Erling Haaland has been described as the Premier League’s cheat code but a scrappy Spurs win over Brighton proved why that tag is Harry Kane’s.
“The first time was during the Arsenal game,” said Antonio Conte.
“Never,” the Italian replied when asked whether he had introduced the formation to his squad in pre-season. “I knew that I had the players for this system, but we’d never tried this solution in our training sessions. I always played with four at the back, then 4-2-4, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3…”
The rest of the quote contained no surprises. Conte said the improvement was not “simple” and “has taken work”, noting that he “only decided to do it 10 minutes into the second half at Arsenal”. It was a matter of fact way of discussing an ingenious solution which salvaged his club’s season.
Conceding three goals in Premier League defeat at Arsenal certainly does something to Conte. It is a chastening experience which alters his psyche, confirming suspicions he might long have harboured and asking questions to which he will obsessively pore over the answer for hours in the corner of a darkened room.
Losing 3-0 to the Gunners in September 2016 helped persuade Conte that three at the back was the way forward for Chelsea; they embarked on a 13-game winning run and won the Premier League eight months later. There will be no similar genesis story for Tottenham’s glorious title march – even if Roberto de Zerbi reckons “they are in the right condition” for it – but a three-man midfield was a necessary innovation to cope with Brighton.
The 3-5-2 gave Yves Bissouma the rare opportunity of a start and he acquitted himself well in familiar surroundings. He was a fine midfield chauffeur for Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg – who was excellent – minding their bags whenever they decided to roam forward.
There were some fantastic defensive performances. Hugo Lloris continues to prove his worth. Eric Dier is in impressive form. Matt Doherty – of whom Conte said, unprompted, five days ago, “I am not seeing him in the right way to start the game. I am not stupid. I don’t want to lose” – was justifiably out of practice but his late challenge on Leandro Trossard preserved a hard-fought victory.
No longer is any sort of result at Brighton something to sneer at. The Seagulls were great for large swathes of the game and stuck three past Liverpool last week. They have a due reputation for profligacy but only once in their last 12 Premier League matches had they failed to score.
Coming into the fixture, Spurs were the last team to inflict upon Zerbi’s side a home defeat back in April. Harry Kane quite inevitably scored both then and now.
His flick from Heung-min Son’s cross was a thing of instinctive beauty. Kane’s extensive and extending catalogue of finishes features a whole separate section of improvised goals from completely disadvantageous positions or angles.
Son’s delivery was whipped in at speed, roughly waist-height. Kane was about 10 yards away and had quickly glanced over his shoulder to check he was free and onside a moment earlier. He had a matter of split-seconds to compute the situation, diverting the cross with his head as he fell backwards.
His remarkable intuition has undoubtedly been overshadowed by that of Erling Haaland, like a toddler having to adjust to all the attention going to the baby-faced bionic mutant newborn.
But Kane remains the true cheat code. It is simply not a description that fits his Norwegian counterpart; cheat codes are used to cut corners and skip levels without putting in the work. Manchester City have already completed the game and seeing how many records Haaland can break is the side quest Pep Guardiola has embarked upon.
It suits Kane and Spurs far more. Manchester City win with or without Haaland; four titles in five years proves that. But take Kane out of Spurs and you remove the goal out of nothing that turns a deflating draw or disappointing defeat into a battling win, you lose the fouls won late on to ease pressure.
Someone would take his place. Richarlison, most likely. But no-one could come close to playing his role. Not with Son out of sorts. Not with Dejan Kulusevski out.
Brighton perhaps deserved more – indeed, if Kane swapped places with Danny Welbeck, the result is vastly different – but Conte up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A’d the stuffing out of the Seagulls, albeit with a little help from his own tactical intervention.
Leave a Reply