Antonio Conte’s new challenge to Daniel Levy as he backs Spurs chairman into a corne
Manchester United surely couldn’t sit back and give Spurs more of the ball at Old Trafford in front of a baying crowd after that derby defeat?
Yet that’s exactly what the home side did in order to deny Antonio Conte’s team the space they thrive in on the counter-attack.
United’s plan ended up hinging on the quality of Cristiano Ronaldo, who simply loves scoring against Spurs and he duly added another three to his collection. The hat-trick made it 807 goals against all opponents in the 37-year-old’s remarkable career.
Without Ronaldo, it’s unlikely United would have taken the points against a Tottenham side that did play well for long spells but ultimately did not have enough of a clinical edge in front of goal despite putting the ball in it legitimately twice.
Conte would have expected United to try to dominate the match in front of an Old Trafford crowd that expected a response after their humiliation at the Etihad Stadium the previous weekend.
Yet Ralf Rangnick had no doubt seen what Spurs had done to other teams that tried to take the game to them, like City, Leeds and Everton.
Instead United played like an away team, countering as Spurs like to and gave Conte’s men 57 per cent of the possession. Both teams had 10 shots on goal in the end but it was United who were more accurate, with six attempts on target compared to Tottenham’s three.
Ultimately on a day when the superstars of sport were in attendance, with recently retired NFL icon Tom Brady in the stands and Ronaldo on the pitch, Kane, who idolises and has struck up a friendship with Brady, came off third best in the attention stakes.
“It was an amazing performance from Cristiano,” admitted Conte. “Unfortunately I know him very well so it wasn’t a surprise for me.
“We are talking about a player with Messi who are the best players in the world in my opinion. We are talking about a player who is decisive and in that moment that the team needed him he’s always present.
“I remember very well also in the Champions League group he was decisive for them to go through to the next round. He’s a player that feels this type of game and then he becomes Cristiano Ronaldo, and we can see a fantastic player. For sure a great compliment to him because to arrive at his age with his form, with his mentality, with his desire to win, you have to do only great compliments to your opponent.”
For Spurs, this wasn’t a dreadful performance by any means and they deserved something from the game for their efforts.
You could tell from Conte’s demeanour afterwards that he did not look deflated as he has after some other defeats.
There was no ‘important gap’ between the two teams. Just one of the world’s best players.
We were back to patient Conte following this match and much of that is because he can see elements of what he wants from his players on display.
Yet this ridiculously consistent inconsistency must end if Spurs have any chance of snatching a place in the top four at the season’s end.
When asked how he can fix the problem, Conte’s long answer suggests he believes they are getting closer.
“I’m the first to say that if you want to be competitive, if you want to improve your level you have to try, to work a lot,” he said.
“At this moment the team needs to work a lot on many aspects. At the same time we have to be stable, to be stable and to keep good results in every moment. Instead we are doing up and down, up and down.
“Don’t forget that in the last five games we scored three goals at Manchester City away, four goals away at Leeds, five goals against Everton, two goals here against United away.
“It means that the team is producing, is improving, and creating chances and scoring a lot of goals, but at the same time we have to try to improve in experience and to manage the game, because during the game there are many parts of the game.
“There are moments where you feel you have to push and to push, and to go strong, to win duels. There are moments that you have to keep possession. You have to be more calm. I think in this aspect we can improve a lot. It depends on the experience.
“We have many players, young players and many players that they are in this league for not a long time. I know very well that I have to change this situation, working a lot, working a lot.”
He added: “This situation it hasn’t come from now but has come from a long period, to see up and down, up and down, for this team. We have to continue to work and to give continuity to make more experience to manage the game because of the example. We have equalised but after one minute we conceded a second goal.
“We have made it 2-2 but then we have conceded a goal from a set piece. In the last period we have been conceding a lot of goals from set pieces but we are working on this.
“You have to know that this is a process because this team is a team that needs time, needs time to grow and improve, but I think you can see their improvement, a big improvement on the pitch.
“You can see what they’re doing on the pitch but in this process you need time and patience and then try to do this but I want to push my players, because our ambition has to be to stay very close to the top four.
“I want to take this responsibility because we are working a lot and I am seeing a lot of improvement. We need a target to give us emotion, to give us the possibility to push ourselves.
“We have to be disappointed because from this game we deserved much more, not only to draw.”
Conte can only do so much on the training ground with this set of players and ultimately only they can manage game situations properly. If they continue to fail to do so on a consistent basis then the summer will likely provide many of them with an exit door.
Son and Kane struggle but Deki impresses again
It’s not that Tottenham looked completely impotent up front.
In the first half in particular they were carving United apart at times and Eric Dier had an effort cleared off the line, Ben Davies put the ball in the net but was offside and Rodrigo Bentancur and Matt Doherty had shots from good positions blocked, while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg sent a strike straight at David De Gea.
Yet it was another game in which Tottenham’s big players did not step up.
