Antonio Conte’s pessimism justified as Chelsea show class but Tottenham can be more adventurous

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  • Chelsea
    Chelsea
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  • Antonio Conte
    Antonio Conte
    Italian association football player and manager
 (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I)
(Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I)

A chastening 2-0 defeat to Chelsea underlined the gulf in class between Antonio Conte’s current and former clubs, as the Italian suffered a miserable return to Stamford Bridge.

It has been tempting to wonder if Conte has been overly cautious in his assessment of Tottenham during an encouraging start, having consistently talked down their chances of challenging for a place in the top four or winning silverware this season – but this display justified his pessimism.

Amid all the attention on the returning Romelu Lukaku, Conte will be particularly frustrated that his side gifted Chelsea two goals inside 35 minutes, with Davinson Sanchez and Ben Davies ultimately more deadly than the Belgian in the hosts’ penalty box.

Both goals were Japhet Tanganga mistakes, with the young defender selling Emerson Royal short in the build-up to Kai Havertz’s opener, which was turned over his own line by Sanchez, before comically heading a free-kick into Davies for an own goal.

Chelsea’s second may have been fortuitous but it was no less than they deserved for an utterly dominant first-half display, in which they overran Spurs and should have scored more.

On the eve of the game, Conte said Spurs must improve their mentality in order to become winners and the match bore many of the familiar hallmarks of previous big-game failures.

They started sloppily – allowing Lukaku into a dangerous position within seconds – and conceded early from a preventable mistake, while too many of their senior players were simply ineffective or anonymous. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg struggled, while Heung-min Son and Harry Kane barely had a sniff.

Admittedly, Spurs improved after the interval, when Conte switched to back four and introduced Tanguy Ndombele, but they rarely looked likely to force their way back into the game as Chelsea held their rivals at arm’s length.

The Blues could and should have scored more, Timo Werner twice going close in the second half, and the only comfort for Spurs is that the tie remains alive ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg in north London.

Spurs miss Dier

The gulf between the sides is perhaps best demonstrated by the depth of the managers’ squads.

Thomas Tuchel was missing three senior centre-backs, including Thiago Silva who tested positive for Covid, but the sheer strength of his squad meant young Malang Sarr was barely tested alongside Antonio Rudiger.

The absence of the Eric Dier for the visitors felt far more significant, however, with Tanganga enduring a nightmare evening.

From the off, Spurs missed Dier’s ability on the ball, with Sanchez never comfortable with his role as pass-master at the heart of the back three.

Tanganga’s nerves showed with a loose pass for Royal after five minutes, which was easily intercepted by Marcos Alonson, who played in Havertz to open the scoring.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

Tanganga worst moment was still to come, when he headed Hakim Ziyech’s free-kick into Davies’ shoulder for the second goal.

It would be unfair to single out Tanganga after a number of poor displays from far more senior players but his errors were costly.

With Dier or Cristian Romero fit, Spurs might have been able to eke out a draw but you are only as strong as your weakest link.

Time for Conte to be more adventurous?

It was a surprise to see Conte turn to Ndombele at the interval after the Italian gave short-shrift to a question about his role at the club last week but the desperation of Spurs’ first-half display perhaps prompted desperate measures.

Ndombele was hardly explosive but he did at least add a some thrust and dynamism to a flat Spurs side, as did the late introductions of Bryan Gil and Giovani Lo Celso.

Gil, the young Spain winger, skinned Christian Pulisic and crossed for Lo Celso, who extended Kepa Arrizabalaga for Spurs’ best chance of the match.

Conte has struck with the same formula – specifically a back three protected by two holding midfielders – in every one of his Premier League games in charge with the exception of the 2-2 draw with Liverpool, when he was missing players.

That was actually Spurs’ most exhilarating display under the Italian, albeit against a Reds side who were also depleted by Covid and injuries.

After their worst performance under Conte, it would be interested to see the head coach take a more adventurous approach in the weeks ahead, including in the second leg.

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