The key thing Spurs did on the pitch before Liverpool draw and the player Conte kept mentioning – Football.London

The match and those big decisions

This was the kind of thrilling encounter that makes you thankful when matches are able to be played.

It brought end to end football, goals galore including Harry Kane getting back on track, missed chances, full-blooded tackles, red cards and potential red cards, penalty shouts and refereeing decisions aplenty to debate.

Most of all, the 45,241-strong crowd who braved the fear of a Covid-ruined Christmas, loved it.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was constantly full of noise and the home fans responded to the effort put in by Antonio Conte‘s players throughout the 90 minutes.

The refereeing decisions perhaps balanced themselves out in the end, depending on what crest was stitched into your shirt.

If Emerson Royal’s challenge on Diogo Jota was a foul and a penalty then so was the similar incident involving Dele Alli at the other end.

Kane’s lunging tackle on Andy Robertson, who was later sent off himself for a crude challenge on Emerson Royal, was a poor one and could easily have brought a red card instead.

Yet Liverpool’s second goal, scored by Robertson, appeared to come after a handball in the Spurs box by Mohamed Salah.

Jurgen Klopp raged as he does on the touchline, earning himself a yellow card, and he attempted to play down Tottenham’s tactics on the day.

“So let’s start with the result maybe. The result is fine, would’ve been different, I think, with different decisions from the ref, but with the decisions, how he did it, I’m fine with the result,” he said.

“It’s a 2-2 at Tottenham – that’s absolutely OK. It was a difficult game for us for plenty of reasons. One is that we had to change a lot and it’s obviously then difficult to deal with the different challenges in a game like this.

“The challenge was today we play against Tottenham, who set up a 5-3-2 and when they won the ball deep in their own half, they just kicked it as far as possible and Kane and Son were on their bikes for it, so we struggled with these moments slightly.

“It costs you obviously, it gives you some struggles a little bit, so we had to reorganise our protection a little bit better in the second half.

“That we don’t run always in a counter-attack, that it now makes no sense that Ibou Konate is involved in our offensive passing and Tyler Morton is the one who stands against Harry Kane – that’s not really how it should be.

“So that’s the football part. It was an intense game, Tottenham looked second half slightly fresher than us. Yeah, we were 2-1 up, they couldn’t score the second as well. But, of course, the game would have been completely different with two key decisions in the first half.”

Klopp’s claim that Spurs just ‘kicked it as far as possible’ is an exaggeration. They had plenty of sweeping quick passing moves up the pitch, using their pace on the counter.

Before the match, Tottenham took part in a last minute revision session to study up on the pressing of Liverpool.

Conte’s staff organised the 10 starting outfield players into two teams, one set wearing training bibs, with subs Joe Rodon and Japhet Tanganga on either side and they formed a big, player-packed rondo.

The aim was to pass quickly and keep the ball within that cluttered environment, trying to get their minds attuned to what was to come during the game from the high energy visitors.

Antonio Conte during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool
Antonio Conte during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool

That prepared them well for the intensity Liverpool brought in the first half and Spurs hit them on the counter on numerous occasions. The visitors’ energy levels dropped in the second half as Spurs kept on pushing.

The home side had 10 shots on goal to Liverpool’s 18 but Alisson Becker had far more to do than Hugo Lloris and had Tottenham been more clinical in key moments, the game could have been firmly in their control on the day.

Harry Kane netted his second Premier League goal of the season and the relief on his face was clear to all, but he spurned other chances.

Son Heung-min celebrated his 300th appearance for Spurs with yet another important goal for the club, but he also had some hesitant moments in the final third, while Dele Alli showed some rust in the Liverpool box.

This was still a very promising performance from Tottenham, who remain unbeaten in the Premier League under Conte, and it came against one of the teams of the moment.

Both sides had players missing from their starting line-up and while Tottenham will be disappointed with taking just a point rather than all three, that’s a good thing as Conte attempts to bring his mentality to the squad.

“I said this to our players,” said the Italian. “On one hand, I think we had a good performance, great commitment, great desire to take points against a strong team, against – for me – one of the best teams in the world in this the moment, not only Europe.

“To get one point could be good one on one hand, on the other when you create this many chances and have this type of performance you have to kill your opponent and get three points.