Harry Kane is still epitomising Spurs’ inconsistency. Unplayable in one game, subdued in the next, then brilliant in the following game and so on.
He got his goal against United, a penalty which was as calm and clinical as expected and took him level with Son Heung-min on 11 Premier League goals and it was his 21st of the season for Spurs in all competitions.
Yet for much of the game United surrounded him, tracking his moves to come deep to create and he was also on the end of some rough tackles, not least one from Paul Pogba with studs firmly launched into the back of his heel.
The attention on Kane should have created room for others but only Dejan Kulusevksi showed much in the way of trying to force the issue.
The Swede once again looked a handful and when he was taken off in the second half many among the Manchester United press pack looked confused, one stating: “Spurs just took off their most dangerous player.”
That was a view shared by most Tottenham fans, although Kulusevski had begun to tire as the second half had worn on, his impact lessening.
Before that he had carved out opportunities for others, not least a big chance for Son to try to score 15 minutes into the second half which his team-mate placed wide when unmarked.
It was Kulusevski’s low cross that hit the outstretched hand of Alex Telles and earned Kane his penalty.
The Sweden international will continue to get better as his quick adaptation to life in England goes on.
It was noticeable that his replacement on 78 minutes, Lucas Moura, contributed very little to the game despite his fresh and fast legs and that will have concerned Conte and it won’t have done the Brazilian’s case any good.
Then there was Son. It was another performance similar to recent ones, with plenty of hard work, running and endeavour from the South Korean but lacking in the quality and confidence he normally possesses.
It could be tiredness through being overplayed or the 29-year-old could just be going through a sticky spell.
Admittedly it’s a sticky spell that most players would love as only Mohamed Salah has been involved in more goal involvements in the Premier League this season, which is testament to Son’s ability to contribute even when he’s not on top form.
However, Spurs need to unlock the full Son if they are to finish the season strongly.
At Old Trafford he looked like he was wearing the wrong boots in the second half, slipping over twice during crucial stages of dangerous attacks.
He also missed that big chance when unmarked in the box, firing wide of the right-hand post from Kulusevski’s pull-back.
Other than that, Son struggled to make his presence felt in the match.
football.london asked Conte after the game whether he could play a part in restoring the South Korean’s lost confidence or whether that was something only Son could rediscover.
“It’s difficult to speak about single players because in the last game against Everton he was devastating, Sonny,” said Conte.
“I think that we win with the whole team and we lose with the whole team. For sure we have players that for us that are very important.
“There are a couple of players that are very, very important to us and we need to always have good performances but Sonny and I think he played a good game to give everything tonight.
“Then there are games that everything goes well and others where you can slip. Tonight, he slipped twice! He slipped twice and it was a pity because it was in two important situations where you can go towards the goal.
“Sonny is a really important player for us and he’s a player that can make a difference for Tottenham.”
Son has a big fan in Conte and perhaps that belief is the key to returning him to his peak sooner rather than later.
This was one of Tottenham’s worst defensive displays in a while as they found themselves bullied by Ronaldo.
The back three came into the game off the back of consecutive Premier League clean sheets, but they looked shaky against both Ronaldo and the pace of Jadon Sancho.
Eric Dier has returned as the organiser of the defence but he looked off the pace at times on Saturday.
He handed Ronaldo the kind of space the former Real Madrid man needs no invite to take advantage of with his first rocket of a goal. He also stepped out abruptly as Sancho broke through to set up Ronaldo’s second, catching Reguilon unaware.
Cristian Romero also had his nerviest game for a while in a Spurs shirt, his front foot aggressive style of play coming unstuck on a couple of occasions.
The finger of football fate also pointed directly at him after his unnecessary celebratory roar in Harry Maguire’s face after the England defender’s own goal.
Just nine minutes later and it was Romero who was shoved aside far too easily by Ronaldo before the Portuguese ran in to power home his hat-trick-sealing header.
Ben Davies was probably the best of the back three on the night while Hugo Lloris will be disappointed that he got nowhere near any of Ronaldo’s goals.
The wing-backs were also inconsistent. Matt Doherty showed some great touches, not least in bringing down a Rodrigo Bentancur lofted ball on the run into the box before having a shot blocked.
However, his lack of pace was exposed by Sancho for United’s second goal and on Ronaldo’s third so Doherty tried to track the Portuguese after Romero lost him, but barely got off the ground against the leaping superstar.
On the other flank, Reguilon played Sancho onside for that second goal, compounding his error by standing there waving his hand in an appeal to the assistant referee rather than playing to the whistle and using his pace to catch up with the 37-year-old Ronaldo.
Reguilon was also hesitant in attacking, missing some clear moments to pass or get the ball into the box.
The Spaniard made amends somewhat with his low second hand ball being turned home by Maguire. He also raced back to make a fine last gasp challenge on Sancho in the final moments but he needs to find some consistency with his performances.
