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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Antonio Conte’s Tottenham future could hinge on transfer for a creative midfielder

Opponents have grown accustomed to taking the lead against Tottenham Hotspur. Indeed, going into the new year, Antonio Conte’s team had conceded the first goal in each of their last 9 matches in all competitions. That trend was extended by the 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa on New Year’s Day which left the Spurs boss exasperated.

Asked to explain his team’s patchy form, Conte struggled for an answer.  “I know the reality,” Conte said. “I live the club every day. I know the ambition. They know my thoughts. Create a solid foundation and develop. It was clear at the start of the season, we can be competitive to win but try to improve.

“There are clubs that can invest 200 or 300 million (pounds). You have to respect the politics, it has to be clear, otherwise we create an expectation that’s not positive. I was expecting this moment. Now we have to start to fight. The situation is we’re there [fifth] and in this league you can slip quickly.”

Conte’s mood has darkened in recent times. Even before the break for the 2022 World Cup, the 53-year-old made remarks that prompted some to consider whether he might depart North London in the near future. Conte clearly wants new signings to be made in the January transfer window.

Specifically, Spurs’ success or failure in the pursuit of a new creative midfielder could determine the future of their manager. Tottenham have been unable to translate possession into control and goal-scoring opportunities this season due to lack of a central operator who could break lines through his use of the ball. 

Christian Eriksen was available in the summer transfer window and would have ticked numerous boxes for Tottenham. However, the Dane joined Manchester United instead and has become a key figure for Erik ten Hag’s team, surely much to the disgruntlement of Spurs, who could use an operator like their former midfielder.

Conte has used midfielders to epitomise some of his best teams in the past. At Inter, he forged a unit comprising of Marcelo Brozovic, Nicolo Barella and Eriksen with one of those players charged with controlling, another with driving forward and another with creating. Tottenham don’t currently have that same balance.

Yves Bissouma made the move to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium from Brighton in the summer transfer window, but Conte has been slow to integrate the Malian. Even when Bissouma has featured, he has been used as one half of a double pivot alongside Rodrigo Bentancur or Pierre-Emile Hjobjerg. 

The front three of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski gives Spurs the sort of attacking threat that is matched by only a handful of rivals in the Premier League – as demonstrated by their 4-0 destruction of Crystal Palace last week – but Conte’s insistence on using the trio over just two forwards means his team is weaker in the centre of the pitch. Tottenham are simply lightweight in midfield.

Despite significant investment in the last two transfer windows, Conte clearly doesn’t trust the quality of his own squad. He feels he needs more investment in the January transfer window to prove Tottenham Hotspur are still heading in the right direction and have the ambition at executive level to match his own as a manager.

Weston McKennie has been linked with a move to North London this month with Juventus’ perilous financial position forcing a firesale of many of their most valuable players, but the USA international isn’t the sort of midfield controller Spurs most desperately need even if he would be a shrewd addition.

Pedro Porro is another player who is believed to be on Spurs’ radar for January, but he is a right back and Sporting CP want a transfer fee of at least €40m for one of their prize assets. Conte might not get the signings he wants because Tottenham aren’t willing to sanction the capture of targets mid-season, when prices are typically inflated.

Tottenham hired Conte to turn them into winners. The Italian coach has one of the best track records of any manager of his generation, but there has been a clear disconnect between Conte’s demands and what he has been delivered by his employers in the transfer market. To continue into the future together, this disconnect must be addressed. 

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