December 7, 2021

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Tottenham are barely a work in progress – but Antonio Conte loves nothing more than hard work

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR STADIUM — It was unfortunate timing that the words “Take it to the edge” spread around the stadium on the digital hoardings that separate each tier, just as on the pitch Tottenham were pinned back by relegation-threatened Leeds and wondering if they would ever have a shot on target in the Premier League again.

The minutes ticked by and Spurs surpassed four hours of league football in which they had failed to register one, a run encompassing a goalless draw with Everton, the 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, a 1-0 defeat to West Ham.

And the here and now, in the cold autumn air, was that the Spurs supporters gave new manager Antonio Conte a warm welcome to his first Premier League home game then watched their side play 45 minutes of familiarly bad football.

Those speculative shouts of “shoot!” whenever a Spurs player had the ball within 40 yards of Leeds’s goal took on an edge of urgency. But Conte is a serial winner with an exceptional record of entering struggling clubs and turning them into title winners. He has seen this before.

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Chelsea had finished the season before his arrival in 10th place on 50 points — Conte waltzed into west London and turned them into 93-point champions. At Juventus, he turned up in Turin to take over a side who had just finished in seventh with 58 points. A year later they were 84-point champions.

At Inter Milan it took two seasons, but when he sauntered into the San Siro Inter had finished fourth with 69 points. By the time Conte finished with them, they were 91-point champions.

Clearly Spurs represent a greater challenge. But it will not happen overnight. Even at Chelsea Conte started slowly: a few late wins, a draw with Swansea, defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal after which rumblings began.

On Sunday, he met a Leeds playing nothing like a side teetering on the edge of the bottom three. They were organised, well-drilled, confident going forward and defending.

Nineteen-year-old Joe Gelhardt was handed his full Premier League debut by Marco Bielsa and played with the fearlessness of youth: a flick of the ball over an opponent’s head, a brazen back-heel, a yellow for a disastrously late tackle on Eric Dier.

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Kalvin Phillips, meanwhile, played sweeper-defender as though he had been playing that complex tactical position his whole life: chasing Harry Kane when the striker dropped deep, plunging into perfectly-timed tackles on Heung-min Son and Sergio Reguilon, even bringing down referee Andre Marriner when the official got in the way of the midfielder pressing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The ref’s tumble produced by far the first half’s loudest cheer from the lips of Tottenham’s fans.

Leeds’s dominance was rewarded with a slick, deserved opening goal. A step-over and shuffle from Jack Harrison sent the ball through Emerson Royal’s legs, his left-footed low ball to the back post was superb, Dan James seemed to want to reach it more than Tottenham’s defenders and tapped in unmarked.

A goal down, shot-on-target-less, Spurs were booed off at half-time. Has a manager ever been followed down the tunnel by jeers at the break in their debut Premier League game at a new club?

In the changing room, Conte demanded his players go “man for man with extra effort”, Reguilon revealed afterwards. And within minutes of the second half starting there was that glimmer of hope, that elusive first Premier League shot on target in 272 minutes. Goalkeeper Illan Meslier blocked Harry Kane’s goal-bound shot onto a post.

It was a tiny moment, but a sliver of improvement. A turning of the tide. A glimpse of the forgotten.

Suddenly, Tottenham’s players ran that extra yard further, sprinted that extra mile an hour faster. Lucas Moura was first to a ball into Leeds’s box and cut back for Hojbjerg to bounce in a scrappy one.

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On the touchline, Conte celebrated like it was the first goal he had ever celebrated in his life. Arms flailing he screamed at his players to get back in position and hunt for another. He could sense another one — he could smell it.

The players looked transformed. They took the lead 11 minutes later. Dier’s free-kick deflected onto a post and Reguilon reached the ball before everyone to score the rebound.

Tottenham’s players celebrated like a group who at half-time had been read the tweet from @OptaJoe declaring them the first team since the statisticians started recording shot data to go six straight halves without a shot on target.

With a few minutes remaining Conte, his players protecting a slender lead, used a short substitution break to urge the crowd on, to make some noise, liven the atmosphere, increase the energy, give them an edge.

The volume increased. The chants rang loud. Players and manager deserved it. A total transformation within 90 minutes. And they had run four kilometres further than their opponents.

“I feel dead,” Reguilon said. But Conte is just starting to make Spurs feel alive again.