Thus far, it’s tough to take too much issue with Antonio Conte’s time at Tottenham. While things haven’t been completely smooth this season, the Italian manager is responsible for Spurs playing Champions League soccer. While his offseason acquisitions were supposed to ensure success in that competition and a place at Europe’s top table next season, an early problem could be brewing.
In recent matches, some supporters have been left wondering why Conte hasn’t made many substitutions or changed up the squad in a meaningful way. Although his press conference ahead of the Leicester City match does provide some partial answers, they’re not exactly encouraging.
With a brutal month on the horizon, the famously intense manager will need to shake things up to avoid running his squad into the ground. His quotes, however, don’t really suggest that will happen.
Antonio Conte addressed Yves Bissouma, Oliver Skipp, Matt Doherty, and Emerson ahead of a date with Leicester
When Tottenham kept buying player after player during the summer transfer window, the expectation was that Antonio Conte would have enough depth to rotate the squad without compromising on his high standards. While some of those suspicions have panned out — Richarlison has been an important supplementary option in attack — things have been much more static in other parts of the pitch.
In the midfield, Yves Bissouma has only made cameo appearances after arriving from Brighton. Ahead of Leicester, Conte suggested that the Mali international still hadn’t fully adjusted to his tactical demands.
“Then there are players like Richarlison, who went into the team quickly, Lenglet was the same, Perisic, the only player struggling with the tactical aspect is Bissouma,” the manager explained, according to Football London’s transcript.
Conte also noted that “the midfielder is a specific role for us, with the ball and without the ball. It’s not simple.” While he insisted he was happy with Bissouma’s signing, the manager added that “defensively he has to pay more attention.”
Another midfield option is Oliver Skipp. Conte suggested that his lack of inclusion is simply down to recovering from last year’s season-ending injury. “In the next few games he can have a better physical condition, and I can count on him also,” the Italian added.
There’s also been a lack of rotation at right wingback, where Emerson has consistently slotted into the starting role. While he hasn’t always put in the best performances — he’s more of a right-back than a wingback — Conte seems pretty pleased with the Brazilian.
“In my opinion, Emerson had a good start in this season, and he can play in this position. I’m happy with him. He could have scored three goals in the last game. He has improved a lot since last season. Don’t forget Emerson played every game in this period, for sure now he can be a bit tired,” the bench boss explained. “As a full-back, you can be fatigued because you become a striker when you are going to attack, and you have to become a defender when we have to defend, but I’m really happy about Emerson’s performance because you have to think, compare last season and he’s made a good improvement.”
The rotation option there would be Matt Doherty, and, again, Conte pointed to an injury for why he hasn’t seen the pitch.
“In this first part of seven games, don’t forgot we had players like Matthew that had serious injury, and I said in the past he is struggling a bit to come back as the player I knew last season,” he explained. “For sure, now he is improving a lot, and for now, it is the international break, he will have two games with the national team, and he will come back, and I will have the possibility to have another player with rotation.”
While none of those answers sound egregious, they do suggest that Spurs will be working with incredibly thin margins as the schedule ramps up
Upon first listen, Antonio Conte’s quotes sound fairly reasonable. He had explanations for why certain players haven’t entered the rotation and even specifically mentioned the idea of rotating several times. When you consider the larger context of the season, though, things become a bit more complicated.
In the month of October, Spurs will play nine matches, with a 10th coming on November 1. The club will then play three more fixtures before November 12, and then things pause for the World Cup. That reality means there will be a lot of football and, even without any injuries, players will need a rest.
Conte’s answers, however, don’t make it clear that the players in question will be able to make a difference during that window.
Let’s start with Bissouma. The midfielder joined Spurs in June, meaning he had a full preseason under Conte. If he’s still struggling with the tactical side of things, is he really going to grasp things in the next few weeks, especially when there’s an international break on the horizon — it’s safe to assume he’ll be joining up with the Mali squad — and the rapid-fire schedule will training opportunities? And, given what we know of Conte, will he place a player he doesn’t feel 1000% confident about in the starting 11?
Similar things can be said for Skipp and Doherty. Returning from long-term injuries is tricky, especially when the games are coming thick and fast. If they’re even ready within the next few weeks, will they be reliable rotation options? Or will they return for one game and then need to miss multiple matches to recover and avoid an immediate setback?
Drilling down a bit further on the right back spot, it’s also worth noting Conte’s notable admission: Djed Spence. While the young England international seems like a promising player, he’s only played a single minute for Spurs this year. That, combined with the manager’s previous comments that “The club decided to buy [Spence]” (h/t The Athletic), suggests he isn’t a legitimate rotation option, at least as of now.
Add the Italian’s praise of Emerson Royal into the equation, and things seem pretty set in stone. While there is the option of playing Ivan Perisic on the right and letting Ryan Sessegnon slot in at left wingback, Conte seems pretty set in his ways (that option also complicates the rest factor since Perisic covers two positions). If Doherty can’t provide a rotation option, there probably won’t be much change on the flanks.
During his time on the sidelines, Antonio Conte has proven to be a manager who knows exactly what he wants and refuses to deviate from that. While that can always cause some issues, it will be even riskier during a compressed 2022-23 campaign. The season won’t be won or lost in October, but that month will provide some valuable insight into Spurs’ chances of making something special happen this year.
If they’re not able to rotate, things could get ugly.