After Tottenham’s breezy and easy 4-1 victory over Southampton on the opening day of the season, Antonio Conte appeared to possess one of the most potent and unstoppable front lines in the land, or perhaps even across Europe.
Harry Kane, Song Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski, the fruitiest London trio since Bananarama, just couldn’t stop scoring. Between February 9 and that day, their names sat in the top three positions for goal involvements of any Premier League players (Son 15 goals and five assists, Kane 12 goals and seven assists, Kulusevski six goals and nine assists). That was 33 goals and 21 assists between them from just 19 league matches.
Since then Spurs have played seven games – five in the league, two in the Champions League. And between them, the same trio have seven goal involvements, a sizeable drop-off from their previous numbers.
Perhaps alarmingly, six of those seven belong to Kane (five goals and one assist), with a solitary Kulusevski assist when teeing up Kane for the opener at Nottingham Forest. Son? Absolutely zilch. The South Korean is now enduring his driest drought in front of goal for four years, when, like now, he started the 2018-19 campaign under Mauricio Pochettino with eight goalless appearances (adding to 10 without a goal to end the previous season). He scored twice in the ninth (a 3-1 EFL Cup victory at West Ham) and has barely stopped scoring since.
Now, in the absence of Son in particular finding the net, Richarlison has clearly stepped up to the plate in recent weeks, forcing his way into the XI and taking Kulusevski’s place.
The fact the band has been broken up isn’t the issue when a player of the Brazilian’s drive, menace and quality comes into the team and delivers. But Conte’s dilemma right now is how best to utilise the sizeable attacking talents at his disposal. Four doesn’t go into three, he is likely to regularly rotate (with Spurs playing nine matches in October he has little choice), and choosing the right attacker at the right moment, or dropping out-of-form players at the right moment, will be one of the defining characteristics of Spurs’ season.
In tempestuous Lisbon, where octopus is one of the local delicacies, it felt like Spurs needed the eight legs of all four of their main attackers. Conte kept faith with Son ahead of Kulusevski in his front trio and, on this occasion, that faith wasn’t justified. Son looked leggy and off the pace at times and didn’t really feature in front of goal.
Kane mostly turned provider, teeing up Emerson Royal for two golden chances early in the second half when Spurs lifted the pace for what was by a distance their best spell of the match. But overall the striker wasn’t at his best — his touch was off and Sporting generally coped with his movement well.
So instead of the Kane and Son show, something we’ve become accustomed to for several years now, it was Richarlison and substitute Kulusevski who carried the bigger threat. The Brazilian evaded defenders to get on the end of crosses, he twice was a fraction away from beating the offside trap from Kane through balls and he went into street fighter mode to bully Sporting in their own half. Kulusevski, on for Son as a late substitute, lifted Spurs’ levels again, created a couple of chances and drifted and sauntered into danger areas. He must surely start against Leicester.
Ultimately it was a late wilting that led to Spurs leaving Lisbon with no points, enduring their first defeat in any competition since April 16 (a 1-0 defeat at Brighton).
And yes Spurs wilted in the final minutes. Yes, Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg are both culpable in helping allow Sporting to create a chance for Pedro Porro (the pair were both on a booking and pulled out of tackles), which led to a corner and a goal, swiftly followed by a sucker-punch second in stoppage time. Yes, a 0-0 draw against a stylish Sporting side would have been a very good result.
But had Spurs generated a bit more impetus in their attacking play, like they did all-too-briefly at the start of the second half, or had they created more chances than the meagre 0.85 xG they registered, the game would have been theirs. Again, with his creative talents, Kulusevski from the start would surely help on that front. Son’s xG in two Champions League appearances in the past week is 0.07.
In fact it was the former Tottenham youngster Marcus Edwards who was the game’s most exciting attacking player, channelling his inner Maradona with one astounding first-half run which, had it ended with a goal rather than another Hugo Lloris save, would have been a goal-of-the-season contender. Spurs’ defence melted as he scythed through them one by one.
“I’m here to change the old habits,” Conte said on the eve of the game, referring to squad rotation when asked if Son was still undroppable. “They were used to playing every game. You try to make the players happy, but the big clubs have a big squad. All the players have to accept rotation because especially up front we have four players. It’s very difficult to drop one, but I have to make the best decision for the team and also the players.”
After the game, he focused on those defensive lapses rather than his team’s failure to score.
“For sure we can do much better in the last few minutes,” he said. “I always say to my players that the details make the final result.
“I think maybe we didn’t deserve to win, but at the same time, we didn’t deserve to lose.
“This level is a high level. Against Marseille, it was tough and tonight was tough. If we want to have the ambition to go to the next round we have to fight a lot, this group there is a lot of balance between the teams.
“But last season in November we lost against Mura in the Conference League. I think maybe we (still) did an important step forward.”
Attention may turn to other areas in his squad in the manically busy upcoming month, like in midfield where Yves Bissouma has only made one start so far, or like at right wing-back where Royal has started every game.
But right now Spurs need their greatest strength, their fabulous front line, to fire in tandem again.