LONDON — Antonio Conte has long since proven he can unlock qualities in footballers that few, perhaps not even the players themselves, thought were there. Give him good players and he can make them great. Give him great and they can become the best in the world.
There was no greater reminder of the latter truth than Romelu Lukaku’s presence on the pitch today. The Belgian had become so devastating a forward in two years at Inter Milan with Conte that Chelsea felt compelled to spend $125 million to reunite themselves with a player who will be worth far less than that if they come to sell him again. Meanwhile Lukaku’s form under Thomas Tuchel suggests it is no easy task to eke such high level production from him.
As for the good players who became great, the team in blue Conte — the former Chelsea boss who is now at Tottenham — managed here was full of them. Some remain, though Marcos Alonso has perhaps never been as effective as he was when the Italian was in charge. The likes of Victor Moses never really looked like Chelsea players after their manager left.
In short, don’t question Conte. Still, some notes.
It was certainly curious that after enjoying such success with a 3-5-2 system in those first nine unbeaten Premier League matches Conte summarily abandoned it for the trip to his former employers. His side had of course been beaten here already in the EFL Cup semifinal but their performance on that night was so unexceptional as to seem an aberration before kick off. Address some of the simple issues from that night — don’t play Matt Doherty at left wing back for starters — and Spurs would surely be more effective.
Instead they rolled out a 4-4-2 that from minute one came with a note for Chelsea’s benefit. “We don’t think we can match you.” Conte made clear that belief after the game, pointing to “an important gap” to a team that have beaten him three times this month but also wobbled against other opponents. Without the ball Tottenham were effectively playing a back six with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Harry Winks scarcely much further ahead.
Their only real hope of winning this match is that one of those kick and rushes up to Steven Bergwijn and Harry Kane might have brought something. Who knows, that approach might have been vindicated if Paul Tierney did not judge Kane to have fouled Thiago Silva before he put the ball in the net in what turned out to be a 2-0 defeat for Spurs. Certainly there was a push on the Brazilian though one could imagine a different referee might have deemed it to be nothing more than a fair fight for position.
Conte was unimpressed. “It’s best to tell the referee sometimes in a polite way that to see this type of goal disallowed in England was incredible. In Italy maybe 50:50. In England, incredible.”
Still the game might equally have changed if Romelu Lukaku had not snatched at three shooting opportunities early on. Kane’s foul was the only real moment the game might have pivoted Tottenham’s way. There were half a dozen such moments for Chelsea before Hakim Ziyech’s brilliant opener.
On the few chances they got to dart upfield there was a remarkable dearth of creativity in this Tottenham side. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s impudent pass to Doherty late on stood out precisely because it was one of the few moments a visiting midfielder assessed his surroundings, applied his imagination and tested the Chelsea defense. Too often the midfield went backward, Winks to Eric Dier the most common pass combination in Conte’s side. Such a lack of ideas may be the case going forward too. Paris Saint-Germain are in talks to sign Tanguy Ndombele on loan. Dele Alli was left out of today’s squad with Spurs once more looking to move on from a player who was once a cornerstone of their future plans.
Then there was Giovani Lo Celso, signed along with Ndombele for a combined £100 million in the summer of 2019. Coming off the bench on Wednesday he had schemed effectively to help turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory. On Sunday he did not merit a place in the squad despite being, in his own words, “100 percent in good physical condition.” He may also leave before the month is up, leaving Tottenham with no natural creators in midfield unless Harry Winks replicates the four chances he made against Leicester. History would suggest that is rather unlikely.
Conte has proven in the past, including at Stamford Bridge, that he can create dynamic attacking sides without natural playmakers. A few years ago the Blues romped to the title because they were able to stretch opponents wider than anyone else, though it certainly helped that they had Eden Hazard on hand to supply the killer ball. Indeed at both Chelsea and Inter Milan natural playmakers Cesc Fabregas and Christian Eriksen had to wait a very long time for their chance. They were not, however, pushed out the door in the first possible transfer window.
Already Spurs have looked to be a monstrous attacking force against inferior opponents, registering three straight games with more than 20 shots before coming to west London. But here they could surely have done with any of those three exiles, someone, anyone to link the attack beyond a repurposed full back trundling forward. Just two Tottenham players completed more than half of their passes in the attacking third, Kane and Bergwijn. Often their only real supply line was each other. It was rarely enough to test Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger.
In every case there are reasons why it makes sense for Conte to part ways with his most progressive midfielders. Lo Celso is infrequently fit, Alli has been a disappointment for far longer than his peak whilst questions of application have dogged Ndombele even if his quality is undoubted. Taken as a whole though, the sidelining of almost all the players who could play the incisive pass or carry the ball into the final third without any sign of a replacement does suggest performances like today’s could be more frequent than supporters would like. Adama Traore might get you to the final third but his lack of end product is one of his most consistent traits.
Conte, meanwhile, preaches time for this rebuild. “There is not one transfer market to close the gap. The last few years this gap became very big and now it is not simple to find a solution in a short time.”
Everything Conte has done in the past suggests that Tottenham should get to the level of Chelsea and the rest of the Premier League’s best. On the basis of Sunday’s game though, there may be some unappealing steps on the way.