Antonio Conte demanded depth to his Tottenham Hotspur team for the new campaign and the arrival of Yves Bissouma has added a major dollop of quality to his midfield ingredients.
Conte grew frustrated with the absence of Oliver Skipp in the second half of last season, publicly bringing the club’s medical department into the spotlight. It’s not just that the Italian believes the 21-year-old is going to become a big player for Spurs, but it was also that he feared his midfield options were so limited had there been further injury problems.
In the end Conte got lucky. Other than a Rodrigo Bentancur ankle injury which kept the January signing out for just one Premier League game and one FA Cup match, the three remaining Spurs first team midfielders managed to soldier through, patched up and playing with knocks aplenty.
In fact, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Bentancur ticked the biggest Conte box – availability. It’s a word you will constantly hear the 52-year-old use when praising players. All managers want players who want to put their bodies on the line for them and will play through the pain rather than bow out at the first uncomfortable feeling and Conte looks for it as one of his top qualities.
The lack of midweek matches helped in the second half of last season as ultimately Conte only needed to hand Harry Winks one Premier League start from mid-February onwards and that was because of that Bentancur ankle injury. Other than that the 26-year-old played just 65 minutes worth of league football from the bench from that point. Young academy central midfielder Harvey White was on the bench for 19 of the final 22 Premier League matches without the 20-year-old being handed his debut in the competition.
The circumstances of the coming season will not allow such overuse of starting players. With Champions League football to also contend with, the ability to bring on five substitutes next season in the Premier League and Conte’s big plans across all competitions, there was no time to hang around for Tottenham in this summer transfer window.
Such is the desire to please the head coach, Spurs looked to be proactive in building his squad for him this summer rather than falling back on their usual attempts to try to move players out the door first, the £150m cash injection from owners ENIC this summer helping cushion them to change their ways.
After the free agent arrivals of left wing-back and winger Ivan Perisic and goalkeeper Fraser Forster, so Spurs moved to tie up the signing of Brighton’s Bissouma for a deal that could rise to more than £30m eventually and in the process secured one of the best Premier League midfielders outside the top six in recent seasons ahead of their rivals.
Turning 26 in August, Spurs are buying a player approaching his prime in the Mali international. They are not signing a young player with potential who will bolster a squad, instead they are signing a midfielder who will expect to start every match possible and one who will drive everyone else away from any thoughts of complacency.
Conte wants to drill out of Tottenham the mentality that there is a set starting XI. Big clubs don’t think like that, they have squads full of players of equal abilities all pushing each other and ready to step in at a moment’s notice without affecting the quality or the tactical options.
Bissouma’s signing was also proactive because it took into account the likely departure of Winks as he seeks regular first team football ahead of the winter World. The England international has not been in Gareth Southgate’s England plans for more than 18 months because of his scarce game time and there is plenty of interest in the midfielder, not least from Everton who wanted to sign him in January but at that point Conte could not afford to allow him to go.
Even without Winks, Spurs now have strong options in a crucial area of Conte’s system. The midfield duo or sometimes trio within the Italian’s philosophy are key elements as they must be super fit, dominant in and out of possession and be able to not only break up opposition attacks but also drive the ball up the pitch quickly to the attacking players.
Bissouma, Bentancur and Hojbjerg will all fight for what will often be two spots in the centre of the pitch but then there is also Skipp. Conte has high hopes for the tactically intelligent 21-year-old and believes that if the England U21 international can improve some elements of his quick distribution then he has all of the tools to be a top Premier League midfielder.
Conte has labelled Skipp as already being an important player for the club, Jose Mourinho previously called him a future Spurs captain, and the youngster further impressed the coaching staff after his displays on the pitch by sitting in on tactical briefings throughout his three month absence with a pelvic injury as he he looked to soak up Conte’s philosophy and what was expected from him.
Skipp’s bumper new deal towards the end of the season showed the trust the club have in him as long-term star in the midfield and he will be available to hit the ground running for the first day of pre-season.
That gruelling pre-season next month is going to be key for Conte when it comes to assessing his midfield options because he can start looking at potential partnerships and which of the players complement each other the best with their skillsets. All four share some similar traits but also differences on and off the ball and some will sit more comfortably alongside others.
Conte will see who Bissouma works best with and also Skipp, for the young midfielder is yet to share a pitch with January signing Bentancur let alone the new summer arrival. The pre-season friendlies next month against a K-League All Star team, Sevilla, Rangers and Roma will provide Conte with a glimpse at different midfield blends against opposition players, but much of the analysis will be done on the training pitches at Hotspur Way and in Korea and potentially against some training ground friendly opponents.
