Something stirring in N17 as Spurs get their moment of ignition under Conte | Barney Ronay
Who are you exactly? And what have you done with Tottenham Hotspur? At the end of a week menaced by illness, schedule horror and lurking event anxiety, something unexpected happened in north London, as the players of Spurs and Liverpool dished up a glorious, ragged, startlingly carefree game of football.
Both teams might have scored four or five, or none at all, although in the end a 2-2 draw felt fair enough. Both managers had complained in advance about a lack of planning time. Antonio Conte was forced to train with a set of static mannequins, a state of affairs that presents so many punchlines, not to mention an entire self-contained Eric Dier section, that it demands its own dedicated two-hour Spurs stand-up special.
But as the ball was zinged about between the white and red shirts, the players running wildly, with no breaks or breaths, this felt like a glimpse of a more agreeably anarchic sporting world. Mainly it felt like a shift of gear for Spurs, perhaps even a moment of ignition for the manager.
Conte has a very distinct, even rather hammy kind of persona: the inspirationalist, the magnetic personality, the man who simply demands better air, purer human material. A lot of this is bound up in theatre and show. But why not? Football is theatre and show.
As Conte whirled and crouched in his rectangle – as he turned to sprint and howl, eyes boggling, at each Tottenham goal, as though, he, Antonio Conte, had just personally zinged the ball into the Liverpool net – there was a sense of something stirring; and, by the end, of a first genuine fork of lightning shot through this bolted-together collection of human parts.
English football loves to talk about systems, and about “Philosophy”. We are all Philosophers now. I have a Philosophy, you have a Philosophy, Aidy Boothroyd has a Philosophy. But this often breaks down into something more basic: energy, emotion, feelings. Conte’s starting flat back five gave a powerful basic structure. But the real change was textural, as this hurled-together Spurs team produced a kind of anger-football, something spiky and a little uncontrolled.
Perhaps the most significant note of transformation was in Harry Kane, who had sleepwalked through the autumn but produced a performance here that was both precise and scattergun, urgently alive and caked with sleep dust, lethal early on but bafflingly wonky the rest of the time. Kane and Conte: this is, as ever, the key relationship in this setup. And with better timing and better finishing Spurs’ captain could have scored pretty much the same goal three or four times.
With six minutes gone he drew a wonderful block in front of goal from Ibrahima Konaté, when he really should have scored. Moments later he was in again, haring into the same inside-right channel, released by a fine pass from Tanguy Ndombele. Suddenly Kane had nothing but grass, goal, netting, the mustard yellow styling of Alisson in front of him. He clipped the ball low into the corner, his first goal in this stadium since August, his first league goal here since May, two managers ago.
In those early exchanges Liverpool played a ridiculously high defensive line. With the pressure eased by a rejigged midfield, Spurs always seemed one pass away from setting Heung-min Son off in a foot race with the Liverpool centre-backs – a foot race that, frankly, Son wins on one leg carrying a small Chesterfield sofa on his back, while also taking a detour via Seven Sisters Sunday fruit market.
And Son was magnificent here, the outstanding player on the pitch, looking refreshed, Conte-ised, and sharp in front of goal for his late equaliser. Which was a good thing too, because Kane kept missing chances. He should have scored from Dele Alli’s cut-back but tried something cute as the ball declined to run on. He might have flicked in a snap header from six yards out. He had shots blocked that really should have been shots on target.
He also might have been sent off for a sliding lunge through Andy Robertson that required a jump plus forward flip in order to avoid mangled shins. Red cards are given for less reckless and less dangerous acts than this.
By half-time eight different Liverpool players had taken a total of 12 shots at goal. Jürgen Klopp’s depleted team had equalised with a fine header from Diogo Jota, then took the lead through Robertson who was later (keep up) deservedly sent off.
And yes, it is just a point, against a 10-man Liverpool team. It is just one game in the middle of a Covid-shadowed muddle. But it felt like something astringent and purging too, to see Harry Winks charging into tackles, Son and Kane once again like two men roped together on a mountain.
Perhaps it was even a kind of exorcism after the deathly presence of José Mourinho, the muteness of Nuno Espírito Santo, who carried all the emotional presence of a damp V-neck sweater rigged up on the touchline between two broom handles.
What is certain is Spurs are still unbeaten in the Premier League under Conte. And that coming here will now present an obstacle, an energy to be resisted. Show, theatre, plus a little simple structure. Seasons have turned on less.