Tottenham’s resurgence under Antonio Conte last season was built on defensive stability but, eight months on, the Italian’s back-line is broken.
Spurs conceded four times in the second half at Manchester City on Thursday night, meekly squandering their hard-earned 2-0 half-time lead to increase the pressure on Conte.
Booed off at the interval, City played with more poise and intensity in the second half but all four of their goals were gift-wrapped by a Spurs side who looked shot as soon as Julian Alvarez halved the deficit.
Ivan Perisic was at fault for City’s first three goals, losing challenges to Riyad Mahrez on each occasion, while it was another difficult night for goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who flapped at a loose ball ahead of Alvarez’s strike and was beaten at his near post for the first of the Algerian’s two smart finishes.
Clement Lenglet, a strange second-half substitution, was culpable for Mahrez’s second goal in an awful cameo, while Erling Haaland was also on the scoresheet.
Damningly, Spurs have now conceded twice or more in nine of their last 10 League games and they are bottom of the table for goals against since the start of October.
Conte’s side finished last season with three consecutive clean sheets, despite the absence of Cristian Romero, to pip Arsenal to Champions League football, but the regression this term has been stark.
A large portion of the blame lies with the club. Jose Mourinho wanted to overhaul his back four but nearly two years after the Portuguese’s sacking, Conte is still working with the same group of defenders, Romero aside. When Mourinho demanded a top centre-half in summer 2020, Spurs signed Joe Rodon, now on loan at Ligue 1 Rennes.
Last summer, Conte made the same pleas, urging the club to pursue his former Inter Milan charge, Alessandro Bastoni. When the centre-half turned down a move, the club compromised again, signing Lenglet on loan.
Wing-backs Matt Doherty, Emerson Royal and Ryan Sessegnon are further examples of Spurs’ unconvincing recruitment strategy, while Perisic, hailed as a true Conte signing in the summer, appears to be suffering the effects of the World Cup or simply age. He is 34 next month.
Eric Dier and Ben Davies should not be nearing testimonials for a club of Spurs’ statute, while Davinson Sanchez is still on the books despite having rarely looked like a top-six defender. That said, none of Conte’s defenders are improving on his watch and some, including Romero, are actively regressing.
His side no longer look well-drilled and their tendency to crumble at the first sign of adversity points to a lack of belief, which is presumably not being helped by the head coach’s constant threats to quit. What are Conte’s options? He insists he does not have the squad to switch to a back four but it is difficult to see how Spurs could get worse defensively.
Conte has asked for an attacker and wing-back, but there is a case for prioritising the defence and bringing forward the succession plan for Lloris
Something needs to change, with resurgent Fulham lying in wait on Monday night, and, as Conte has acknowledged, switching to a back four would at least allow him to get an extra forward on the pitch.
For Conte, a more appealing solution is to sign new defenders. The head coach has asked for an attacker and wing-back, but there is a case for prioritising the defence and bringing forward the succession plan for Lloris, who has now made four mistakes leading to goals this season, double any other Premier League player.
Spurs are working on a deal for Sporting Lisbon’s Pedro Porro, although Conte’s uncertain future must be adding to the club’s natural hesitancy in the market. If there was a positive from Thursday night, it was the way Conte’s players executed his game-plan in the first half, culminating in two opportunistic goals from Dejan Kulusevski and Emerson and suggesting there is life in his team yet. If there is any hope of a revival, the head coach and the club must work together to fix the defence.