In this feverish top-four fight, Tottenham will feel they have a real advantage over their rivals and that’s because of Antonio Conte and his record.
In Conte they have a coach who has won titles for every major club he has managed — five in total with Chelsea, Juventus and Inter Milan — and knows what it takes to qualify for the Champions League.
Conte is a back-three specialist. He wholeheartedly believes this system is the best way to be successful and, this time around, the set-up being used at Spurs looks closer to the one he deployed successfully at Chelsea rather than the one used more recently at Inter.
Tottenham will fancy their top four chances because of Antonio Conte’s record
Throughout his management career he has been incredibly open with the media. He was honest about Tottenham’s huge inconsistencies as they went from one extreme to the other by beating Manchester City then losing to Burnley. But now, they’ve won four of their last five league games and Conte looks fired up for this run-in.
One of the Italian’s strengths is how he tweaks his system based on the individuals at his disposal. He did that at Chelsea and Inter and he’s doing this now at Tottenham. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are his pot of gold at the top of the team and the quality addition of Dejan Kulusevski has turned this front three into a true attacking force.
At Chelsea he had Diego Costa in the centre, with Eden Hazard and Pedro on either side. The difference is whereas Hazard was reluctant to track back to help his team, Son and Kulusevski are exceptionally hard workers.
Conte’s back three system is bringing out the best of Tottenham in their fight for the top four
They love breaking forward — indeed they both rank in the league’s top five players for chances created after carrying the ball upfield — but they will happily drop deep to help out defensively. We saw that in their last win against West Ham.
Kulusevski, as a left-footer on the right wing, naturally cuts inside and gives room for the wing-back Matt Doherty to get forward and give the team width. When that happens, Cristian Romero, on the right of the back three, will stay back with Eric Dier.
The left side is different. Son cuts inside and wing back Sergio Reguilon flies forward in support, but Ben Davies is encouraged to do so as well. We saw something similar at Conte’s Chelsea — Cesar Azpilicueta liked flying forward, while David Luiz and Gary Cahill sat back.
There’s a good balance to Tottenham’s midfield, with new signing Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg complementing each other well. They alternate in attacks — while one sits, the other breaks forward into the box — and have been covering tremendous distances.
Dejan Kulusevski has turned Tottenham’s front three into a true attacking force
He has provided extra support to Son Heung-min and Harry Kane up front for Spurs
Like Kulusevski, Bentancur has been an excellent addition, giving Conte exactly what he wants as a mobile, aggressive, confident midfielder.
All of this means Tottenham get numbers in the final third and, with Kane continuing to drop deep to play provider to Son, this set-up is destroying defences.
Looking at their remaining fixtures, Tottenham have the most inviting run-in, although it is surprising that the Premier League have not confirmed a date for the postponed derby with Arsenal from January 16. The longer they take, the more it feels like they are exploiting the situation by trying to turn that match into a box-office battle for fourth towards the end of the season — and that concerns me.
I’m not sure it favours one side or the other in this case but it could set a dangerous precedent. Postponed fixtures should be rearranged to a date as close as possible to the original and not manipulated for commercial reasons.
Newcastle are capable of springing a surprise
Eddie Howe has done an excellent job at Newcastle. This was a team that had to wait until December 4 to secure a win.
But Howe has turned them around, making defining decisions that have taken them on a path towards Premier League safety. Kieran Trippier was a big loss to his plan, but he’s now getting all of his signings into his XI. Dan Burn is regularly partnering Fabian Schar, while captain Jamaal Lascelles finds himself out of the starting XI.
Howe has got Chris Wood, Bruno Guimaraes and Matt Targett all into his side, while he has rejuvenated Joe Willock and Ryan Fraser.
Newcastle aren’t so reliant on Allan Saint-Maximin these days. He hasn’t started a game since February 13 after injury issues, though they are better with him in the team.
Newcastle lost their previous two games to late winners. I’m sure Howe was sickened by that but he’ll have been encouraged by the performances. His side won’t make this easy for Tottenham. They are more than capable of springing a surprise on Spurs, who face a big test of their top-four credentials.
Eddie Howe has done an excellent job at Newcastle and they could spring a surprise on Spurs