The match-winning goal offered belated vindication for Tottenham’s gameplan which was apparent from the first minute up until the very last: dominate the ball, stretch the play across the pitch and arrow deliveries into Watford’s penalty area for Harry Kane and Son to attack.
For a long, long time, it had looked as though the strategy would fail. For all of their possession – 74 per cent, their most in a Premier League game since August 2019 – Spurs struggled to create many clear-cut chances. Although they ultimately scored from a cross into the box, a return of one goal from 43 attempts underlined the struggles they encountered.
“I think today we controlled the game and we had a lot of possession and in the first half I have seen the stats and we made 29 crosses,” Antonio Conte said after the victory. “I think that we have to improve in the last pass, to have more quality because the last pass means whether you score or not.”
Spurs encountered similar issues at St Mary’s in their final fixture of 2021 when they laboured to a 1-1 draw against a team that played with 10 men for over 45 minutes. A lack of creativity through the middle has been a longstanding issue for a club that has never managed to replace Christian Eriksen but, in Conte’s setup, that isn’t necessarily a major issue… as long as the delivery from wide areas is good.
Conte is renowned for his appreciation of wing-backs almost as much as his disdain for ketchup. The Italian is the greatest exponent of a three-man defence in modern coaching and in all eight of his Premier League matches in charge of Spurs, his team has been set up to play in a 3-4-3 or, as was the case in the 2-2 draw with Liverpool, a 3-5-2.
That Spurs are unbeaten in the league since Conte initiated the switch from a back four to a back three, is a sign that things are working out rather well. But as he acknowledged post-Watford, there is plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to the supply line from the flanks.
“For sure, we need to improve in this aspect because when you play with this system, with this formation, the wing-backs are very important,” he said. “When the ball arrives there [out wide], we must be more effective. I know very well that this is a role where you expend a lot of energy.
“You become a striker, a winger when we are in possession, 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 space for improvement.”
On the balance of the game, Conte is likely to have been referring more to the 22-year-old Emerson Royal than the 25-year-old Sergio Reguilon, given the former attempted a match-leading 14 crosses. “It was almost as if Watford said ‘let him have it [the ball],” Ian Wright said about Emerson on Match of the Day. “Every single cross he put in today had nothing on it. That’s poor quality, he’s got to be whipping it in.”
Emerson joined Spurs in a £25.8m move from Barcelona on transfer deadline in August and has been a virtual ever-present since, starting in 13 of 15 league matches in which he has been available. He has just a single assist so far, for Lucas Moura in the 3-0 win against Crystal Palace on Boxing Day.
That return is simply not enough for a team that is reliant on chance creation from out wide. Last season, right wing-back Achraf Hakimi was Inter Milan’s joint-third highest goalscorer in Serie A with seven goals and their second-leading assist provider with eight, while playing under Conte. The Moroccan has since moved to PSG where he has quickly become a key player under ex-Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino.
According to The Athletic, an attacking right wing-back is one of two priorities for Spurs in the January transfer window, along with a striker. It is also expected that Matt Doherty, a player who shone as a wing-back for former club Wolves, will be moved on following an underwhelming 18-month spell in north London.
If a new signing is forthcoming this month, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Emerson signing was a mistake: the Brazilian has been solid defensively, motors up and down the pitch and has dovetailed well with his compatriot Lucas. Given the demands that Conte places on his players, two specialists are required for each wing-back role to ensure that one does not end up getting overworked and if Doherty leaves there will be a gap that needs to be filled.
But if Spurs are going to make the most of having Conte as their manager, it is an area that they must improve upon and fast.