Positive Ryan Mason offers rebuke of Antonio Conte system with life in Tottenham yet
On the face of it, Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United last night would not have been out of place under Antonio Conte.
In his first game in charge, Ryan Mason’s Spurs (playing a familiar 3-4-3 system) trailed 2-0 at half-time before mounting a spirited second-half comeback, mirroring the pattern of so many games under the Italian this season.
And yet this still felt like something of a fresh start for Spurs and their performance, particularly in the second half, should raise optimism that the club can move on from Conte — and Cristian Stellini’s disastrous short caretaker spell — by the end of the campaign.
For most of their dispiriting season, it has been easy to wonder if Spurs’s five-at-the-back system simply inhibits playing on the front foot, but Mason’s side demonstrated that it is possible to be positive within the framework, as goals from Pedro Porro and Heung-min Son earned them a deserved point after United took control through Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.
Spurs finished the game with their highest expected goals (xG) since the 2-0 win over Everton on October 15 and, even in the first half, they created good chances, with Richarlison more than once guilty of making the wrong decision and Ivan Perisic twice testing David de Gea.
“We created many chances,” said Mason. “Maybe if we were a bit more clinical then the flow of the game would have been different. The second half we had some real clear openings, and maybe if we got the second goal earlier we could have kept pushing.”
Mason has had just two days to work with the squad and opted for minor tweaks rather than wholesale changes, which largely came off. Richarlison started on the left of the front three, his preferred side, for only the fifth time since joining Spurs and Harry Kane was given licence to roam and drop deep, while Son pushed high.
Under Conte, Richarlison usually played on the right, Son was often too deep to seriously impact games and Kane was instructed to be the focal point of the team at No9. The result last night was a Kane masterclass as a playmaker, and he created the equaliser for Son 11 minutes from time with a low cross to the far post.
The South Korean had earlier missed from a similar position after an even better Kane run and cross, and the England captain was also involved in Porro’s fine strike, with his blocked shot falling to the Spaniard, who rifled an excellent volley into the top corner.
In the first half, supporters chanted for chairman Daniel Levy to “get out of our club” and some protested against the ownership outside the ground before kick-off. A banner in the South Stand was unfurled during the match, reading ‘Levy out, ENIC out’ and, as Spurs were booed off at the interval, the atmosphere inside the ground felt on the verge of turning toxic.
This felt like something of a fresh start for Spurs and their performance should raise optimism that the club can move on from Conte
It was testament to the way Mason’s side played that supporters remained onside, however, and Spurs were roared on as a lax United wilted. Conte eviscerated his “selfish” players after his final game in charge, the 3-3 draw with Southampton, saying they did not want to play as a team or under pressure, but Mason was pleased with their characters in responding to Sunday’s drubbing at Newcastle.
“Big character, big personalities, stuck together, kept believing and acted as a team throughout the game,” he said. “That pleases me after what happened at the weekend, because we probably didn’t have that as a group.
“And off the back of how the first half went in terms of the scoreline, to go out at half-time and stick together, fight for each other and really get our fans involved, it’s pleasing. It proves a lot to me about what I already thought about this group.”
Mason could have been braver in pushing for a win which would have kept Spurs’s hopes of returning to the Champions League just about alive, but he will have been conscious of what happened in their last home game, the 3-2 defeat by Bournemouth.
The 31-year-old will be concerned with his side’s soft defending for both United’s goals and the mood could turn sour again if Spurs are so open on Sunday against a Liverpool side still capable of devastating attacking play.
But if the 6-1 defeat at Newcastle was, for some supporters, a vindication of Conte’s comments about the squad, Mason’s first game suggested his mini-tenure, which is likely to last until the end of the season, could offer a kind of rebuke of Conte-ism.
Evidently, there is still life in Spurs, while a progressive coach, be it Mason or someone else, should be confident there is enough quality in this squad to get Spurs playing positively again.