Three defeats in a row for Tottenham: Are Conte's tactics no longer suited to the Premier League?

Antonio Conte Tottenham HotspurGetty

Three consecutive defeats is already a bad omen, especially for a coach who is famously twitchy and used to working at clubs with bigger budgets and a clear title-winning ambition. 

However, Antonio Conte’s comments this week ahead of a trip to the Etihad – where Tottenham Hotspur will most likely lose their fourth in a  row for the first time since 2004 – have taken things to another level.

Conte said the squad was “weakened” during the transfer market as four players left and only two arrived; that “Tottenham are seeking young players they can develop and grow, not players who are ready”; and, most worryingly of all, that he feels a “1 per cent possibility to finish fourth.”

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With the club only five points outside the Champions League places with three games in hand, this level of pessimism seems unwarranted. 

However, it has been more than a decade since Conte was last in a position like this. He is undoubtedly feeling the heat.

Put bluntly, his tried-and-tested method is not working – and yet through analysis of what’s going wrong we can see a way forward; a journey Conte already began with his brutal substitution of Ryan Sessegnon in the 28th minute of last weekend’s loss at home to Wolves...

Since arriving at Spurs, Conte has deployed the same broad tactical strategy used throughout his career. He is using a 3-4-2-1 formation that starts in a relatively low block, with pressing minimal in the opposition third. 

An outlier in the modern game, Conte is not a gegenpresser nor particularly interested in possession; his football is about sharp transitions built from deeper areas of the pitch, with the ball played vertically through the lines in pre-set patterns drilled robotically in training.

Perhaps this low starting position is not suited to England anymore.

Antonio Conte Ryan Sessegnon Tottenham Wolves Premier League 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

The Premier League has evolved dramatically in the four years since his departure thanks, in particular, to the work of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, whose penchant for hard pressing has trickled through the entire division to such an extent that a lower block like Spurs’ feels submissive.

The game is more territorial and confrontational now, which is making it hard for Spurs to build from deep. 

Southampton’s pressing throughout the game last Wednesday week caused the hesitation that led to Tottenham’s defensive mistakes and pinned the hosts pack, hence the long periods of Saints pressure and the 2-0 defeat. 

Wolves were similarly aggressive and, for 20 minutes at least, took advantage of Tottenham’s low starting position by seizing the initiative. 

The issue is exacerbated by Conte’s 3-4-2-1, in which only two central midfielders are tasked with distributing those forward passes into the attackers. 

It is already tough enough to control games from deep, but with only two players for Wolves, Saints, or anyone else to pressure, Tottenham’s job becomes very difficult. 

Harry Winks has struggled to be as direct as Conte would like, and often finds the front three separated by too large a distance (and surrounded by opponents) to hit the right pass, while Pierre-Emile Hojberg’s difficulty led to him being dropped altogether against Wolves.

Again, this is an inherent issue of a low starting position.

Antonio Conte appeal Tottenham Wolves Premier League 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

By contrast, a high block like Manchester City’s or Liverpool’s puts the central midfielders in the opposition half for the majority of the game, creating closeness with the forward line as well as providing the backwards out-ball to non-pressured centre-backs.

Eric Dier’s recent absence – his long diagonal passes alleviated said pressure – has only made things worse, although it is hard to look past this as a formation issue (even at Inter, Conte moved from the 3-4-2-1 to a 3-5-2, accommodating an extra body to help build through the lines).

Fortunately, Conte may have already found the solution. 

Against Wolves, he substituted Sessegnon for Dejan Kulusevski and moved to a lopsided 4-2-3-1, in which the new signing played as a floating No.10 while Matt Doherty overlapped and left-back Ben Davies formed a back three when Spurs were in possession.

This hybrid system, using Davies in a three, gave Conte the usual defensive basis he likes while adding a crucial body to link the two central midfielders with the front three. 

Immediately, it changed things, pushing Wolves back as Ruben Neves and Luke Cundle struggled to track Kulusevski.

Rodrigo Bentancur quickly improved with a progressive passing option available and, for the first time in weeks, Tottenham were able to pass clearly through the opponent, making use of their attacking transitions.

Rodrigo Bentancur Tottenham Wolves Premier League 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

It could be a huge moment in their season, the equivalent of the famous switch from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-2-1 Conte made during Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in 2016. 

There is no doubt Conte’s rejigging over the last month is significant in and of itself; his half-time move to a 4-2-3-1 in the Carabao Cup first leg at Chelsea, and the 4-4-2 used against the same opponent in the Premier League three weeks later, were the first times Conte had moved away from a back three for six years.

The difference against Wolves was how the elegant, calm, and tactically intelligent new signings Bentancur and Kulusevski gave the 4-2-3-1 balance – all without really losing the basics of a back three.

It is difficult to predict whether Conte will prevail with the new formation for Saturday’s trip to the Etihad. 

On the one hand, having an extra defender on the pitch in a 3-4-2-1 makes sense against Man City, considering Spurs will be forced to sit in a hunched defensive position for long periods. 

On the other, Tottenham beat Pep Guardiola’s side on the opening day in a 4-3-3 that, with Dele Alli connecting the midfield and attacking lines, is not too far away from the system that finished against Wolves. 

If Spurs are to take anything from the Etihad, they will need to push back; to launch counters that get behind City’s high line, and it is hard to see that happening without Kulusevski weaving things together as a ten.

But regardless of the result on Sunday, there are signs that Conte is willing to adapt. 

Look beyond the irritation spilling out in interviews and things are, slowly but surely, moving in the right direction.

Who will win the Premier League title this season?

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Who will win the Premier League title this season?

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