“For this reason I think we have to be a bit disappointed. We have to go home happy, but half and half.

“Happy on the one hand but a bit disappointed on the other, because we had an important chance to get three points against Liverpool, one of the best, not only in the Premier League but in the world.”

Harry Winks played a key role in Tottenham's opener against Liverpool
Harry Winks played a key role in Tottenham’s opener against Liverpool

The return of Harry Winks

The writing appeared to be on the wall for Harry Winks.

He looked to be out of favour with his managers, a section of the fans had turned against him despite being one of their own and the young midfielder who had wowed against the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund was struggling to find his rhythm and his form.

With Premier League minutes hard to come by, he admitted in October that he was considering his future.

“Listen, I love Tottenham, I’ve always made that clear, but I want to play football,” Winks said then. “And I want to play regular football.

“The only way to play your best football, get momentum is when you’re playing regularly. Listen, I’m giving my all for the club, of course I am.

“They stuck by me, I stuck by them – and I want to play for Tottenham – but it is difficult when you get matches here and there, confidence is low and you don’t get that run of games. It is difficult.

“Listen, I’m not thinking that far ahead (to January). I’ve got a lot of games left to go to try and fight for the club. It’s important we all stay in the same mindset, the same thought process and we see.

“There’s a long way to go, still two months to go and it’s about knuckling down, working as hard as I can and having no regrets.”

Winks did not benefit from the arrival of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and particularly from the emergence and development of another homegrown product – Oliver Skipp.

However, the arrival of Conte has given the England international hope and the Italian has given him minutes in three of his five Premier League matches in charge and notably he was not involved in Mura, the night when Tottenham’s second string were embarrassed in Slovenia.

Winks’ displays under Conte have been good on the whole, showcasing more attacking instincts and important forward passing in starts against Leeds and Liverpool and cameos against Vitesse and Brentford.

He has benefited from working with Conte during the international break and also the past fortnight without matches.

His man of the match display against Liverpool, bringing back memories of his performance against them at Wembley in October 2017, was his best for a long time.

Playing as the anchor man in front of the back three, Winks worked hard in both defence and linking up the play.

It was his crunching tackle in the Liverpool half 13 minutes in that not only whipped up the crowd but set Tottenham on their way to Kane’s opening goal.

He also shared deep-lying playmaker duties with the once again excellent Eric Dier.

Winks curled numerous balls over the Liverpool defence into the path of Son, Kane and Alli and it was his left-footed sliding pass to Son that led to Alisson’s mistake and Spurs’ equaliser.

Many may have forgotten the qualities of the man named in private by Mauricio Pochettino as ‘Little Iniesta’ when he was 21 and lauded as the future of the England team.

Now 25, Winks has lost his way in the past couple of years after being an integral part of the Tottenham team that reached the Champions League final in 2019.

Like Kane, he hadn’t played for a couple of months before that night in Madrid, but the result and aftermath of that evening, and the debate around Kane, has erased memories of Wink’s high energy return that night, which was among the few bright spots for Spurs in the Spanish capital.

Now under Conte, he has managed to catch the eye of one of the best managers in the world.

The Spurs head coach told that the midfielder’s efforts on the training pitches had shone through.

“I think a good performance, but I didn’t have doubts about this,” said Conte.

“Harry Winks is working very hard. He impressed me in training sessions for his commitment, his will, his desire. I think he’s a really good player.

“When we play in this way, with this formation, with a number four in front of the three central defenders, I think he’s very, very good. Very good. Good performance from him.”

Conte told during the week that this period with players out with Covid was one in which those players outside the regular starting XI had a chance to impress as he made his final evaluations of them.

This latest display against top opposition might just have been enough to convince Conte that with the games set to pile up in the second half of the campaign, he can trust Winks to take his share of the midfield load, particularly at a time when Spurs cannot afford to lose too many homegrown players.

Antonio Conte has called on Dele Alli to impress in Tottenham's game against Liverpool
Antonio Conte had called on Dele Alli to impress in Tottenham’s game against Liverpool

Dele’s reminder and Sessegnon’s statement

This wasn’t the perfect performance from Dele Alli but it was the best reminder in a long time of what he does better than so many.

