The last few minutes of Tottenham’s match against Sporting should be viewed as a strange blip on an otherwise strong season.
There’s no need to panic, especially given the way the Spurs played for most of the game. However, the results in Lisbon do suggest that Tottenham still has several related issues to consider regarding its lineup.
Conte not leveraging Tottenham’s bigger bench
One of the pleasures of this summer’s transfer window was realizing that as the team increased its depth, it would be more able to rotate players. With a packed schedule (and the worst of it happening now), Antonio Conte would need to find a way to keep his players’ legs fresh. After eight matches between the Premier League and the Champions League, three players – Hugo Lloris, Eric Dier, and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg – have played all 720 minutes. Harry Kane has only sat for 13 minutes. Despite a deep roster, Tottenham has only given 13 players notable playing time.
This approach raises an initial concern about the starting XI. With enough quality available on the roster, it seems like mixing up the starting lineups would help keep everyone fresh. The biggest questions come with the primary four attackers: Kane, Heung-min Son, Dejan Kulusevski, and Richarlison. Conte has yet to rotate the starting lineup through this part of the season, opting simply to replace Deki with Richarlison. The move makes sense on any given day, but it does leave off one of the squad’s strongest players, an odd choice as Son has yet to find his form, and Deki is in-form.
The rotation doesn’t only apply to the forwards. The wingbacks could use a break, too, before they need one. Both Ryan Sessegnon and Matt Doherty could use more minutes, especially with the latter coming off an exceptional year.
The starting XI wouldn’t be such an issue – pro footballers should be able to handle 30+ starts per season – if it weren’t tied to Conte’s substitution patterns. Or, more accurately, his pattern of a lack of substitutions.
With more substitutes allowed and more strength on the bench this year, we expect more changes between 60 and 75 minutes. Instead, Conte has been limiting changes, regardless of play quality or fatigue.
Emerson has struggled all year to contribute at the offensive end, primarily thanks to wild passes in the final third. Yesterday against Sporting, he also managed to contribute to both goals allowed. Once the team fell behind, it might have made sense to bring Doherty on. Højbjerg had his worst game of the year, yet even with a spark needed, Yves Bissouma remained seated.
Richarlison has been a joy for nearly every minute he’s played, but fatigue might have been a factor yesterday as his play became erratic. Even the most irrepressible players have their off times, and it’s necessary to prepare for that possibility.
Tottenham has a good problem this season: it has more than enough quality (not that the team couldn’t use one more defender or creative midfielder). That should allow the squad to stay fresh without breaking continuity too much. Struggling players like Son could have some pressure relieved, and match-day substitutes should be ready to go for at least 20 minutes.
It might feel like nitpicking to find issues with a one-loss team, but adjusting playing time might be the next step for Spurs to take if they want to finish the year with some silverware.