Conte’s Tottenham don’t often control the midfield – but does it matter?

The first half of Tottenham Hotspur against Wolverhampton Wanderers was a reminder of one of the biggest issues still facing Antonio Conte and his team.

What to do against a midfield that not only outnumbers their own but also has the quality to make it look second best. This was the challenge facing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur against the seemingly eternally effective duo of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves, supplemented by the impressive £42 million ($49.7m) signing Matheus Nunes.

And it was one they struggled with, as they did against Chelsea last weekend when Mason Mount frequently dropped in to support Jorginho and N’Golo Kante and left Hojbjerg and Bentancur overwhelmed.

In a first half where Wolves were the better side, the challenge was made more difficult by Daniel Podence dropping into midfield pockets, and at the other end Harry Kane not being able to get close enough to Neves. Wolves also effectively blocked the passing lanes to Dejan Kulusevski, forcing Spurs to go long through Eric Dier.

Conte then asked his wing-backs to tuck in a little bit, and this — coupled with the chance to get into his players at half-time — helped change the momentum of the match, which Spurs ultimately won 1-0 to continue their positive start to the season.

How much, then, does ceding control of the midfield matter? Is it something Spurs should fundamentally be worried about? Or is it simply a consequence of a 3-4-3 system designed to create overloads on the flanks and relying, as Wolves manager Bruno Lage said afterwards, on “leaving the three guys — the two runners and Kane — so if they recover the ball in three or four seconds they can be near the ball to create chances”?

The first thing to say, as tends to be the case, when questions are asked about Conte’s system is that it has worked exceptionally well so far for Tottenham. Results have been very good on the whole and especially since the back end of last season. In their last 14 matches, Spurs have picked up 33 points, scoring 34 and conceding eight. The numbers suggest the system is working well. The system is not infallible, of course, but with the formation being an exception rather than the rule, it invites greater scrutiny whenever it shows a weakness.

But perhaps that and other orthodoxies need to be challenged. Another key one is the idea that controlling the ball and the midfield are prerequisites to being an effective Premier League team. Let’s call this the Pepification of modern football.

Spurs are not a team that hoover up possession — having 50 percent of the ball on Saturday, and just under 40 percent against Chelsea — nor are they one that dominates the midfield very often. It’s hard to do that when you’re outnumbered most weeks.

But as the numbers from the last 14 matches show, they are still finding ways to be very effective.

“For sure we are trying to do different situations and also during the game we did this,” Conte said after the Wolves match when asked if the lack of midfield control was a concern. “Maybe for someone it was difficult to understand this because we are talking about tactical situations, but we did and also I repeat in the second half it was really difficult for Wolverhampton to find the right solution to avoid and score and create chances.”

The final claim is certainly valid, with Wolves offering very little threat in the second period. They also struggled to test Hugo Lloris in the first, although that was more down to a lack of cutting edge than effective Spurs defending.

Conte went on to insist that he and the team are working to make life more difficult for opposition midfielders, and it will be interesting to see if the situation changes as and when Yves Bissouma is deemed ready to start matches. He has experience of playing in a midfield two while at Brighton and can be more disruptive than Hojbjerg and Bentancur.

The counter-argument is for the second week running, Spurs were the second best in the first half and the result could easily have gone in a different direction. Returning back to those earlier questions of whether this is a fundamental issue Spurs need to worry about, perhaps the answer is that it’s only fundamental if they have designs on really competing with Liverpool and Manchester City. The evidence suggests their current way of playing is enough to have them as the third or fourth best team in the Premier League.

Over the course of this season, Spurs may need to find other ways of structuring their midfield if they want to take that next step, and it’ll be interesting to see if they stiffen it up in games against sides like Liverpool and City (not that they did badly at the Etihad or Anfield last season with a midfield two).

But for the moment, even if it can feel alarming to see opponents dominating that area, Spurs are progressing nicely. They’ve picked up seven points from games they picked up zero from in last season’s equivalent fixtures and are expected to bring in another attacker now that Bryan Gil is close to joining Valencia.

Spurs’ results this season vs 2021-22

TEAM 2021-22 RESULT 2022-23 RESULT

L 3-2

W 4-1

L 3-0

D 2-2

L 2-0

W 1-0

Whether that will be someone who can also play as a No 10 as well as wide will be interesting as the lack of creativity from midfield has been an issue for Conte’s Spurs at times.

Thankfully, like their other areas for improvement, it’s not yet one that’s affecting their results this season.

(Top photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

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