After Tottenham suffered a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United on Wednesday night, is Antonio Conte’s ‘high-wire’ style catching up with them?
Wednesday night’s deserved defeat at Manchester United was another underwhelming performance from Tottenham this season – and this time they did not get away with it.
Spurs have played 15 games in all competitions this season and only a handful have been truly convincing displays. Even the 6-2 home win against Leicester had moments where the Premier League’s bottom side were well on top, with the game in the balance before Heung-Min Son’s remarkable 13-minute hat-trick blew the Foxes away.
The results, however, have been impressive for Antonio Conte’s side. Nine wins, three draws and just three losses from those 15 games have seen Tottenham make their best start to a league campaign in 59 years as they sit third in the Premier League, while they also top their Champions League group.
It is a performance-to-results correlation that is perplexing many.
“They haven’t looked that good this season with results outpacing performances and it may well be that results are starting to catch up with them now,” The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew told.
“When you play in that counter-attacking style where you’re going to soak up so much pressure and you’re going to get maybe one or two good chances at the other end, it’s such a high-wire style of play, you need so many things to go right for you.
“Conte switched to a 3-5-2 [against United], he bolstered the midfield and that system might take a bit more time to bed in, but at the moment it doesn’t seem like there’s a real conviction about them.
“There’s lots of pointless passing around at the back, lots of negative decisions so if you’re a Spurs fan you’ll probably be slightly worried about the direction even though they’re still riding pretty high in the league.”
Former Spurs defender Ramon Vega is one of those concerned, especially after the Old Trafford performance.
“I’m not sure why they’re towards the top of the league and why they’ve collected so many points,” he told Sky Sports News. “I’ve not been convinced, and yesterday they really reached the bottom of their performance.
“Conte should think about what kind of tactics he is going to play because at this point of the season they have not convinced me.”
Defeat at United is nothing new for Tottenham, or even for a top-six team – Liverpool and leaders Arsenal have both suffered defeats there this season – but it was the manner of the loss which alarmed Spurs fans and Vega.
Tottenham faced 28 shots against United – the most faced by a team in any Premier League game this season and also the most that a team managed by Conte has faced in a top-flight game.
“I’m not happy and I’m not the only one,” Vega said. “It’s a shambles what we watched yesterday, whoever paid to go to that game should be refunded.
“We’re talking about entertainment here and we’re having this performance. We’ve got top players and we’re not playing to their strengths.
“You can lose a game but at least play some entertaining football, take some risks, get some creativity into the game – it was such a shambles and a disappointment.”
‘Spurs must get higher up the pitch’
Sunday’s match against Newcastle, live on Sky Sports, is Tottenham’s toughest home game of the season so far and will require a strong performance if they are to get a positive result against a team who have conceded just three goals in their last six games and have only lost one game.
So what does Conte need to change for the visit of Eddie Howe’s side?
“I think he will be probably looking at that [United] game and thinking, I need to find a way of getting us higher up the pitch,” former West Ham striker Dean Ashton told Sky Sports News.
“He’s sitting so deep which means it’s so much harder for Harry Kane and Son because teams know that they are fantastic on the counter-attack, so teams set up in transition and they are ready for when that happens.
“It’s just such a long way to then go when you do win the ball back to then be a threat.”
The statistics back up Ashton’s point. Only Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest have won possession in the final third fewer times than Spurs this season. The team ranked top? Newcastle.
Tottenham’s average starting distance – which measures how far upfield a team start open-play sequences on average (in metres) – also ranks in the bottom three.
And their cautious approach is reflected by the fact that only Everton and Nottingham Forest have faced more shots against them this season than Tottenham.
“Spurs are allowing the opposition so much of the ball,” said Ashton. “I think in this league if you give the best teams as much of the ball as Tottenham are giving them, then ultimately they’re going to punish you.
“I don’t think Conte’s holding them back but you’ve got to find a way of getting the best out of your attacking players and if you’re so deep then ultimately it’s going to be difficult for them.”
Vega is one of those calling for a change in tactics.
“I played in Italy when Conte was at Juventus,” the former Switzerland international said. “I know the mentality and the tactics of the Italians – it’s not the most entertaining.
“It’s really defensive and efficient in terms of points but not very creative and really tactical, make sure you get the point away or steal the win.
“But the tactics at this point now from Conte are not working, so I think he definitely needs to change his tactics very quickly.”
The potential return of Dejan Kulusevski would be a huge boost for the Italian and allow him to set up in a more forward-thinking 3-4-3 against Newcastle.
But for those, like Vega, who want Spurs to be the entertainers, then Conte’s comments after their previous defeat against a top-six rival following the loss at Arsenal do not make for promising reading.
“I don’t like to play open, to concede a lot of space and concede six, seven or eight goals,” he said earlier this month. “I won in England and I won in my past, and I think I can teach football to many people.”
Conte’s high-wire act looks set to continue for now then, with Sunday’s match against Newcastle another stern test of it.