Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Tottenham is barely a work in progress, but Conte loves nothing more than hard work

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Goals from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Sergio Reguilon ensured Spurs’ victory over Leeds from behind, but they were far from convincing

Minutes passed and the Spurs topped four hours of unregistered league football, a run that included a goalless draw with Everton, a 3-0 loss to Manchester United and a 1-0 loss to West Ham.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR STADIUM – It was unfortunate timing that the words “Take it to the edge” spread across the stadium on the digital billboards that separate the tiers, just as Tottenham was nailed back on the pitch by relegation-threatened Leeds and itself asked if they would ever get a shot on goal again in the Premier League.

And the here and now, in the cold autumn air, was that the Spurs supporters warmly welcomed the new manager Antonio Conte to his first home game in the Premier League and then saw their team play bad football for 45 minutes as usual.

Those speculative calls of “Shoot!” Whenever a Spurs player had the ball within 40 yards of Leeds’ goal, things got more urgent. But Conte is a serial winner with an exceptional record of joining fighting clubs and making them title winners. He’s seen that before.

Chelsea had finished the season in 10th place with 50 points before arriving – Conte stormed west London and made them 93-point champions. At Juventus he appeared in Turin to take over a team that had just finished seventh with 58 points. A year later they became 84-point champions.

It took Inter Milan two seasons, but by the time he strolled into San Siro, Inter had finished fourth with 69 points. By the time Conte finished with them, they were 91-point champions.

Spurs are clearly more of a challenge. But it won’t happen overnight. Conte also started slowly at Chelsea: a couple of late wins, a draw against Swansea, losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, whereupon the rumble started.

On Sunday he faced a Leeds who played nothing like a side teetering on the edge of the bottom three. They were organized, well trained, confidently moving forward and defending.

19-year-old Joe Gelhardt made his full Premier League debut from Marco Bielsa and played with the fearlessness of youth: a shot of the ball over the head of an opponent, a brazen heel, a yellow for a catastrophic tackle against Eric Dier.

Kalvin Phillips, meanwhile, played Sweeper-Defender as if he’d played that complex tactical position all his life: chasing Harry Kane when the striker fell deep, plunging into perfectly timed tackles against Heung-min Son and Sergio Reguilon, and even bringing him to the case of referee Andre Marriner when the official got in the way of midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The referee’s fall generated by far the loudest cheers of the first half from the lips of Tottenham fans.

Leeds’ dominance was rewarded with a smooth, well-deserved opening goal. A step-over and shuffle from Jack Harrison sent the ball through Emerson Royal’s legs, his left low ball to the back post was great, Dan James seemed to want to reach him more than Tottenham’s defender and knocked in unmarked.

One goal back, no shot on goal, the Spurs were booed at halftime. In his debut Premier League game at a new club, has a coach ever been haunted by mockery during recess?

In the locker room, Conte told his players to go “man for man with additional effort,” Reguilon revealed afterwards. And within minutes of the start of the second half, there was that glimmer of hope, that elusive first Premier League shot on goal in 272 minutes. Goalkeeper Illan Meslier blocked Harry Kane’s shot on the post.

It was a tiny moment, but a touch of improvement. A turn of the tide. A look into the forgotten.

Suddenly the Tottenham players were running that extra yard, sprinting that extra mile an hour faster. Lucas Moura became the first to shoot a ball into the Leeds penalty area and kick back for Hojbjerg to ricochet off in a rough ball.

On the sidelines, Conte celebrated like it was the first goal he’d ever celebrated in his life. With his arms waving, he yelled at his players to get back into position and look for someone else. He could feel another – he could smell him.

The players looked transformed. 11 minutes later they took the lead. Dier’s free kick deflected into a post and Reguilon hit the ball before everyone hit the rebound.

Tottenham’s players celebrated like a group that had read @OptaJoe’s tweet at halftime declaring them first-team since statisticians began recording shot data to complete six consecutive halves without a shot on goal.

A few minutes before the end, Conte, who was defending a narrow lead, used a short break to encourage the spectators to make noise, to liven up the atmosphere, to increase the energy, to give them a lead.

The volume has increased. The chants sounded loud. Players and coaches deserve it. A total transformation within 90 minutes. And they had run four kilometers farther than their opponents.

“I feel dead,” said Reguilon. But Conte is only just beginning to bring Spurs back to life.

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