The 25-year-old began the season in a new role under Nuno Espirito Santo, on the left of a midfield three, and it brought him some success and plenty of game time.

Then once again a half-time substitution signalled his decline in minutes. For Jose Mourinho it came against Everton on the opening day of last season, while under Espirito Santo it came at Arsenal.

Under the Portuguese, much of what Alli did in the midfield role early this season was about his stamina and undertaking plenty of defensive work, which he can do but it does not unlock the best of him.

Within Conte’s midfield three against Liverpool, he seemed to have more licence to get forward and showcase that ability to instinctively find those pockets of space around the box that marked him out as one of Europe’s most talented young attacking midfielders.

He worked hard on Sunday, launching into tackles that got the crowd going but it was his attacking movement that should have resulted in much more for Spurs.

Alli should have doubled the hosts’ lead half an hour in, his low shot touched wide by Alisson as it looked to be creeping inside the right-hand post. Alli will know though that with so much space in the box and being completely unmarked, he should never have even given the Liverpool keeper the chance to get near his effort.

In the second half he resurrected his old link-up with Dier, running perfectly on to the centre-back’s diagonal ball. However, in the crucial moment Alli scuffed his pass across to Kane and that allowed Alisson to rush out and deny the striker.

Those instances showed Alli’s rust as he made his first start in the Premier League since that day in September at the Emirates Stadium, but he did plenty of good things.

He drove forward positively with the ball constantly, often getting out wide and beating Liverpool players to run into the box.

His registered more dribbles – six – than anyone else on the pitch, was ranked second in the match for winning 18 duels, won possession back eight times (second highest among the players on the pitch) and made four clearances (also second highest). His attempts to get stuck in also saw him ranked joint top for fouls committed, with four to his name.

Alli was one of those players embarrassed against Mura and he was nine minutes away that day from making it a hat-trick of half-time substitutions for three successive managers.

It may be that this performance comes too late to change his January fate and how often he plays for Tottenham will be dictated by how often Conte would utilise the 3-5-2 formation, something he also has the returning Giovani Lo Celso for, with the Argentine playing in that role for his country, and Tanguy Ndombele, who made less of an impact overall on Sunday other than a perfectly-weighted assist for Kane.

At the least, this display will have attracted the attention of potential suitors around Alli, knowing he can still make a big impact in Premier League matches.

Alli’s display was not lost on Conte and he is the one who will decide the player’s future.

“Dele played a good game,” the Spurs boss told “Dele, if we play with a 3-5-2, he’s a midfielder that is good physically, strong physically, good technique, good penetration because he has the right ability to attack. He had chances to score but good performance.”

Another incoming player who combined well with Alli was Ryan Sessegnon.

The 21-year-old made a real statement with his performance against Liverpool in showing Conte that he can trust him as his other left wing-back, particularly after that over-enthusiastic sending off at Mura.

Against Klopp’s side Sessegnon was fully focused and it’s a credit to his defensive work, and that of Ben Davies behind him, that it was barely noticeable that one of the world’s best players right now – Mohamed Salah – was on the pitch.

Going forward Sessegnon was a threat, raiding down his flank whenever he could and he got in behind the visitors’ defence on a couple of occasions, most notably teeing up Kane for a good chance in the final actions of the first half.

Conte has plenty of belief in Sessegnon and lavished him with praise on his return from injury last month.

It was notable on Sunday that he kept adding the 21-year-old’s name into his answers, unprompted, in order to praise him as well as others.

He did so in response to a question from about Winks and Alli as well as in his interview for Spurs’ social media channels.

After a tough time with injuries, Sessegnon deserves a change in fortune and if he can steer clear of those hamstring problems he will get plenty of minutes on the left under Conte in the months ahead.

Antonio Conte celebrates Tottenham's second goal during the Premier League match against Liverpool
Antonio Conte celebrates Tottenham’s second goal during the Premier League match against Liverpool

Conte making his mark

What may have excited Tottenham fans the most about this performance was that after a fortnight working with half of the squad, Antonio Conte got a real tune out of some of those players many had written off.

Much has been made about what new players he will get, but that’s understating just how good Conte is as a coach and how he improves the majority of players he works with.

