building their own opportunities (long goalkeeper boots forward with the team retreating.)
64th minute versus Brentford (Grey ball: first pass, black ball: second pass: pink ball, third pass.) From Sánchez long ball, Kane was in a perfect position to receive. Son and Reguilón hit direct runs on the counter.
Another example, from a deeper area, was seen in Son’s goal on the counterattack at home to Brentford. Davinson Sánchez put the ball down the center to launch the transition, only on this occasion, the roles were reversed. Son received, with Kane providing support underneath the receiver. Son’s layoff saw himself and Sergio Reguilón hit runs against a distorted Brentford backline, an easy finish provided for the golden boot winner.
Holding the width
The wing-backs play huge importance to back three systems, as they are often your only form of natural width. Conte always recognises this importance, bringing in Marcos Alonso at Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi at Inter. At Spurs, his players in these positions are not that good.
Emerson and Ryan Sessegnon are young options, whose output can be a little inconsistent, whilst Doherty and Reguilón are a lot more creative in comparison. We have not seen as much effect on the transition when compared to the forwards, but the potential is always there under Conte.
9th minute versus Leeds: Buildup to first Leeds goal. Winks’ carry was able to distort Leeds’ man-marking scheme, but central presence from three forwards kept fullbacks central and enabled space for Spurs wing-backs to run into space.
Away to Leeds, the wing-backs showcased how dangerous holding the width can be in these situations. For the first goal, a carry from Harry Winks, combined with Kane and Kulusevski holding their positions, was the trigger for Sessegnon and Doherty to hit the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. with explosive runs from the outside. Winks played the ball inside of Stuart Dallas, perfect for Sessegnon to run to and instantly move the ball into Doherty’s path, coast-to-coast.
The wing-backs haven’t made a major effect on their trademark transitions, but that’s not to say holding the width hasn’t been of great significance to their approaches. When facing Liverpool, towards the end of the season, Conte’s team emphasized their natural width to not only support the wide forward but switch the play to the opposite flank. With Kulusevski and Son keeping Liverpool’s back four closer, it enabled Tottenham to keep space out wide to move the ball into.
In this game, their transitions and attacks were a little looser come the final third, but Spurs still provided a great amount of threat, once they had bypassed their opponents’ zonal press, and scored a goal that was quite indicative of their setup.
55th minute vs Liverpool: Buildup to Tottenham goal. Royal was still on the left side, following Tottenham corner. Spurs able to create overloads on both fullbacks, thanks to the wing-backs on the same side, whilst Kane and Kulusevski hold the width on the right.
Although Emerson Royal was on the same side as Sessegnon, following a Tottenham corner, Spurs were still able to pair up on Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Kulusevski and Kane were positioned on the right, as Royal found Kane before play filtered back towards the left side of the field. Son’s vertical run dragged the fullback, with Sessegnon free to receive Kane’s pass.
Flexibility in the final third
When Tottenham attacks become slower and faced with a rest defense, the attackers still offer more explosive movements to try and pull the last line apart. This is more noticeable when the wide forward is moving outwards, Kane often lurks in the space that the forward moves out from.
10th minute vs Norwich City: Davies pushes ahead of the ball, in between the opposition defensive and midfield lines. As the ball moved forward to Emerson, Davies remained in this position as the Norwich midfielders dropped, before making a late run to open a crossing option. Though not triggered in this attack, it is an example of how Davies could cause a dilemma for opponents.
Both wider center-backs offer flexibility in their positioning, but this is a lot more prominent with Ben Davies on the left side. Even when the ball is behind him, Davies can still push high, whether that would be him in the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and Sessegnon holding the width or vice versa. When the ball is on the opposite side, Davies often moves a lot more central, anywhere between the edge of the area or joining the penalty area itself. Nevertheless, the wide center-back can alter the positioning of teammates thanks to his flexibility when his team is in possession.
Adding to such rotations will be important when Spurs will be faced with deeper blocks. Tottenham can break into their fast attacks very effectively, but against teams that put men behind the ball, Spurs can find themselves with fewer solutions.
Tottenham has always had an underutilized squad, with plenty of offensive options that should have supported Son and Kane more than it did. However, Spurs added Kulusevski and Bentancur, whilst truly embracing the style and organization of the coach.
The transitional duo of Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez had their own automatisms, mostly relying upon the carrying ability of Lukaku to drive the ball towards the goal. Tottenham’s transitions feel more pattern orientated, but Kulusevski, Kane and Son can work with the ball at such a speed that most defenses struggle to handle, once the attack is in place.
It’s these commandments that have Tottenham playing their best work since Mauricio Pochettino. You never know how long Conte could last in a particular place, but with the Premier League’s best duo at the peak of their powers, combined with a solid core of players behind them, Spurs can become a force to be reckoned with.
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