Opinion: Could 3-5-2 be the future for Antonio Conte at Tottenham?

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Antonio Conte
Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

A triumphant, perhaps reinvigorated Heung-Min Son collected his well-earned match ball after his 14-minute off-the-bench hat-trick sealed an emphatic win for Tottenham.

6-2 perhaps flattered the hosts, as despite running out four-goal better-off, Spurs had an xG of just 1.99, only 0.4 better than that of Leicester (Understat).

Of course, Spurs’ over-the-odds finishing came courtesy of the aforementioned Heung-Min Son, as his three goals came from a combined xG of just 0.43.

For Spurs fans, it’s no abnormality to see Son finish at an almost obscene rate, as his 23 Golden Boot-winning goals came from an xG of 16.99, showing a staggering season-long overperformance in 2021/22. 

But amidst Son’s almost homecoming-esc performance, perhaps the real eye-catcher for Tottenham was Conte’s change to a 3-5-2 with just 20 minutes remaining.

The Korean’s first goal all but sealed the points for Spurs, and with that, Conte sent on Yves Bissouma in place of Dejan Kulusevski triggering a rare switch to a three-man midfield.

Without doubt, Tottenham instantly looked more robust, as a midfield three of Bissouma, Hojbjerg, and Bentancur sandwiched between Emerson Royal and Ryan Sessegnon on either flank nullified any threat of a Leicester comeback.

Conte has enjoyed success with the 3-5-2 before, most recently at Inter Milan, but so far has mostly opted to deploy his Spurs sides in the now familiar 3-4-2-1.

Of course, the key difference between the two formations is the presence of an additional central midfielder, something Tottenham has certainly needed in times gone by.

And considering Tottenham’s last 20 minutes at Leicester in the 3-5-2, surely Conte must now be pondering a potential switch to his formerly favoured formation.

But however drastic or minute, a switch in formation can have a profound impact on any team, so say Conte does opt for a change in style, hypothetically, what would be the pros and cons for Tottenham in playing the 3-5-2?

First and foremost, the obvious and perhaps biggest impact of lining up in a 3-5-2 is an extra central midfielder.

Certainly, especially if the third midfield is Bissouma, this would better protect the defence, whilst simultaneously allowing us more opportunity to dominate in midfield.

Often, playing with two central midfielders sees Tottenham overrun and outnumbered, and a bi-product of this means Bentancur and Hojbjerg are limited to mostly defensive roles.

Although this season, Hojbjerg has shown himself to be something of a creative source in midfield with two goals and an assist; whilst playing over 6 progressive passes per 90 (FB Ref), so the introduction of Bissouma to ease the defense burden on the Dane should only see this flourish further.

Moreover in an attacking sense, Kane and Son would occupy more central positions where the duo has thrived in the past, with Saturday’s game against Leicester just another excellent example of this.

And with just two starting forwards, Conte would have the luxury of another two genuine, quality attackers from the bench, potentially offering more dynamism in the latter period of games.

However, the obvious caveat of this is that from the off, Tottenham would have one less forward they’ve become accustomed to, with this being why Conte may be reluctant to make the switch. 

Since taking over, Conte’s boasts an impressive 1.96 points per game (Transfermarkt) – most of which have come from playing 3-4-3/ 3-4-2-1, so it could be argued if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.  

Performances may have been subpar at times, but Spurs’ results have been consistent, therefore Conte may see no need drastically change tactics.

Moreover, the additional midfielder coming as a consequence of the removal of an attacking player could be perceived as negative football, and if the results dont follow quickly, fans may take umbrage with this change.

Yes, the team would undoubtedly be more robust and competitive in midfield, but in 2022, Spurs fans have enjoyed the benefits of having three of Kane, Son, Kulusevski, and now Richarlison in operation.

Granted it’s unlikely, but one potential idea would see Kulusevski starting at RWB in a 3-5-2, as with more defensive cover in midfield the Swede could play a more liberated, attacking role compared to Emerson Royal now.

This is certainly food for thought and is no doubt something Conte will have considered, but is really only feasible with three central midfielders rather than two.

However most likely, given the quality Spurs boast in attack, Conte will want to keep playing three of our four forward options as advanced as possible, and ultimately, who can blame him?

Furthermore, considering the 3-5-2’s need for three central midfielders, Spurs may be light in cover to make any permanent switches. 

Given our current midfield contingent comprises Hojberg, Bentancur, Bissouma, Skipp, and Sarr, Spurs don’t have a wealth of cover for a formation requiring three central mids.

Ultimately, for now, it would be surprising to see Conte ditch the tried and tested 3-4-2-1, but the tactical versatility shown on Saturday is no doubt that of an elite coach and team.

Almost certainly, we haven’t seen the last of a 3-5-2 for Tottenham under Conte, but for now the Italian will likely stick with our current winning formula.

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