There is also Pape Matar Sarr. The 19-year-old was signed by Tottenham last summer as one of the most talented young midfield prospects in Europe and loaned back to Metz to continue his development and prepare for his move to the English game. The teenager played 34 matches, starting the bulk of them in a difficult season for the Ligue 1 club, who were relegated despite Sarr’s best efforts and he grew his game as the season wore on.
Able to play in centre midfield, an anchor man role, a more attacking central position or on the right, Sarr will be assessed by Conte, who will decide whether he is better served by adapting for at least six months to life in England and his demands, particularly when Spurs need a big squad, or whether the Senegal international needs to head out on loan to a league with similar requirements to the English top flight and continue to grow physically to handle the competition.
There has also been talk of Spurs entertaining bids for Hojbjerg this summer but it would seem strange to move on one of the team’s driving leaders when they need that the most with so many matches to come next season.
Only Harry Kane played more minutes than the Dane’s 3,986 for Tottenham last season, both appearing in 50 matches for the club. The 26-year-old started the campaign well under Nuno Espirito Santo after an impressive Euros, had a dip in form midway through the season but finished strongly alongside Bentancur, with some big performances in key games, and the midfielder has since shone for Denmark on international duty in the last month.
Hojbjerg made 78 successful tackles in the Premier League last season, more than any other player at the club and placing him ninth in the tackle list for everyone in the league. He also completed 2,531 passes, sixth in the Premier League list behind a clutch of players from possession-heavy Manchester City, and 3,059 touches, fifth in the list, showcasing just how busy he is during matches.
Hojbjerg is a big personality in the dressing room at Spurs, part of the leadership group within the squad and a man with vocal opinions on everything going on around him at the club. Those behind the scenes describe the articulate Dane as an intense character within the squad, one who constantly drives his team-mates on but also can be a lot to handle at first for those who have not experienced his demeanour before.
Hojbjerg leads by example and has often played with injuries for Spurs when he should not have, because he did not want to let the team down. He, along with Eric Dier, is the first player to arrive at the club’s Hotspur Way training complex each morning and is one of the last to leave. He demands the best of those around him and that’s no bad thing, especially in this new-look Tottenham.
It would seem an odd move to remove Hojbjerg from Conte’s options unless the Dane decide he wants to leave. If he were to depart then Spurs’ managing director of football Fabio Paratici would likely turn to 23-year-old Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, a player he took to Italy and remains a big fan of.
Paratici approached the representatives of the versatile midfielder in January and football.london understands that he was above Bentancur on his wishlist that month. The USA international then suffered a metatarsal fracture in February which wiped out all but the last game of the season for him. Spurs will continue to monitor his situation at Juventus, with reports that they could be willing to let him go.
Then there is Conte’s 3-5-2, a system he has favoured in the past and it is no doubt a formation he would like his team to be adaptable enough to switch to in certain games or scenarios. The current senior midfield quartet, presuming Winks moves on, would need a more attacking, playmaker type to make a 3-5-2 work.
Dejan Kulusevski can play in a deeper central role if required while free agent Christian Eriksen impressed in a midfield trio under Conte at Inter, starting most games in the second half of their Serie A-winning season either centrally in a three or on the left, as he did for Brentford last season. The Dane is the perfect option for the role at his old club and he is set to decide soon on his future with a number of interested clubs having made offers.
football.london reported this month that Spurs have been tracking Lyon’s Brazil international Lucas Paqueta, a player Newcastle tried to sign earlier this year. The versatile 24-year-old can play in an attacking midfield role, centrally or on the right and can also play up front when required. He netted 11 goals and laid on seven assists in a Lyon side that struggled at times last season.
When it comes to homegrown options, Tottenham have long held an interest in Leicester’s James Maddison, having considered signing him before his move to the Foxes and he is now in the last two years of his contract. However, after scoring 18 goals and laying on 12 assists in an impressive campaign for Leicester, he currently looks to be concentrating on another positive season at the King Power Stadium.
Spurs also held talks with Jesse Lingard’s representatives in January about a potential summer move as a free agent. There will be plenty of competition though for the 29-year-old, with some suggestions that he is keen on a move abroad or on a move to West Ham, while Tottenham are not in the position to offer him regular starts next season.
Eriksen fits the bill better than most for what Conte is trying to do and he could hit the ground running having already adapted to Tottenham, the Premier League and the Italian, if he believes his body can still handle the head coach’s demands. Conte has already spoken publicly of his desire to bring the Dane back to the club in the past and praised Brentford for getting him in January.
Ultimately, what Conte needs this season is strength in depth and a squad that can allow him to aim higher than simply being happy with a fourth place finish in the Premier League. The Italian wants silverware and that means having the combinations to handle multiple competitions and match-changing tactical switches and nowhere is that more necessary than in midfield.