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Tottenham: Why are Antonio Conte’s men such slow starters this season? 

To Dare is To Do? At this rate, Tottenham‘s slogan might be rebranded ‘To Dare is To Do Nothing’ should their conservative approach under Antonio Conte continue. 

Spurs are in the Champions League last-16 after a dramatic, late winner against Marseille sealed a 2-1 victory and their progress as Group D winners. In the Premier League, they sit comfy in third place. So what’s the problem? If you ask any supporter, it’s the route they’ve taken to get to this position that frustrates the most.

Just like their win away at Bournemouth last weekend – which saw them trail 2-0 before winning 3-2 – Spurs started the Marseille game on the backfoot and barely laid a glove on their opponents, sitting back and allowing them the lions’ share of possession, before going a goal down at the break. 

Tottenham's dramatic win over Marseille came after a dismal first half that saw that drop back and defend - a common theme this season

Tottenham’s dramatic win over Marseille came after a dismal first half that saw that drop back and defend – a common theme this season 

Boss Antonio Conte's conservative tactics have frustrated fans with Spurs starting off slow

Boss Antonio Conte’s conservative tactics have frustrated fans with Spurs starting off slow

And just like that win at the Vitality, Spurs considerably stepped things up after the interval before eventually sealing a stoppage time goal to nick it. But is that good enough for a team whose traditions are all about attacking and playing with style?

Recently there has been an aura of discontent among the Tottenham faithful. After watching the team’s attacking force being blunted under Jose Mourinho – and the same under Conte – some fans have been left disillusioned by what they perceive as negative tactics. 

Certainly, it hasn’t been pretty to watch, but what’s worse is that Spurs appear to drop off for the entire first half in most games – before switching up the gear shift in the second. BT Sport’s pundits clocked onto this theory after Tottenham’s win in France and were far from impressed

‘I’m frustrated,’ said ex-Tottenham striker Peter Crouch. ‘I’m very similar to the fans’ perspective. I just don’t understand why you don’t start on the front foot,’ the former Spurs striker Crouch told BT Sport. ‘It gives teams impetus; it gives them hope, it gives them belief.’

Pundits have been left baffled by the team’s refusal to attack teams from the off in matches 

‘When you start like that, especially away from home, you’re giving the impetus to the other team it’s just i don’t understand why you would retreat and invite pressure on. 

‘It gives the team a hell of a lot of confidence, they string passes together they’re playing into the game.’

Fellow Tottenham alumni Jermaine Jenas agreed, saying Spurs are a much better side when they set out to hurt the opposition – adding that the team ‘won’t get away with’ their pragmatic style as they go deeper into the competition. 

‘From my point of view, we can see they they’re better like that, why are they not just going and doing it?’ he said. ‘When you’re on the front foot and playing like that, you’re so much better.

‘[Crouch] just brought up that list of who they’re gonna be facing – as you go further into this competition you won’t get away with that, you won’t get a second bite in the second half to make your wrongs right, so they need to try and find a way to nail it down in the first half and try and be much more consistent over the game.’

Tottenham went into half time trailing against Marseille before a second half fight back - with stats showing they wait until after the interval to attack the opposition

Tottenham went into half time trailing against Marseille before a second half fight back – with stats showing they wait until after the interval to attack the opposition

Crouch and Jenas both played in Harry Redknapp’s swashbuckling Tottenham side that would bomb forwards and attack teams with the likes of Aaron Lennon, Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe. They were part of the side that reached the Champions League quarter-finals, steam-rollering Inter Milan on their way – so it’s no surprise they take issue with this timid Spurs outfit.

No one connected with Spurs will complain if they win a trophy playing this way, but Jenas is right – Conte’s men will get found out against one of the European big boys if they employ these tactics later down the line.

We’ve already seen the north London side beaten comfortably by rivals Arsenal and Manchester United, who brushed them aside without needing to dig deep, while Chelsea looked to have seen them off too before Spurs put together some more late heroics.

So you do fear for Spurs – who look like they adopt the same approach regardless of what team is in front of them, be it Man City or Macclesfield.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR – FIRST HALF vs SECOND HALF, 2022-23  
   Shots Shots %  Goals   Goals %  Shots faced  Shots faced %  Goals conceded       
First half   82  42.5  9  34.6  104  54.2             8      
Second half    111   57.5  17  65.4  88  45.8             8      

Spurs have scored 26 goals this season – making them the third-highest scorers in the Premier League and above Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. 

Considering we keep talking about how defensive the team are, that should come as a surprise – but that’s only because the team put up their shields in the first half – before going on the onslaught in the second. Stats from Opta show that Spurs have netted nine times in the first period in the Premier League this season, working out at 34.6 per cent. Only Bournemouth, Fulham and West Ham have a worse record.

But in the second half, it’s a totally different story. They’ve netted 17 times after the interval, scoring 65.4 per cent of their goals in this period. That’s the second highest behind Man City (19). 

So Spurs are closer associated with teams at the bottom of the table this season – or at least teams linked to playing more direct and conservative football. And that’s been the story of the campaign. 

It translates to their shooting stats too. Tottenham have had a total of 193 shots in the league this season, giving them the fifth-highest number of shots, but only 82 have come in the first half – working out at 42.5 per cent. By comparison, Man City have 105 shots in this period, while Newcastle have 104 and Arsenal 98. 

Spurs have faced more shots than any team in the league in the first half of games this season

Spurs have faced more shots than any team in the league in the first half of games this season

But after the break - they have 17 goals, a stat only bettered by heavyweights Manchester City

But after the break – they have 17 goals, a stat only bettered by heavyweights Manchester City 

In the second half, however, Spurs have ramped it up with 111 shots – a total of 57.5 per cent of their goals. Only Liverpool (121) have had more in this period.

And for all their defending, Spurs’ record at the back is not as rosy as it probably shot be – letting in 16 goals in total with half of those coming in the first half. When it comes to shots faced, Spurs fare terribly – and anyone who’s seen them drop back and invite pressure will have no shocks about that. 

They’ve faced a total of 192 shots in the league this season, with 104 of those in the first half of games. That’s the most in the division. 

But when the whistle blows to start the second period, their fortunes are reversed, with the number of shots they faced standing at just 88.

So why does Antonio Conte employ this tactic? Is it an attempt to frustrate the opponent, tire them out – and then blitz them in the second? Or does it allow the team to conserve their energy before blowing it all off in the defining moments?

Conte's tactics may come undone when Spurs come up against big sides in Europe next year

Conte’s tactics may come undone when Spurs come up against big sides in Europe next year 

The figures indicate this is a deliberate tactic from Conte – it’s not just Spurs struggling to get into their groove. They’re intentionally inviting pressure and then stepping up after half-time. 

It appears the plan is to manage the game where possible and get to the break even steven before making the opposition pay in the second half – but as we’ve seen, it can sometimes backfire. 

Spurs are playing a risky old game under Conte – chosing their moments and narrowing down their timeframe to score decisive goals. Constantly on the backfoot and having to constantly chase the game, they regularly find themselves under pressure, which cannot be good for morale. 

What cannot be doubted about Conte’s side is their character and resolve to pick up vital results when needed. We saw this in the 2-2 draw at Chelsea, in the late 2-0 win over Marseille. In the 3-2 win over Bournemouth. The stoppage time goal that was – painfully – narrowly offside in the 1-1 draw vs Sporting Lisbon.

This is a team digging deep for their manager and fighting when the situation demands it. But dig too deep and Spurs may find themselves struggling to claw their way out as the season goes on.  


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