He will get the chance to do that in the six weeks Ryan Sessegnon could be out for with his latest hamstring injury.
Ahead of the defence, Bentancur and Hojbjerg had differing games. The Uruguayan played some lovely passes but was also off the pace in some of his defensive work, not least being sucked in too easily for United’s first.
In contrast, some of Hojbjerg’s first half passing was poor but he battled better than most and won the ball off United a number of times.
Spurs still miss the option of having Oliver Skipp in their midfield but his current injury –- relating to the pubic symphysis – is taking far more time to heal than expected and Conte is desperate for the 21-year-old to return.
Tottenham need to find their defensive shape and organisation again but this week does not bring much time on the training ground to get back to basics
Another challenge to Levy
It wouldn’t be too far fetched to think that Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has wondered on more than one occasion about his head coach in recent weeks: “What’s he said now?”
Previously the biggest concern for Levy with Conte’s post-match words would have been his rollercoaster emotions – sorry I mean ‘strategy’ – but now the Italian is proving to be far more dangerous when he’s calm.
For the Italian is making it very clear where the blame will lie if he departs in the summer and Spurs are facing another season of mediocrity.
Ahead of the match at Old Trafford, Conte finally put it out there in the public domain that he wants to remain at Spurs next season and have them challenging for big things, but with the caveat that he would likely only stay if the club matched his ambition.
That made it very clear to Spurs fans, a section already disgruntled with Levy and the powers-that-be at the club, that if Conte is not here when next season rolls around, it’s because the club did not share the Italian’s and their ambition.
After Saturday’s game, Conte was asked yet again if he has the patience to oversee a team that in his view needs time to challenge.
“I think that every day I like to go to the training ground and to work with these players,” he replied.
“I am having a fantastic experience because I enjoy my time at Tottenham. For sure a different situation if I have to compare to my past as in the past I fought to win the title, to win a trophy.
“This situation is a big challenge, a new challenge but the people see very well the commitment what I’m doing, what I’m putting into the training ground with my staff to try to deliver something important.
“As I always say I have patience and I like to work, like to work what we are doing and at the same time I want to be very clear as I don’t want to lose my ambition.
“This must be very clear to everybody. I repeat I hope that we are in the same way.”
With that final sentence Conte is once again backing Levy into a corner.
Find the money to finally push Spurs on and provide Conte with the players that he believes will take the club to his level or fail to do so, lose another top manager and feel the wrath of the fans on a bigger level than before for spurning one of the club’s best opportunities to end their trophy drought.
Conte is not completely innocent in all of this. He would have been expected to produce better than the inconsistent results that have come in 2022 and he has sounded like a workman blaming his tools until recently.
He is very quick to point to his past in order to deflect from his present, making it clear that ‘it’s not me guv’ if it’s all going wrong now.
He can explain away the defeats to Chelsea and this one to Manchester United, but it will hurt him that a team managed by him has lost to NS Mura, Burnley, Middlesbrough and fallen to defeat timidly in back to back home matches against Southampton and Wolves.
Yet with so many managers having come and gone with no success during the past 20 years – the exact figure Conte also perhaps mischievously used recently to define Tottenham’s struggling era – more fans are starting to label Levy as the common denominator.
How will a cornered Levy react? He is not one normally to give in to demands or pressure but this is something of a crossroads summer for his tenure.
If Conte goes, where does Levy turn next for manager number 13 of his two decade tenure? Even if Mauricio Pochettino were available and willing to return that would be only admitting his own mistake in sacking him in 2019.
Even Fabio Paratici is being linked in the French media as a person of interest for PSG, just seven months after joining Spurs as managing director of football, following a five-year chase by Levy.
Paratici is used to shopping in different places to where he must for Tottenham and whether his frustration comes to the fore in his third transfer window at the club will also be a key pillar of this summer.
Conte has suggested that all parties will sit down this summer and discuss what comes next but until then there is still plenty to play for.
While winning the match at Old Trafford would have been a big step forward for Spurs, losing it is
They have 11 games remaining and still lie in striking distance of fourth place, now occupied by United five points ahead but having played two games more.
Then there is Arsenal who have played two games less than Spurs – four less than United – and Conte will be hoping that Mikel Arteta’s side come unstuck in a week that brings home matches against an improving Leicester team and a City-chasing Liverpool outfit.
Arsenal must also host Manchester United next month as well as make the trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium when that match is finally rescheduled.
Spurs don’t have it easy either, travelling to Brighton on Wednesday night and then hosting top four rivals West Ham on Sunday, with the Hammers trying to overturn their deficit to Sevilla in the Europa League on Thursday night.
Tottenham cannot wallow in their defeat at Old Trafford and what comes in the summer must be put to one side for now.
There is business to get down to first and Spurs must find some consistency. If they can, they stand every chance of pulling off a surprise. If they don’t, this season could be over sooner than anyone wants.