Why Antonio Conte is so keen for Tottenham to sign Richarlison

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Why Antonio Conte is so keen for Tottenham to sign Richarlison - AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Why Antonio Conte is so keen for Tottenham to sign Richarlison - AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

One of the most important moments in this summer’s transfer market came months ago, at the end of March, when it was decided that Premier League clubs will be able to make five substitutions per match from the start of next season.

It was a game-changing decision, in a literal sense, and also a game-changer for the managers and executives who are tasked with recruiting and selling players in this break between campaigns.

“In the summer every team has to know very well that you have to strengthen your squad,” said Antonio Conte, the Tottenham Hotspur head coach, in April. “Because with five substitutions you can change totally the game, during the game. Tactically, physically.”

Squad depth has never been so important and, in this context, it is easy to see why Conte has been so enthused by the prospect of signing Richarlison from Everton. The Spurs head coach knows that football is becoming more of a squad sport than ever before, and he knows he therefore needs more high-quality options in his attack.

In previous years, it might have been fair to question how Richarlison would fit into the Spurs team. After all, with Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski up front, Conte already has one of the most effective attacking trios in Europe. In an 11-man game, Richarlison does not have an obvious position in that side.

To think of it in these terms, though, would be a mistake. Football is no longer an 11-man game. The intensity of the matches and the physical demands on the players have made squad-building more important than team-building at the top end of the Premier League, and the introduction of five substitutions will rapidly accelerate that process.

Liverpool and Manchester City, the two dominant teams in recent years, have already realised this. Liverpool signed Luis Diaz in January despite already having four top-class forwards at their disposal (Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Diogo Jota). City signed Jack Grealish last summer despite already having Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres in their squad.

For the likes of Spurs to catch up, they need to do the same. There is therefore no need for Richarlison, who is set to arrive in a deal worth up to £60 million, to have a specific role designated for him in Conte’s starting lineup. The 25-year-old can play in all three attacking positions — left, central and right — and his flexibility means he can easily rotate with Kane, Son and Kulusevski.

With Champions League football on the horizon, there is no doubt that rotation will be needed. Kane and Son finished last season in remarkable form, starting together in 20 consecutive matches from early February until the final day, but they simply cannot be asked to continue playing all game, every game.

Earlier this month, Telegraph Sport revealed that Kane had spent more than half of last season in the “critical zone”, at risk to his health and career longevity. The demands on the England captain have been extreme and it will undoubtedly benefit his own performances, and Tottenham’s results, if Richarlison can share some of the load.

As a forward, Richarlison’s ability is not in question. No player did more to keep Everton in the division last season, while his return of 14 goals in 36 international appearances for Brazil is another indication of his quality.

Positionally, Richarlison has operated across the front-line since he moved to Watford in 2017. He has played most frequently as a central attacker in his time in England but has regularly popped up on the flanks, either from the start of matches or during different phases of play.

In a struggling Everton team last season, Richarlison still notched an impressive 10 goals in 30 league matches. Crucially, he scored six times in his final nine league appearances of the season, when Frank Lampard’s side were in desperate need of a saviour.

Richarlison’s likely departure from Merseyside did not affect his commitment to Everton’s cause. Quite the opposite, in fact: footage from their crucial win against Crystal Palace shows the Brazilian celebrating wildly with the Everton supporters, and then doing the same with the players in the dressing room.

Richarlison ticks every box for Conte: he is versatile, physically powerful and hard-working. Whether he drastically improves the starting line-up is perhaps up for debate, given the brilliance of Kulusevski, Kane and Son, but to worry about that would be to miss the point. Spurs need an improved squad as much as an improved team, and there is no doubt that the acquisition of Richarlison will help them on that journey.

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