The 52-year-old’s coaching ability is lauded across the board and what he did within the difficult circumstances of the past 14 days should not be overlooked.

At one stage he was losing players after each training session, as the positive Covid tests piled up, and he was trying to manage a club full of fear over who would be next.

Yet Conte managed to hold one of the best teams in the Premier League right now with a much-changed squad.

Klopp said after the game: “We saw the line-up and apart from Hojbjerg, it was pretty much the first line-up and they looked already fresh.”

The truth is that only six players from Spurs’ last match two weeks ago started against Liverpool and the entire midfield was different.

Liverpool had their own selection problems but for a squad drilled over the years by Klopp, changes are perhaps easier because everyone coming in knows their roles inside out.

For Conte, he is getting to know his Spurs players and they are coming to terms with his demands and instructions. He prepared for this match in the toughest circumstances with absences galore, a lack of available coaches and players returning from isolation with differing energy levels.

The Italian made it clear to that he wants to improve every one of the players at his disposal – not just a regular starting XI – and only by doing that will Tottenham move in the right direction.

“I know that if we want to improve, if we want to improve our level, I need to improve every single player that we have,” he said.

“This is the only way, the only path that we have to do.

“I know that if we improve every single player, we improve the level of this team. Otherwise it will be very difficult to be competitive.”

Spurs captain Hugo Lloris‘ quotes after Sunday’s draw against Liverpool showed his belief in the direction the club are heading in under Conte.

“I feel really pleased with the performance. You really feel the players are committed, you really feel the direction the manager wants to give to the team, but we can be disappointed by the result,” he said.

“Also you need to take into consideration that this is one of the best teams in Europe, but we can feel the direction that we want to take as a team. That’s the positive thing to take.”

Ahead of the game, the World Cup winner had made it clear what Conte brings to this Spurs squad.

“Football is all about details and when you come close to the final step, details are so important,” Lloris said.

“We know that we have the manager who can help the team improve in those details.

“Antonio Conte’s CV talks by itself. He’s bringing his energy, his football approach but also, mainly, his mentality.

“He has the winning culture in his DNA. He played all his career for Juve, was at Juve as a manager and has won everywhere he’s been.

“So, it’s important to use his experience, but also for the players to take responsibility, and to become better as a team.”

That Conte is unbeaten so far in his first five Premier League games, despite difficult circumstances and coming into a squad lacking confidence and belief, is testament to his ability.

Antonio Conte dishes out instructions during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool
Antonio Conte dishes out instructions during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool

There’s an excitement within the club about what he can do with this squad and also with new recruits brought in specifically to fit his demands.

He is set to discuss new recruits and player departures in the days ahead with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and managing director of football Fabio Paratici, who furnished Conte with the players he needed during their trophy-laden time together at Juventus, which included three consecutive Serie A titles. understands Conte held a preliminary discussion a few weeks ago with the powers that be at Spurs about the January transfer window, during which he asked for an extra month to evaluate which players he wants to keep at the club and those he will allow to move on.

At the follow-up meeting he will reveal those findings to Paratici and Levy, while in his own words “speaking about the situation and see if there’s a way to improve the squad and in which way”.

Players like Winks may well have forced their way back into his plans after his display against Liverpool.

UEFA’s decision to kick Tottenham out of the Europa Conference League will free up space in the match calendar for the club to fit in their postponed Premier League matches.

However, the lost revenue from the knockout rounds, including gate receipts and television money, will make some impact on the club’s finances.

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Publicly Spurs have accepted the ruling, with messy alternatives including legal action and going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and Conte will have to look at finding the positives.

The Italian’s Premier League title-winning season at Chelsea came when he had no European football to focus on while Spurs did.

The lack of extra fixtures could also see some players leave the club in January, either on loan or permanently, as the chances of minutes become less with the matches removed from the calendar.

Spurs are still in a strong position in the Premier League and the race for the top four.

If they could take seven points from their three Premier League games in hand, away at Burnley, Brighton and Leicester, they would take their place in the top four. Win all three and they would be just three points behind third-placed Chelsea.

The Conte era has begun with real promise. Now it’s down to the club to ensure that next month he gets all the help he needs to turn that promise into the final product he’s always delivered elsewhere.

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