The Sixth Spence unveiling video had launched and the excitement among the Tottenham support was palpable. After weeks of back and forth, Djed Spence could be presented as the club’s sixth signing of the summer and on 19 July, too – a detail that almost demands an exclamation mark, given how the chairman, Daniel Levy, has previously liked to operate.
The real welcome would come later that night when Antonio Conte’s view of the transfer was published on various newspaper websites. “Spence is an investment of the club,” the manager said. “The club wanted to do it. I said: ‘OK. This player is young but he showed he can become a good, important player for us.’ The club decided to buy him.”
Conte had given the quotes to reporters on the club’s tour of South Korea a few days earlier and they had been held back until the announcement – just in case there was a late hitch; not that anyone was expecting one. What also bears reporting is the context. Conte had been asked a general question about the club’s incoming business and he “offered up” the line on Spence, to use the journalistic parlance.
Conte always thinks carefully about his messaging in media interviews and it is commonplace to hear him return to his central theme for emphasis. “I repeat,” he says, before drumming it home. The point being that this was not a slip from him in the humidity of Seoul; a dropping of the mask. Conte wanted to make a few things clear, all of which were entirely consistent with his outlook.
Spence would appear to be an ideal fit for the right wing-back role in Conte’s 3-4-3 system. Listed at 6ft, he is physically imposing, a powerful runner. He is fast. He loves to drive forward with the ball. But there is something that he cannot call himself yet and, for Conte, it is a fundamental gap. Spence lacks experience.
The 21-year-old was so good for Nottingham Forest during their promotion to the Premier League last season, where he played on loan from Middlesbrough, he was named in the EFL and PFA Championship teams of the year. But the fact remains that Spence has never played in the top division and his three England caps have come at under-21 level.
Conte does not really do potential. He gives the impression that he is not too fussed about bringing through young players because he is in too much of a rush to win the league title. He prefers battle-hardened internationals to help him right away – such as Ivan Perisic, the 33-year-old Croat, who has joined to play at left wing-back. Or Richarlison, only 25, but a regular for Brazil, who arrives with Premier League knowhow from Everton.
One of Conte’s achievements at Spurs has been to persuade Levy to prioritise the addition of established talent, to get it in quickly and worry about sales later. The fifth signing of the summer – Clément Lenglet, the 27-year-old France centre-half, on loan from Barcelona – signed on 8 July.
Richarlison cost an initial £50m and he would not seem to be an automatic starter given Spurs have Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski up front. But he will get his minutes and he will increase both Conte’s options and the level of them. This is the kind of purchase that big clubs make.
Conte wants to manage expectations around Spence but the other reading of his comments was that they represented a challenge; a character test. The onus is on Spence to work like a demon and prove to Conte that he is ready to play ahead of Matt Doherty, Emerson Royal and, possibly, Lucas Moura, who the manager believes could be repurposed as a right wing-back. As Conte said in his preview to Saturday’s season-opener at home to Southampton, it is up to the players to make him happy – not the other way around.
Spence is not expected to start against Southampton, having made only one brief substitute’s appearance during pre-season against Rangers. It feels as though he has a long road ahead of him; adjustments to make, patience to show. Spence has entered the big time. And Conte’s school of hard knocks.