For the first time this season, Tottenham produced a complete and classic Antonio Conte performance — albeit without Antonio Conte.
Watching from his home in Italy, where he is recovering from surgery, Conte must have been proud of the way his players executed their game plan, combining thrilling counter-attacking with bodies-on-the-line defending and no shortage of the dark arts.
“Whenever you haven’t got your coach there, it’s never easy,” said Harry Kane, whose 267th Spurs goal earned a 1-0 win over Manchester City and took him past Jimmy Greaves as the club’s all-time top scorer. “We showed today we’re a unit, a team. I’m sure he was watching proud.”
Conte’s assistant, Cristian Stellini, deserves plaudits for deputising so effectively in the past week and replicating his boss’s energy on the touchline, although this type of contain-and-counter approach against City is second nature for Spurs.
They have now beaten Pep Guardiola’s side in similar fashion with five different coaches in the dugout: Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo, Conte and Stellini, who has won all five matches at Inter Milan and Spurs when Conte has been absent.
“It was the type of performance where we knew what we had to do,” added Kane. “It wasn’t going to be easy at times. We had to dig deep and really suffer and be together. Throughout the whole team everyone showed 110 per cent commitment. I’m sure the gaffer was proud and we can be proud of that.”
After the 4-2 defeat at the Etihad a fortnight ago, Conte held a frank team meeting to demand his players get back to basics defensively, and Sunday’s committed rearguard included blocks from Eric Dier and Cristian Romero in the second half which were celebrated like goals in a superb atmosphere.
For all City’s possession, Hugo Lloris did not have a serious save to make and, for the first time in English football, Erling Haaland failed to have a shot.“After the City away game, when we conceded four in the second half, we had a chat among ourselves and spoke about getting back to what we’re good at, being compact, and we did that against Fulham away. And we did that again last night,” continued Kane.
Conte has called for his side to be more “nasty”, and he will also have been encouraged by their willingness to play City at their own game, even if Romero crossed the line and was deservedly shown a second yellow card in the 87th minute for a foul on Jack Grealish.
Conte has called for Spurs to be more “nasty”, and he will have been encouraged by their willingness to play City at their own game
The Argentine had already clattered through Haaland midway through the first half with a late, sliding lunge, earning him a first booking. It was reckless and costly, but nonetheless an effective way of reminding the League’s top scorer he was getting close attention.
There were other, cannier pieces of gamesmanship. In the second half, Dier kicked Kevin De Bruyne within seconds of his introduction. City’s analysts, sitting at the back of the press box, hammered their desks and roared in frustration.
In another telling moment, De Bruyne’s late free-kick appeared to strike Kane, but the excellent Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg stayed down clutching his head, forcing referee Andy Madley into another stoppage.
Emerson Royal, whose battle with Grealish was hugely engaging, embodied Spurs’s spirit and energy in his best performance for the club, meaning Stellini had no reason to call for new £40million signing Pedro Porro. For all their grit, Spurs finished the game with the better chances after a series of surges forward in the second half, as gaps appeared in City.
It was, of course, Kane’s day, but Heung-min Son was full of menace again, Dejan Kulusevski a great outlet and the back three all imposing. Kane described the performance as “the standard” and, as the England captain pointed out during an emotional post-match interview on the pitch, Spurs still have plenty to play for in the second half of the season.
In their next nine League games, they face seven of the bottom eight, plus Chelsea and Brighton at home, while they have a favourable FA Cup fifth-round draw at Sheffield United or Wrexham, and a Champions League last-16 tie against Italy’s crisis-club AC Milan.
This time last year, Spurs were in a similar position — inconsistent on the pitch, outsiders for the top four and with Conte’s future uncertain — but they rallied superbly, spurred on by a big win over City.
One slightly uncomfortable question for Conte is whether his absence actually benefited his players yesterday, freeing them up to produce their best display of a so-far frustrating campaign.
If Spurs are to finish strongly again, Conte must ensure yesterday was a benchmark and not a one-off against a side who are still yet to score, let alone win, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
“That’s the standard — if we can do it against one of the best teams in the League, we can do it against anyone,” said Kane. “So they are the standards we’ve set now. Clean sheets, win games. We feel like we’ve got enough firepower to score goals and we’ve got to make sure we keep the ball out of the net.”