Antonio Conte has been brutally honest in his opinion about the state that Tottenham find themselves in.
Published after Tottenham’s defeat to Aston Villa on New Year’s Day
“We don’t have many players who are really good to beat the man,” the Italian told reporters after their latest defeat came against Unai Emery’s Aston Villa at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday.
“We don’t have many creative players in our team. Without two or three important players we have difficulties.”
It was a fourth loss in seven league games and Conte underlined the need for the club to “buy strong” in January to remain competitive.
From being hailed as a potential candidate for the title race pre-season, they now sit fifth in the Premier League, two points ahead of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Spurs spent around £150m in the summer, including a big-money move for Richarlison and the conversion of Cristian Romero’s loan deal into a permanent one.
But do Tottenham really need to spend big again, as Conte adamantly claims, to achieve their objectives this season? If so, what do they need?
Kulusevski cover necessary
No matter your view of the playing style their head coach implements, or his outspoken nature, there is no doubt Tottenham lack depth in creative, attacking positions.
Christian Eriksen is working wonders for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United in a deeper role in midfield and it is hard not to imagine him excelling similarly for Spurs had he chosen to return to his former team when he had the chance in the summer.
Before their defeat by Villa, Spurs came back from a 2-0 deficit to share the spoils against Brentford, a game in which they really struggled to assert their dominance.
Dejan Kulusevski’s 21/22 stats
Kulusevski’s impact in the second half of 21/22 was a huge factor in Spurs finishing fourth
The difference on that occasion was they had their key creative force in open-play, Dejan Kulusevski, on the pitch. Despite a largely insipid display, there was always the ability, thanks to the Sweden international, for things to tick along nicely in forward areas.
Kulusevski’s capacity to carry the ball, find passes to break through the lines and technique in possession gives Spurs something extra.
Harry Kane’s creative strength comes into play when Spurs are in transition against teams, which is exactly when his combination move with Son Heung-min becomes a danger.
The midfield unit of Hojbjerg and Bissouma/Bentancur is functional but does not necessarily serve the ball progression or creative range of passing necessary to unsettle low-blocks.
Kulusevski has all the tools necessary to be a key player for Spurs but, without him, they look short of ideas against teams that invite them to create something with the ball instead of reacting and breaking on the counter – as proved to be the case against a clinical Aston Villa team.
Tottenham xGI per 95 leaders
According to Infogol, Kulusevski’s expected goal involvement (xGI) of 0.45 per 95 minutes is the joint-second highest in the side.
His impressive underlying numbers and how much better Spurs look with him on the pitch, just further accentuates the need for a creative back-up to the on-loan Juventus winger, especially if he is to be continually beset by injuries as has been the case this season.
One candidate who could be a great fit for the role is Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise.
Michael Olise is averaging 0.33 xGI per 95 for Palace this season
He has been a revelation since joining the Eagles from Sky Bet Championship side Reading.
Olise’s style of play bears resemblance to Kulusevski in many ways. The France Under-21 international is a delight to watch in possession and works hard off the ball to help the team in all phases of the game.
He is not as much of a goalscorer but certainly has an eye for a key pass and is able to unlock defences not only with his passes but with progressive carries as well.
It is unlikely he would come cheap but, at 21, would be a sound investment.
The wing-back problem
It looks highly unlikely Conte is going to change from his tried and trusted back-three system, which is heavily reliant on the wing-backs providing width to the attack and underlapping/overlapping as necessary in tandem with the wide forwards.
There have been calls for the Italian to abandon this in favour of a flat back four but, even if he were to do so, the following problem would still exist: Spurs need a right-sided defender.
Ivan Perisic and Emerson Royal are the usual starters at wing-back but the latter has been a hindrance to the side.
Matt Doherty is the other alternative and started against Villa and Brentford. The Republic of Ireland international has made his name as a goal-scoring wing-back with a very specific skill set, however, he doesn’t seem to be an optimal fit for this Spurs side either.
With deficiencies in both right wing-backs and Conte unwilling to trust youngster Djed Spence with a starting role just yet, Spurs simply must invest in one who will perfectly suit the system’s needs.
Pedro Porro 22/23 Primeira Liga stats
Sporting’s Pedro Porro ticks several boxes for an ideal Conte player.
The Spaniard, 23, is one of the most exciting and dynamic wing-backs in the Primeira Liga.
Porro is joint-top in the league for assists with five alongside Porto midfielder Mehdi Taremi. According to Infogol, Porro averages 0.36 expected assists (xA) per 95 minutes, which is the third-highest in the division just behind Benfica midfielders Enzo Fernandez and Joao Mario.
Not only this, Porro is also quite effective with his incisive carries from wide areas, and has set up more shots than anyone following his carries (10) in the league.
Given his qualities, he would likely become an instant starter.
Where else do Spurs need to invest?
Whilst not an immediate priority, Spurs probably need to make several marquee investments.
Ben Davies has been more than capable as part of the back three, but a more permanent solution will need to be found for a left-footed centre back.
A back-up for Son should also be on the priority list with the South Korea captain turning 31 in the summer and his partner in crime Kane almost exactly a year younger. A quality young forward will help Conte rest Son, and maybe even Kane, when required.
There is Richarlison, of course, but the Brazilian missed seven games in October with a calf problem and he is set for another six weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring injury sustained at the World Cup.
The difficulties of the January window mean those kind of big money deals are unlikely to happen until the summer. What is more pressing is solving the creative dearth and right-sided issues immediately.
Bentancur and Kulusevski arrived on deadline day last January and without those signings it is unlikely Tottenham would have overhauled Arsenal to finish in the top four.
Conte is right in his assertion that a similar boost is needed 12 months later, whatever anyone’s opinion of his tactics both on and off the pitch.