I sort of don’t know where to start this. I’m having a thousand thoughts at once and I’m struggling to structure them into some sort of coherence. I felt this previously during a period of utter despair last season. It was similarly overwhelming. This time it’s for the opposite reason: I am giddy! I have childlike levels of excitement. My phone has barely been out of my hand for the past 24 hours, constantly refreshing my feeds. During the Wolves vs Everton match, we spent well over an hour in The Extra Inch Discord Voice Chat listening to Italian music and posting Antonio Conte GIFs. It’s like I’ve had a plumber in (Mario or his brother, Luigi, perhaps) to help turn my defective Spurs tap back on.
I said on BBC Football Daily on Sunday night that Nuno Espírito Santo had to go and that the best attainable coach we could get was Mauricio Pochettino, but that he might not be attainable for a few months. I was ready for us to appoint an interim, and was pretty optimistic that even an interim could do a better job than NES had been doing. What I hadn’t bargained for was that Antonio Conte’s arm could be twisted, having rejected us in the summer.
I’ll gladly admit that the initial links with Conte had me reasonably pleased but not thrilled. But then I spoke to Nima Tavallaey Roodsari and that all changed.
Nima was able to quell all of the concerns that I had about Conte, whilst using his significant oral bellows to grow the fire of optimism in me, a fire that has not roared in this way for several years now.
Look, this could be a tale that doesn’t take a linear path from ‘start happy’ to ‘get happier’. There will likely be bumps in the road, fractious moments, probably some pain. We all remember The Kaboul Cabal. There were necessary growing pains back then, and they will likely be repeated. But the point is that we’re on a path now. We’re moving forward. It might be a short path, but it’s a path nonetheless.
And on that, I think Conte’s stay — which will likely be short but hopefully sweet — is not unusual in football coaching in 2021; it’s very much the norm. Conte will demand a huge amount from his players over the next 18-30 months, and that will be physically and mentally draining for all involved. When he moves on, there might be another rebuild required. But that’s tomorrow’s problem, and I think it’s really important that we enjoy this whilst we can.
The fun bit with the appointment of a new manager is trying to work out which system and formation he might use and which existing players might map across to those. We know from reporting that, in Tuesday afternoon’s training session, Spurs trained in a 3-5-2 shape. This is no surprise — it’s one of Conte’s favoured formations. The 3-5-2 becomes a 4-2-4 when attacking, as illustrated in this video by Our Tactics Guy, Nathan A Clark:
As you can see, the outside centre-backs become full-backs, and the deepest-lying midfielder drops in to become a centre-back during spells of possession, with the wing-backs pushed up extremely high. On the surface, it appears that there are some players in the squad who have the cross-positional skillsets to fulfil these roles. For the outside centre-back roles, we have Ben Davies on the left and Japhet Tanganga on the right who have played at both centre-back and full-back. It is rumoured that Davies trained as part of a back three on Tuesday afternoon. For the deepest-lying midfield role, we have Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp, who both have experience of dropping into a back-line during build-up.
Of course, Conte may assess that, even with that cross-positional experience, those players are lacking the skills and abilities that he is looking for in those positions. For example, in our podcast with Nima, he explained that the outside centre-backs are required to play cross-field passes — have Ben Davies and Japhet Tanganga ever exhibited the ability to play cross-fields effectively? I would say, at best, that we have limited evidence of that. Whereas we know that Eric Dier is quite good at hitting diagonals, and Cuti Romero certainly is.
I am absolutely intrigued to see Conte’s selections as time moves on. I am intrigued to see his initial priorities, which I imagine will be to reinstate Harry Kane. By that I mean reinstate his prominence in the team, reinstate the team’s ability to provide him with the ball in the box, and reinstate his goals.
It would be fairly typical for a system manager to take some time to implement that system. Conte’s system is exacting and mechanical. Players have very particular roles and the fulfilling of their roles involves him removing some of their decisions for them and, instead, instructing them to perform a series of automations. To perfect this will take some time. However, I think that he will quite quickly transform our attack. We have been operating with very limited attacking structure this season, with the focus on individual player improvisation. Fixing the spacing of players and adding some movements can happen quickly.
In my last piece, ‘Our Players Are Good, Actually‘, I predicted that a good coach can soon change things:
My more cheerful outlook is that the right managerial appointment can absolutely transform our fortunes fairly quickly. I’ve seen the way Patrick Vieira (sorry to mention an ex-Arsenal man, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯…) has totally transformed Palace’s style in a matter of months, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the way that Bruno Lage has begun to transform Wolves’ style from, ironically, Nuno’s counter-attacking mid-block to a more progressive approach, albeit with limited success thus far (note: they’re significantly under-performing their xG so it’s not unreasonable to expect them to pick up results and to do so quite quickly). And, of course, we know how quickly Potter moved Brighton from Chris Hughton’s fairly turgid approach to this really exciting way of playing that they currently have. Good coaches can have an impact quickly.
I remember how quickly He Who Must Not Be Named was able to initially implement a couple of automations that got us scoring again. Conte is arguably the best manager (or Head Coach) we’ve ever appointed. He is, by most people’s reckoning, in the top 5 coaches in the world. By putting our previously very good players into situations that play to their strengths will quickly see them return to their previously very good levels. I have absolute faith that Conte’s tactical acumen and individual coaching skills will have a transformative effect on our squad, and quite quickly. I think Kane will double his average of 2.1 shots per game in no time.
I think it is also worth benchmarking where we are in the table upon Conte’s appointment. In a few weeks, I suspect that this will look very different.