Finally, the plan worked. With their penultimate cross in the game, Tottenham got the breakthrough against Watford when Davinson Sanchez took a look at Son Heung-min’s accurate free kick into the net from a few yards out.
The match-winning goal offered delayed justification of Tottenham’s game plan, which was clear from the first minute to the very last: dominate the ball, stretch the game across the pitch and arrow passes into Watford’s penalty area for Harry Kane and Son to attack.
For a long, long time, it had seemed that the strategy would fail. For their entire possession – 74 percent, their most in a Premier League match since August 2019 – the Spurs fought to create many clear chances. Although they eventually scored from a cross into the box, a return on a goal from 43 attempts underscored the matches they encountered.
“I think today we controlled the game and we had a lot of ball possession and in the first half I saw the statistics and we made 29 crosses,” Antonio Conte said after the win. “I think we need to improve in the last pass, to have more quality, because the last pass means whether you score or not.”
The Spurs encountered similar problems at St Mary’s in their last game of 2021 as they worked on a 1-1 draw against a team that played with 10 men for over 45 minutes. Lack of creativity through the middle has been a long-standing problem for a club that has never managed to replace Christian Eriksen, but in Conte’s setup it is not necessarily a big problem … as long as the delivery from wide areas is good.
Conte is known for his appreciation of wing-backs almost as much as his contempt for ketchup. The Italian is the biggest exponent of a three-man defense in modern training and in all his eight Premier League matches in charge of Spurs, his team is set up to play in a 3-4-3 or, as was the case in the 2-2 draw against Liverpool, a 3-5-2.
That Spurs are unbeaten in the league since Conte started the switch from a back-fourer to a back-three is a sign that things are working out pretty well. But as he acknowledged after Watford, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to the supply line from the flanks.
“We definitely need to improve in this aspect, because when you play with this system, with this formation, wing-backs are very important,” he said. “When the ball arrives there [out wide], we need to be more efficient. I know very well that it is a role where you spend a lot of energy.
“You become a striker, a winger when we are in possession of the ball, and then a right-back or a left-back when we are without the ball. But at the same time we have young players with room for improvement.”
On the balance of the game, Conte has probably referred more to 22-year-old Emerson Royal than 25-year-old Sergio Reguilon, as the former attempted a match-leading 14 cross. “It was almost as if Watford said ‘let him have it [the ball]”Ian Wright said of Emerson on Match of the Day.” Every single tick he put on today had nothing on it. It is poor quality, he has to whip it in. ”
Emerson joined Spurs in a transfer of £ 25.8m. from Barcelona on transfer deadline in August and has been a virtual always present since, starting in 13 out of 15 league matches where he has been available. He has only a single assist so far, to Lucas Moura in the 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on Christmas Day.
That return is simply not enough for a team that relies on outside chance creation. Last season, right wingback Achraf Hakimi Inter Milan shared the third highest goal scorer in Serie A with seven goals and their second-leading assist provider with eight while playing under Conte. The Moroccan has since switched to PSG, where he has quickly become a key player under former Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino.
According to Athletics, an attacking right wing-back is one of two priorities for the Spurs in January transfer window, together with an attacker. It is also expected that Matt Doherty, a player who shone as a wing-back for the former club Wolves, will be moved on after an overwhelming 18-month period in north London.
If there is a new signing this month, it does not necessarily mean that the Emerson signing was a mistake: the Brazilian has been solid defensively, engines up and down the field and has fitted in well with his compatriot Lucas. Given the demands Conte places on his players, two specialists are required for each wingback role to ensure that one does not end up being overworked, and if Doherty leaves, there will be a gap to fill.
But if the Spurs are to make the most of having Conte as their manager, that’s an area they need to improve and fast.