Tottenham persevere to win at Watford but Antonio Conte’s task is obvious

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·4-min read
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  • Antonio Conte
    Antonio Conte
    Italian association football player and manager
  • Oliver Skipp
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
 (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Image)
(Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Image)

Tottenham deserve credit for their perseverance as Davinson Sanchez’s stoppage-time goal sunk Watford after a largely frustrating afternoon of attack vs defence at Vicarage Road.

Sanchez got in front of goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann to head home Heung-min Son’s free-kick and finally break the Hornets’ resistance, ensuring Spurs capitalised on Arsenal’s last-gasp defeat to Manchester City and remain in a strong position for a top-four challenge in 2022.

A late goal perhaps pointed to an improving mentality under Conte but the biggest takeaway from the match is that Spurs must improve at breaking down stubborn defences if they are to return to the Champions League ahead of schedule.

After being frustrated by 10-man Southampton last week, Spurs made hard work of a Watford side who were content to put 11 men behind the ball, crowd out the space and play for a point.

Harry Kane went close either side of the interval and Bachmann made a superb one-handed save to deny Son, but Spurs were mostly blunt and predictable.

Conte felt his side were too ponderous in possession during the frustrating 1-1 draw with ten-man Southampton, and there was not much in the way of improvement here, with Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg lacking the guile and spark to unlock Watford and fashion a really good opening for the front three.

Spurs ended up throwing cross after hopeful cross into the area or trying their luck from range, as they struggled to get behind the home side’s flat back five.

Conte, meanwhile, was surprisingly slow to make changes, with Harry Winks not introduced until the 70th minute, and Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele overlooked entirely.

An eighth consecutive League game unbeaten continued Conte’s excellent start in north London and four points from visits to Saints and Watford is a good return in the circumstances, setting up Spurs nicely for a big January.

But while Spurs were unlucky at St. Mary’s, where decisions did not go their way, you felt they were lucky at Vicarage Road, and there is now a blueprint of sorts for lesser teams to frustrate Conte’s improving side. The Italian knows he must get to work at making Spurs more effective when denied the space and time to score.

Royal shows limitations

 (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
(Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

As Tottenham clunked through the phases in search of an opening, Emerson Royal saw more of the ball in the final third than anyone else.

While Juraj Kucka dropped back to double-up on left wing-back Sergio Reguilon, on Royal’s side Ken Sema was happy to leave the Brazilian alone, ensuring he was Spurs’ most frequent out-ball. Royal was given space and time to fling a succession of crosses into the box but he did not create more than a half chance until stoppage-time, when Kane managed to send a header goalwards.

Before that point, Royal’s best delivery was actually a misdirected shot, which Son nearly flicked home at the back post, despite him having nine crosses.

Watching cross after cross come to nothing, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Watford knew that allowing Royal to have the ball was less dangerous than giving space to Reguilon or Spurs’ front three.

Conte is targeting a new right wing-back during this month’s transfer window and this match demonstrated why he believes Royal is one of the first players to upgrade.

The Brazilian is solid defensively but would Watford have been as hard to break down with Matt Doherty or even Serge Aurier – who Spurs paid off in the summer – in Royal’s place?

Lo Celso return could mix up midfield

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Tottenham’s frustrations also raised the question – again – of whether Skipp and Hojbjerg simply offer too much of the same thing in this kind of game.

Conte recalled Skipp, as Winks dropped to the bench and the manager reverted to what is clearly his default XI.

Skipp and Hojbjerg bring industry and drive to the middle of the park, but neither is skilled at unlocking stubborn defences or can really be described as a playmaker.

In terms of alternatives, Winks has shown that he can offer Spurs quick forward passing from midfield, so it was mystifying that Conte waited so long to introduce the England international.

And it was encouraging that Giovani Lo Celso returned from injury at Watford to feature for the first time since Conte’s first match in charge, back in early November.

With Tanguy Ndombele clearly out of favour, you wonder if Lo Celso could offer a more dynamic alternative to the Skipp-Hojbjerg axis in games where Spurs need to find a way through a packed defence.

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