Antonio Conte arrives and gets first view of Tottenham the pantomime
Buongiorno, Antonio. On Tuesday the official Spurs Twitter account had briefly provoked online mirth by greeting their new head coach in Spanish, before hastily correcting the error and acclaiming him in his native language. Two days later the welcome inside Antonio Conte’s new home was unambiguous but Tottenham’s performance was the equivalent of speaking in tongues. Little about this club’s behaviour of the past two years has made much sense and, in a stadium yearning to be pleased, the task in hand was emphatically pronounced.
This was a bizarre night’s football and much in keeping with the state of things. Conte has famously been reluctant to take jobs in mid‑season and it is especially unlikely he had ever envisaged debuting in a competition called the Europa Conference League, an event that was not really built for nights such as this. Much as he might try to shrug off the idea, little about the Italian has ever been low-key so an empty upper tier, with tickets held back due to the lack of enthusiasm this fixture had prompted until Nuno Espírito Santo’s dismissal, was jarring. Conte is box office material and that was the idea behind his appointment: here, at times, he found himself presiding over a pantomime.
Conte had not worked with his players before Vitesse’s visit so perhaps the occasion’s lack of grandeur was a help: while anything bar a win would have put their onwards participation in serious trouble, the jeopardy was hardly so extreme as to override the getting-to-know-you process. He went full-fat by bending his new charges to his will: they would line up in his favoured 3-4-3 immediately and learn from the consequences, warts and all.
Spurs’ first two goals, finished well by Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura, drew near-identical reactions from Conte. First a clenched fist, then a hand-slap with members of his entourage; then a quick straightening-up and intense conversation with Cristian Stellini, his assistant. While this was not Conte in full flight, the arm-whirling kept to a minimum, he never stopped micromanaging from the touchline. Within minutes of the start, he was bellowing at Son to push higher as an impressive, confident Vitesse attempted to play out; by the end he was straining at the pitch’s edge as Emerson Royal, whose performance was eye‑catching if eccentric, galloped upfield to remove the spectre of late pressure.
What will Conte have learned? He saw flashes, during half an hour of coherent attacking, that his system may suit these players. Tottenham went 3-0 up and looked bound at that point to give Conte the most fitting of receptions, via an excellent move that saw Sergio Reguilón feed the surging Ben Davies for a cross-shot that, despite the PA’s valiant attempt to award Harry Kane the goal, was bundled over his own line by Jacob Rasmussen. Reguilón, the left wing-back, was perfectly positioned for regular ear warmings from the technical area in that opening period and could frequently be found further forward than any other home player; Davies, who may be a useful option at left centre-back, had exploited the formation’s possibilities fully by marauding enterprisingly in open play.
Those glimmers of possibility apart, Conte might reflect things went as trailed. Even in the process of amassing their lead, Tottenham had not looked especially solid; whether Vitesse had enough quality to punish them was another question but, when Rasmussen and Matus Bero scored before half-time, the complexion changed irrevocably. Spurs’ back three had lacked protection when attacks broke down with Reguilón and Emerson stranded; Cristian Romero, the right-sided centre-back, was torridly exposed as a result and his red card for hauling down Loïs Openda had been signposted. Out of possession they looked skittish, uncertain and readily bent out of shape.
“We lost a bit of confidence and have to work in this aspect,” Conte said. “When there is a possibility to kill the opposition you must kill. I don’t like these crazy games.”
It all meant Vitesse could emerge feeling a comeback draw, more than achievable had they not incurred two late sendings‑off of their own, would have been fair.
For Conte, though, the process was surely of longer-term importance. To that end he may have craved a more lively outing from Kane, who provided the assist,for Moura’s goal and produced some smart footwork before a shot against the bar from Son but never came close to scoring. The received wisdom is that Kane will be turbo-charged under a force of nature such as Conte: it may yet be but, while he bought some useful free‑kicks to remove some sting after Romero’s departure, the talisman was largely peripheral to Spurs’ better work.
The hard work starts here: or at least after the international break, before which Conte will have minimal time to operate at a training ground he described as “the best in the world”. Spurs now have a manager who is firmly in that bracket himself but that does not entitle them to expect instant miracles. “Welcome Conte,” read a placard as he saluted the crowd before kick-off, a smattering of Italian flags also fluttering into sight. He clearly appreciated the touch but the past few days have shown it will take time for Conte and Spurs to become fluent in one another’s vernaculars.