After a difficult loss to Manchester United last weekend at Goodison Park, the tests continue to come for Everton before the World Cup break beginning in mid-November. Traveling to north London is never too easy, and against Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur, Frank Lampard and company will have to play a bright and positive game while remaining wary of the counterattacking prowess of their host.
Many Blues will be seeing and playing against their old teammate - Richarlison - for the first time as well. As nice as it will surely be for them to see him before and after the match, there is no doubt in my mind that each side would love nothing more than to have earned three points by the time 90-plus minutes have passed by and the match is at its end.
RBM: First off, Spurs have looked quite good for the most part this year; what is the feeling like around the supporters, the training ground, and the club in general about how this season has begun?
RR: Despite the productive point return to start the year (if Spurs win on Saturday, it would be the club’s highest point return through 10 games in its history), the feeling around Spurs is not all that perfect. There have been complaints and challenges about Antonio Conte’s lineup selection as well as the style of play.
However, the team does find themselves near the top of the league in goals all the same. I think people classify Spurs’ style of play as pragmatic and counter-attacky, but there is a method to the madness that is Conte. While the other Top 4 contending teams like to control the ball and dicate the pace of the game, Spurs do not give up many chances and can frustrate oppositions. So while many label it as negative, Conte may see it as just.
Perhaps in large part due to how rival Arsenal have started the year, the complaints from supporters are a bit overreactionary. I can understand why some supporters may be frustrated, but I am much more glass half-full and think that Spurs have yet to really get into form but they have done the job in both the league and Europe so far.
RBM: What has this team improved upon from last season? Furthermore, what are some areas that the team must still improve upon?
RR: The most important thing is the automatisms that come from Conte’s system. Spurs were one of the best teams in the league towards the tail-end of last season and that was in large part due to the squad/starting XI being fully up to snuff with Conte and his staff’s tactical approach. There is a reason why Spurs continue to feature a 3-4-3 with usually the same set of players. The set-up, formation and tactics asked of the system ensure that Spurs are set up to be difficult to play through while also having sufficient attacking firepower going forward to make good in attack.
With the 3-4-3 of course comes its downfalls. For starters, this formation demands a lot out of the wingbacks that are utilized in it. This is primarily due to the fact that Spurs do not get a lot out of ball-progressive capabilities from the midfield duo of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur. The Dane and the Uruguayan are much more adapt in winning the ball back in tight areas and acting as catalysts within the build-up play.
Because of this, Spurs need their wingbacks to get into dangerous areas to be able to supply their goal-scorers. The starting duo has mainly featured either Ryan Sessegnon or Ivan Perisic on the left side and Emerson Royal on the right side. When Spurs are getting good performances from their wingbacks, it usually means they are on the winning side of matches. But one thing Spurs fans would like to see is a bit more creativity.
We have learned under Conte that creativity does not come from individual players as it has in the past with Spurs (Christian Eriksen being the main playmaker over the years). Instead, the creativity comes from the system. Spurs need more consistent performances from their wingback options or else the team can certainly struggle.
RBM: We have seen positive performances from this team this season to be sure. But with that said, how have fans taken to Antonio Conte and the personnel and tactical innovations he has made since taking over as boss a little less than a year ago?
I touched upon it a little bit in the first question, but Conte is a manager that needs to have his entire trust placed in a player before relying on him. That is why it has taken time for summer incomings like Yves Bissouma and even Djed Spence to come into the fold on a more consistent basis. It is not just the tactics that take time in adjusting to, but it is also the fitness levels that Conte and his staff (RIP Gian Piero Ventrone, Conte’s right-hand fitness man over the years who recently passed away due to leukemia) require of their players.
Due to this, Conte and his selections can be seen as stubborn by some sets of supporters. It also should be said that, up until quite recently, Spurs have had just about a fixture a week. As we dive deeper into the season and Spurs hopefully advance in the various competitions they are in, perhaps there will be some lineup refreshing that comes with it.
RBM: Of course, I must ask about Richarlison as well before this chat is complete; how has he taken to north London? He was dear to so many on Merseyside, and I’m sure he’s endeared himself to the Spurs faithful quite quickly?
Richarlison is quite the unique player. He is the classic “you can’t stand him on another team, but he is near and dear to your heart at your club”. I think he has adapted to Spurs and Conte extremely well. I was a little weary about the summer transfer when it came down. Not because of the hefty price tag (I saw that as just), but because of his tactical fit. He has been utilized in a few different spots and roles depending on the match script if Spurs are chasing a game or seeing a result out. I liken him as the first player off the bench as he can provide a stick of dynamite if Spurs need a goal or can run all day and stretch defenses when Spurs are defending and hitting the opposition on the counter.
Spurs are expected to get Dejan Kulusevski back from a muscle injury this weekend and he still remains to me at the top of the list as the most underrated players in the league. Sure Harry Kane and Son Heung-min grab all of the headlines and rightfully so deserve the most attention, but Kulusevski is really the straw that stirs the drink. He is such a dynamic player and profile as a left-footed attacking player on the right side. He is not the fastest player by any means, but he is so strong on the ball and extremely creative especially when cutting inside into the half spaces.
On top of Kulusevski, I think Bentancur is a player that has been really good so far this season for Spurs. He is such a capable presser and is so smooth on the ball. I think Everton will try to feature a midfield three to overrun Spurs in the area, but Bentancur is such a smart player and has been in good form especially lately. On top of these two, I liken Spurs’ back three to limit any significant Everton chances going forward.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s affair?
I have been pleasantly surprised by Everton this season. I have a family member who is an Everton supporter so I try to keep an eye on their matches when I am able. I saw Everton as a team that would struggle again with staying up this season and that is a direct testament to my feelings of Frank Lampard as a manager.
Regardless, I see this as a game where Spurs are much more accustomed to the way they play and the difference in quality will be shown. It looks like Son is starting to find good form again and with Kulusevski back in the fold, Spurs are getting healthier at the right time ahead of a bevy of matches before the World Cup break. This is a late kickoff so the atmosphere at Spurs should be a good one.
I think Spurs will be looking to keep a clean sheet after conceding two porous goals on Wednesday in the Champions League, so I will go with a scoreline of 2-0. A goal from Son and I will say a goal from Richarlison for the storyline.
Our thanks to Ryan for his time.