Spurs have now won four out of five in the Premier League despite him having been out of action. Are they perfecting becoming a Conte team in his absence?
Flying under the radar is seldom a bad thing, and there’s little question that Tottenham Hotspur were something of an afterthought after their 2-0 home win against Chelsea. Everything surrounding this fixture was experienced through a Graham Potter-shaped filter, which was probably inevitable considering the 2023 that the new-ish Chelsea manager has endured so far.
Almost as soon as the final whistle blew, the accusations began again. Potter didn’t just lose this game, he lost it to Spurs. He didn’t just lose it to Spurs, he lost it to a Spurs team that didn’t play particularly well themselves. He didn’t just lose it to a Spurs team that didn’t play particularly well themselves, he lost it to a Spurs team that didn’t play particularly well themselves and whose manager has been absent for the last few weeks.
But back up there a moment. For all that we hear about Tottenham Hotspur being the punchline for whichever joke somebody chooses to tell, Spurs remain in fourth place in the Premier League table and the weekend of their win over Chelsea was very good indeed for their ambitions of retaining a place in the Champions League next season.
The teams directly around them in the table were otherwise engaged and the top two logged comfortable wins, but other results also seemed to go in Spurs’ favour. Fulham were held at home by Wolves on Friday night, while Brentford and Brighton were out of action, but they both now have another game in hand which they’ll need to win.
Liverpool’s recent revival has come to a juddering halt with that 5-2 home shellacking against Real Madrid and a fairly shapeless goalless draw at Crystal Palace, while Chelsea are now separated from the bottom half of the table by goal difference only, considerably closer to the Premier League’s relegation places than to its Champions League places.
Even in the EFL Cup final, and even with Bruno Guimaraes back in their team and purring, Newcastle United showed few signs of having shaken off the mini-slump that seems to have afflicted them of late in losing to Manchester United.
Watching from his convalescence in Italy, Antonio Conte might even have been forgiven for having mixed feelings, because the sharper-eyed may have noted that for much of Spurs’ recent revival has come when he has not been on the touchline. The first game of his absence was the 1-0 win against Manchester City. He returned for the 4-1 defeat to Leicester and the 1-0 loss to Milan in the Champions League, but has since been absent for the wins against West Ham United and Chelsea.
The extent to which this season has been far from calamitous for Spurs can be seen from the fact that they remain in fourth place in the Premier League table and are still in two cups. Their next FA Cup match is a potential booby trap, an away game against Championship promotion contenders Sheffield United, and the Milan second leg is balanced on a knife edge, but frozen in this moment their position looks kind of successful, certainly better than Chelsea or Liverpool, as has been the case all season.
Perhaps this is a matter of perception. Only Chelsea in the top half of the Premier League table have lost more games than Spurs (Fulham have lost the same), but then only the three clubs above them have won more, too. Spurs have won four games more than Newcastle, and while all the draws that Newcastle have chalked up this season have played more than their fair share in protecting a record of having lost just two league games all season, they’ve also only won ten out of 23.
Spurs have mostly been poor against the teams around them in the Premier League table, but they’ve been pretty good against the rest. Losing six games more is wiped out by winning four games more. And despite the narrative, there were positives in that win over Chelsea.
Oliver Skipp finally scored his first goal for the club, and with an absolute belter of a strike. Harry Kane scored exactly the sort of goal that Harry Kane has been routinely scoring in the Premier League for the last nine years. Emerson Royal was again impressive, as was stand-in goalkeeper Fraser Forster. Richarlison put in a decent shift and his frustration at being unable to score hinted at the inner aggression that needs to be channelled into something more productive.
Furthermore, what has been really noticeable about Spurs’ recent upturn has been the extent to which those wins have fitted the Conte mould. Spurs have won four out of five games since they lost in quick succession to Arsenal and Manchester City in the middle of January, and all four of those wins have been accompanied by clean sheets.
It’s the best run of home form they’ve put in at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium since shortly after they moved there in 2019, and the mood surrounding the club does feel as though it may be substantially different for the second leg of that Champions League tie against Milan in comparison with the near-fatalistic mood that seemed to be hanging over the club ahead of the first leg. With away goals not being a consideration and form having revived itself, a one-goal deficit doesn’t feel as insurmountable as it might have done.
Of course, such optimism is out of character with Spurs this season and it remains brittle, with a very big March coming up. Either (or both) defeat to Sheffield United in the FA Cup or Milan in the Champions League could swing the barometer back the other way again. Their next four Premier League games come against Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Everton.
Win those, and they’ll be able to approach the matches that follow against Brighton, Newcastle and Manchester United with a real belief that this season could end in a considerably more positive way than the soundtrack to their season has indicated.
Ending their trophy drought would be a huge achievement and may well prove beyond them, but at least the mood surrounding the club is relatively positive again, and that’s more than can be said for one or two of their rivals.
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