Antonio Conte faces first real test as Tottenham come in from the cold to host red-hot Liverpool

Liverpool have pulled away from their Premier League rivals after dominating this fixture in recent years but, given time, Conte will make Spurs competitive again

Tony Evans
Sunday 19 December 2021 07:56
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Conte forced to train with mannequins due to COVID outbeak. Liverpool unlikely to be such dummies

It has been a frustrating start to Antonio Conte’s tenure as Tottenham Hotspur manager. The Italian had an encouraging first month at White Hart Lane but the renewed impact of the pandemic has halted the team’s momentum. Spurs go into today’s home game against Liverpool after an unwanted two-week break. These are not ideal circumstances for the 52-year-old.

Other clubs – and Covid – have hogged the headlines and Tottenham have seemed like an afterthought. It is easy to overlook that Conte stabilised the side’s form after succeeding Nuno Espirito Santo in November. Spurs have taken 10 points from 12 since the new manager’s appointment – admittedly against teams in the bottom half of the table – and have looked more coherent. Liverpool are Conte’s first real test.

In the second half of the 2010s, these clubs seemed to be developing one of the most intriguing rivalries in the Premier League. A series of tense games culminated in the Champions League final in Madrid two years ago. The majority of the antagonism has dissipated since Liverpool’s 2-0 victory in the Spanish capital. Jurgen Klopp’s team have pulled away.

How strong was the rivalry? It was rather exaggerated. The last time Tottenham beat Liverpool was four years ago, a 4-1 Premier League victory at Wembley in a game that represents one of the low points of Klopp’s time in charge of the Reds. Spurs are painfully distant from the top sides at the moment, a scenario made more difficult to bear by the resurgence of Arsenal.

If anyone can make Spurs competitive again it is Conte. He led Chelsea to the title in 2016-17 with one of the more remarkable feats of management in recent years. The west London club had finished tenth in the table the previous season and appeared to be heading for a similar campaign when they were beaten in consecutive games by Liverpool and Arsenal in September. They were eight points adrift of the leaders and a disconsolate Conte looked like a man who did not know how to deploy a lopsided squad.

Spurs have seen three matches postponed in the two weeks since they last played

It took a while for the former Italy coach to get the measure of the personnel at the Bridge. The journey from dreadful to dominant was not exactly as quick as flicking a switch but the improvement was relentless. They eventually won the Premier League by a seven-point margin. Spurs do not have as much talent as Chelsea had five years ago but there is enough quality for Conte to have legitimate ambitions of getting the team back into the top four.

The first item on the agenda for Conte at Tottenham was improving the fitness of the squad. Almost every new manager suggests that their new charges are not fit enough but, interestingly, Conte focused particularly on Harry Kane. Covid has limited what the manager could accomplish on the training ground but, like Klopp, the Spurs boss puts the players under intense physical and mental pressure when preparing for matches.

Conte would be far more confident going into the game against Liverpool if his work with the squad had not been interrupted. The enforced break means Tottenham will be even further away from the match fitness Conte demands.

This will frustrate the naturally-combative Italian. His first instinct is to instil defensive solidity and try to catch the opposition on the break. Possession is way down the list of what is important to him.

Tottenham’s last win over Liverpool proved to be a turning point for the Reds under Jurgen Klopp

Letting Liverpool have the ball is a dangerous game. Spurs will likely set up with a back three and flood the defensive midfield areas in an attempt to stymie Klopp’s side. Kane’s fitness will be tested by a lone role up front.

Had the pandemic not intervened, Tottenham would be in a much better position to compete with Liverpool. Despite this, Mohamed Salah and co will not find Spurs as callow as they were in January during the dire, waning days of the Jose Mourinho era. Conte retains the fire that the Portuguese has lost.

Even though it has not been an ideal start for the new manager, there are sure to be signs of improvement in Tottenham. They will go into 2022 in better shape. Conte has the class to turn things around, even if today might have come just too soon for him.

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