Tottenham remain a flawed side, but at least in Antonio Conte’s three Premier League games in charge you can see what there is a plan. You can see what Spurs are trying to do. It’s been almost three years since you could say that with any real confidence.
This was by far the most encouraging 90 minutes of Antonio Conte’s nascent reign, with a curiously passive and ponderous Brentford held at bay comfortably as Spurs finally, at the 13th time of asking, won a Premier League game this season by more than a one-goal margin.
They were full value for it, and, such has been the paucity of the Premier League below the exalted top three this season, Spurs’ run of of seven points from three games under Conte has now taken them within two points of the top four with a game in hand and Norwich at home to come this weekend. Spurs are only going to improve under this manager.
And they still need to. The build-up play can still be too slow at times. The back three, minus the long-term-injured Cristian Romero, still looks a bit thrown together. Harry Kane has still to relocate his scoring touch and the available central-midfield personnel are still not quite what a Conte team requires.
But the plans and patterns of play are beginning to emerge. And all those faults melted away at different points and for different periods of time tonight. There were occasions in both halves but most notably the second and most strikingly for the second goal, when Spurs had real fizz and pace to their play.
In the centre of defence Eric Dier was solid once again and helped create the slightly fortuitous opening goal with a clever long pass that forced Sergi Canos to concede a corner from which he would ultimately if unfortunately divert the ball into his own net. And Ben Davies was excellent at what is and always has been his best position as the left of three centre-backs. Solid defensively he also, weirdly, seems to find it easier to get forward effectively from left centre-back in a three than he does from orthodox left-back in a four. He and Sergio Reguilon were a constant threat.
And then there’s Kane. While everything he attempted in the traditional centre-forward areas of the pitch went wrong, his deeper contributions were excellent. We all know he can do this, of course, but time and again he sprayed passes from the middle of the park that sprung Spurs on to the counter-attack – again most strikingly for the game-clinching, nerve-settling second goal.
Meanwhile Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp – and Harry Winks when he came on in a slight shift of shape to snuff out the slightest glimmer of a Brentford response after the second goal – are demonstrably playing a more proactive and positive game under Conte. Kane should have scored from a gloriously weighted Skipp pass after a surge from midfield, while all three popped up in advanced positions that would have been once-a-season rarities under previous regimes.
The mischievous thought occurs that the best Conte-style central midfielder in this Spurs squad is actually Kane, but those currently playing there are all at least taking on the lessons being handed down. Skipp in particular was excellent here, a clear man of the match in what must be his finest Spurs performance ahead of a reunion with the side for whom he impressed so much on loan last season.
With Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Arsenal – a game that itself highlighted at least as many flaws as strengths – further congesting the top-four race, Spurs really do have a chance to get themselves right in amongst that race for fourth. It’s all well and good saying that the quality falls off a cliff below the top three; it obviously does, but someone has to finish fourth. It’s Norwich next in a kind run of December fixtures for Spurs; in the seven games between now and New Year’s Day Spurs have Liverpool at home but face nobody else currently higher than ninth.
This kind of performance will be enough in several of those games, and there remain obvious areas where Spurs can improve. There remain obvious ways it can all go horribly wrong as well – this is Spurs, after all, and Davinson Sanchez remains a constant source of anxiety – but a week on from their humiliation in Slovenia there are reasons for hope and tentative optimism. Most Spurs fans might not have needed it, but that game does appear to have been an eye-opener for players and manager alike.
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