Antonio Conte learns scale of Tottenham task as Spurs grind to Europa Conference League win over Vitesse

LONDON — The Europa Conference League may not be how Tottenham aspire to spend their Thursday nights under Antonio Conte, but for their new manager, this was certainly an instructive exercise. For 30 minutes he saw what his side might be able to offer on the front foot. For much of the rest of the game, his players offered him a crash course in why they have been through so many managers in such a short space of time.

What looked to be a comfortable 3-0 win after goals from Heung-min Son, Lucas Moura and an own goal from Jacob Rasmussen had Spurs in cruise control in Conte’s first match in charge. Then they rather cut their own brakes, careening to a 3-2 victory with precious little control. A poorly defended set piece and a fine low finish by Matus Bero had Spurs clinging on to a one-goal lead at the break, a task that became all the more difficult when Cristian Romero was sent off with a half-hour to play.

Certainly, Spurs fans who have cried out for a bit of entertainment in the sterile months under Nuno Espirito Santo could hardly claim they did not get their money’s worth from Conte. Vitesse pinned Tottenham back for most of the second half only to lose their head as captain Danilho Doekhi and goalkeeper Markus Schubert were sent off in a thrilling finale, one where the Dutch side seemed to throw away an advantageous situation through their own hot headedness, rather than any particularly impressive work from Spurs, whose inability to close out the game seemed to befuddle and infuriate their new staff.

“My first impression: A crazy game,” said Conte. “We were winning 3-0 and were dominating the game, we created many chances to score and instead in 10 minutes we conceded two goals and in that moment we lost a bit of confidence. We have to work also in this aspect. We should win and we won.

“Those who know me very well know I don’t like this type of game, this crazy game. I want a stable team. When there is the possibility to kill the opponent you must kill.”

The victory leaves Tottenham second in their Conference League group, three points off leaders Rennes but a point clear of Vitesse. It has never been entirely clear how much Spurs value success in this tournament — one where Nuno would often leave senior players entirely out of the matchday squad — but it would have made for an embarrassing start to the new regime if they found themselves fighting for their lives in Europe’s third tier competition.

One could not have imagined such a chaotic conclusion to this game with half an hour gone. Chants of “Antonio! Antonio!” echoed around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where several fans had come draped in Italian flags. There was an exuberance on and off the field early on. To what extent that should come with a giant Europa Conference League caveat will become clear in time but at the outset this was an assertive, front-footed display in which Spurs pushed extremely high up the pitch. By the interval, Eric Dier was the only outfield player not to have had a touch in the final third.

For a manager who has not yet officially taken a training session — his work permit only arrived from the U.K.’s Home Office earlier in the day — Conte’s fingerprints were all over this Tottenham side. That was not only apparent in the system he chose, a 3-4-3 that reflected the approach with which he had such success with Chelsea, but also the small quirks within that particular shape. In particular, Ben Davies already seems to be operating with a license to bomb forward from his berth on the left of the back three with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg filling the spaces he left behind.

With Sergio Reguilon operating as high up the pitch as any Spurs attacker (perhaps to avoid the tongue lashings that came from Conte whenever he got too close), that left flank offered consistent overloads that freed Son to move wherever his instincts took him. He flashed with intensity, bursting into a sprint whenever his teammates started darting up the field.

Having already seen a shot cleared off the line in the first minute, he was on hand to clear up the damage when Lucas’ shot was palmed into his path by Schubert, his low shot just evading Eli Dasa on the line as Spurs raced into a 15th-minute lead. 

The Korean was not the only player who looked a man changed from the ponderous play of Nuno Espirito Santo’s brief tenure. Where Harry Kane seemed to have taken up residence on the periphery of games over the last few weeks, here he was bursting with energy: Chasing defenders to the touchline to try to win loose balls, dropping between the lines to create angles such as the one that unleashed Lucas Moura in behind to roll in their second.

By the 28th minute, Kane had aided Jacob Rasmussen in bundling the ball over the line, the game was seemingly over. But if it were that easy for Spurs, they would not have begun this week looking for their second manager in a quarter of a season. There is only so much Conte and his sizeable staff can address in a few hours. Familiar issues plagued this side at the back, another concession from a set piece as Rasmussen made amends for his earlier own goal by beating Eric Dier to a corner from the left.

Moments later, Vitesse cut through the Spurs right flank with alarming ease, Yann Gboho rolling the ball to Bero whose side-foot finish rolled just beyond Hugo Lloris. A manager with Conte’s reputation for defensive demands will question how Lucas was so easily robbed of possession, whether a center back of Romero’s pedigree could have done more to block off the final pass.

It was not the only moment that might have had Conte wandering if this was the same Romero he had seen excelling in Serie A last season. With no obvious sign of critical danger on the Tottenham goal, the Argentine wrapped his legs around Lois Openda, upending the forward in clumsy fashion. His theatrical rolling on the pitch suggested he knew what was coming with Marco Di Bello swiftly waving the second yellow in his direction. 

It was as if the home side had flicked a switch, from Conte to Spursy. The red card did not kickstart their skittishness but it certainly intensified it. After 25 minutes of the second half the hosts had had 16 touches in the Vitesse third. Thomas Letsch’s side had had 80 in theirs.

Conte’s bafflement grew. The message he hammered home at full time was that this team “have a lot of room of improvement.”

“We need to find time to work. We need to work on many aspects. If I want to see on the pitch my team, I know that I need time, but at the same time today I was delighted because in a part of the game I have seen what we tried in these two days. At the same time, we did things we can improve a lot.” 

After Davison Sanchez had suffered a nasty kick to the head by Danilho Doekhi, he screamed the center back’s name at his staff, desperately instructing them to get him bandaged up as Spurs found themselves with a two-man disadvantage. The disparity in numbers did not last long and Sanchez might have felt there was some degree of karmic justice in Doekhi getting his second yellow soon after, grappling with Kane as the Spurs striker threatened to break free.

The vice-captain was one of the few who offered a cool head in the storm. Whenever the pressure got too much, he would draw a foul from a defender who had convinced themselves they could go through the back of him and win a free kick. Even when the game was back to 10 against 10, you sensed that Spurs were not particularly controlling it, though they did offer a threat on the counter once more. Emerson Royal charged down the right wing to claim a long ball over the top, arriving just in time to beat Schubert and volley the ball at the goalkeeper’s outstretched elbow.

Somehow, that was not the end of the drama, substitute keeper Jeroen Houwen denying Giovani Lo Celso the winner with his forehead. The new coaching staff were certainly not amused by the harum scarum fashion in which this game concluded. Dispatched to watch on from the press box, Gianluca Conte’s language might generously have been termed industrial.

They had best get used to it. Welcome to the chaos of north London Antonio.

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