Tottenham were exposed by Arsenal in the north London derby – is it time Antonio Conte took the handbrake off?
When the teams last met in May, Spurs showed how much further ahead they were of their rivals with a 3-0 victory yet only eight months later, the roles were reversed.
Arsenal moved 14 points clear of Tottenham, who face a battle to finish in the top four and little else. Conte has been in charge for over a year but has come to accept his dream of winning titles is unrealistic and his job instead is to “build” the club.
Spurs completed the permanent signings of Richarlison, Yves Bissouma, Cristian Romero, Ivan Perisic, Clement Lenglet, Djed Spence and Fraser Forster in the summer at a combined cost of £172m and Conte, whose contract expires at the end of the season, is also trying to create a winning culture at the club.
But while he believes Tottenham must “buy strong” to continue improving, should the head coach look at how he is utilising the players available to him? Is it time Conte ditches his three-at-the-back formation for a conventional four like Arsenal, Manchester United and Thursday’s opponents Manchester City?
Sky Sports pundits Paul Merson, Jamie Redknapp, Sue Smith and Stephen Warnock give their expert opinion…
What’s going wrong?
Paul Merson: “Tottenham are letting in two goals every game. They play three at the back, two holding midfield players and every week they let in two goals. I don’t know how you get away with it, it’s unbelievable.
“Bar the Palace game – which, if Palace had Harry Kane, they would have won 4-0 – you can’t keep turning it on and off like a tap.
“The first half was embarrassing at the highest level. Everything Arsenal were doing you could see there was a plan and there’s patterns of play. But Tottenham’s is cuffy, it’s off the cuff. If it happens, it happens. You can’t see any plan.
“The second goal, the goalie’s kicking the ball like it’s 1989. He’s getting the ball and kicking it out of his hands – that happens on Sunday mornings. You can’t do that. There are centre-halves sitting there waiting for the ball. I feel sorry for the midfield players – they’ve been left to be embarrassed.”
Jamie Redknapp: “Arsenal have spent £120m since May and Tottenham have spent £172m. We’re thinking surely Tottenham are the team that have progressed but it hasn’t been that way.
“The gulf in class and the style of football Arsenal are playing is what will really compound it so much for Spurs fans. That is what will really incense them because they’re not looking at a team with much direction in terms of how they play, he never really changes the system and I think that gives you a major problem.
“The development of the Arsenal team compared to Spurs has just been incredible. Three points from the last five home games is not good enough for any manager.
“Spurs are in a bit of disarray but they could still get in the top four because they’re in a good position still.”
Sue Smith: “How many times this season have we said Tottenham haven’t turned up in the first half and then in the second they do?
“When Spurs are playing well, you think of them being defensively really solid and then brilliant on the counter with Son, Kulusevski and Kane.
“Tottenham going a goal down doesn’t help their style of play.”
Should Spurs change formation?
Paul Merson: “I’m a big Conte fan, don’t get me wrong. He plays three at the back – it’s more let’s not lose the game before we win the game.
“There’s a problem with the system. With the players and the personnel they’ve got, I don’t think the system’s enough.
“You’ve got one of the best centre-forwards in the world (Harry Kane) and he’s getting starved of service. It’s terrible for a footballer to have that much class and to be working on scraps.
“For me, they’ve got to try and change it up now. I know he plays three at the back but he needs to change that now and play four at the back, play 4-3-3.
“Arsenal go out to win football matches, Tottenham go out not to lose football matches and that’s why it’s a 14-point difference.”
Stephen Warnock: “When Conte was at Chelsea he played the same system but he had leaders on the pitch, players who knew how to grind results out. If they weren’t playing well in the first half, they knew how to stay solid to go in at 0-0 and then sort out the problems.
“When you play against Manchester City, Arsenal, they play similar styles, they overload the midfield – Conte still played two in midfield, he didn’t adapt it by dropping one in or going two up top. It’s always the same.
“You look at Manchester United against Manchester City, they’ve taken a winger out of the game – Antony – and put Bruno (Fernandes) in there because he knows he will drop into a midfield position and then they’re matched up in the central position.
“There’s no ability to adapt.”
Can Spurs still make the top four?
Jamie Redknapp: “Of course they can do it. Liverpool and Chelsea have got major problems, but they’ve still got a great chance. What is killing them right now is Arsenal are on a different level to them. But Spurs can certainly get top four.”
Paul Merson: “I don’t think so, I’m just being honest. Liverpool and Chelsea will still come – don’t think they will keep playing like this.”
Tottenham’s next game is a huge Premier League clash at Manchester City on Thursday, live on Sky Sports – kick-off 8pm.
Antonio Conte’s side then travel to Fulham for another London derby on Monday Night Football on January 23, live on Sky Sports – kick-off 8pm.