Opinion: How Conte differs from old Spurs managers and Hojbjerg’s new influence

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Antonio Conte
(Photo by Ahmad Mora/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Since arriving at Tottenham, barring one failed experiment against Chelsea, Antonio Conte has religiously deployed 3-back formations, being largely successful in doing so.

Across 42 games, the Italian boasts an impressive record of 1.95 points per game, peaking this season at 2.33 albeit only six games in (Transfermarkt).

Nevertheless, Tottenham are starting to look complete under the Italian; more comfortable off the ball than in times gone by yet still a constant threat to our opposition.

Obvious but inaccurate comparisons could now be drawn between Conte and his predecessors, as both Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito also operated with a safety-first mantra.

And whilst this still rings true for Conte, things undoubtedly feel different, as now we pair a cut-throat attack with an often-robust defence.                                                              

Take last weekend’s win over Nottingham Forest. Kane put Spurs ahead early, and whilst we largely sacrificed possession, we were never truly troubled by Forest.

Across the 90 minutes, the hosts had an xG of just 0.8 – with no shot registering at more than 0.09xG (Understat).  For all Forest arguably dominated the game with more passes and possession, they were kept at arm’s length before Kane’s second goal sealed a comfortable win.

When Spurs won the ball, we broke quickly and with purpose, and on other days could certainly have scored another couple of goals with more clinical finishing. But Conte will likely be happy with what he saw, as Spurs delivered a controlled, measured, winning performance to secure all three points.

The overlap between Conte, Mourinho, and Nuno is the love of a clean sheet, but in times gone by under the Portuguese pair, 1-0 felt like the desired score line.

Often, we’d go ahead and shut up shop, looking almost averse to scoring at times. But now under Conte, while defending a lead is still the priority, we look for and take opportunities to counter, and we do so effectively.

Granted, today’s iteration of Kane, Son, and Kulusevski is a front line unlike any we’ve enjoyed in recent times, and is certainly superior to that present when Mourinho and Nuno were in charge.

But Conte has still had to put a system in place to get the best from the trio – and the team as a whole, and in doing has developed some consistency.

Conte has shown mastery in managing wingbacks throughout his career, and could even be considered the pioneer of what a modern-day wingback should be.

And whilst this is still a more than prominent feature of Tottenham’s system, perhaps the most influential factor this season has been the presence of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

In playing a midfield two, Conte essentially concedes any potential of midfield dominance, as between Hoijberg and Bentancur – the pairing for our opening four league games – their roles lie outwith controlling the game.

Hojbjerg in particular has been immense so far this season, as the Dane has been the epitome of an all-action midfielder.

He has the most touches and second most passes of any Spurs player this season, while his three through balls see him rank joint-fourth in the league alongside several others (Premier League).

Defensively, alongside Bentancur, the duos’ six blocks is the most of anyone at N17 whilst he has also made an impressive 12 tackles this season, the second-most of any Spurs player.

Moreover, and perhaps most telling, Sofascore ranks Hojbjerg as the fourteenth best Premier League player this season, but this is not a freak incident (Sofascore).

Hojbjerg ranked as the 27th best player last season, third of all Spurs players, with no prizes for guessing who our top two performers were.

It’s not inaccurate to think at times Hojbjerg flatters to deceive, but make no mistake, he is an elite-level player.

Across the last calendar year, he ranks in the top 11% for attempted, completed, and progressive passes compared to central midfielders from Europe’s top five leagues (FB Ref).

Furthermore, last season, two goals and two assists in the league marked a decent attacking return for the Dane, but this year he looks primed to surpass this tally.

Strikes at Chelsea and against Fulham remain his only attacking returns thus far, however, he is unlucky not to have a couple of assists to his name.

Twice – once at Chelsea then again at Forest, the Dane has played Kane through for a one-on-one that the Englishman uncharacteristically missed, but if he continues to play these line-breaking passes the assists will soon follow.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s great to see Hojbjerg contributing in attack, especially given the looming possibility that we go another summer without acquiring a creative midfielder.

Spurs fans should rejoice that the rumours of Hojbjerg to Madrid were simply that – rumours. As in a season where Kane, Perisic, Romero, and even Richarlison have so far caught the eye, Hojbjerg has perhaps been the real fulcrum of the side.

His value cannot be understated nor can his necessity in Conte’s system, as his contributions at both ends of the field facilitate others such as Kane, Son, and now Perisic to play with a certain freedom.

Whether it be under Conte, Nuno, or Mourinho, Hojbjerg has been ever-present for Tottenham, and now more than ever before looks to be and an irreplaceable cog in the system.

We must hope Hojbjerg continues his fine early season form, with the Dane potentially at the heart as Conte continues to mold Tottenham into a truly elite team.

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