Antonio Conte is not the arm-around-the-shoulder type when it comes to the hard business of omitting players from his starting XI because, frankly, where does it end? “I don’t like to give explanations to my players,” the Tottenham manager said before Saturday’s visit of Leicester. “Otherwise in every game I have to speak to one, to another one and another one.”
But Conte made an exception this week after leaving out Dejan Kulusevski for the third straight match – the 2-0 Champions League defeat at Sporting on Tuesday night.
“To drop Deki for three games in a row, honestly for me, it was difficult,” Conte said. “For sure, the first problem is for him because when I go home and I start to think [about omitting him] … I spoke with Deki because after three times that you go on the bench, he deserved to feel that my trust, my confidence, was like always.”
Kulusevski had started the season well, having starred over the second half of the previous campaign after his January arrival from Juventus. The fans love his energy and power, his direct running and how he makes things happen. And so does Conte. But things are different after the £50m summer signing of Richarlison, a deal that speaks volumes about Conte’s influence at the club; how he has encouraged them to think bigger.
With Kulusevski, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min on the books, it was easy to believe that Spurs did not absolutely need another top player for their front three, especially one so expensive. Conte, though, made Richarlison a priority – to give him options in a season where Champions League football is back on the menu; to fire competition in the squad.
“It has to be a habit for Tottenham – to think with ambition,” Conte said. “If we did not have ambition, I would continue to have a young player on the bench. But when there is an important injury, you have to play with a young player and then you lose and the fault is the manager’s. This is the truth.”
Richarlison has looked dangerous since coming into the lineup for Kulusevski; he scored both goals in the 2-0 Champions League win over Marseille last week. Kulusevski, in Conte’s words, “deserves to play”. And Kane is Kane. And so we get to Son and the situation that increasingly feels like the elephant in the room at Spurs.
Son has started every game so far but the player who shared last season’s Premier League Golden Boot with Mohamed Salah of Liverpool has yet to score. His dribbling statistics have fallen off a cliff. In the league last season he attempted 103 and completed 51. This time he has attempted 12 and completed one. Son has been on the periphery of matches. The famous smile is not so visible.
Conte was asked whether Son’s drop-off was down to being more of a target for opponents after his Golden Boot or a loss of confidence. “Half and half,” Conte replied. “When you finish the last season as top scorer, a lot of light is shone on you. The following season is more difficult because you are not an underdog. But when you don’t score, the confidence goes a bit down.”
Conte made it clear that Son’s lack of smiles was low on his list of worries. “Honestly, if I have to pay attention to one smile or not during the game …” he said. “Sonny, for sure, is not happy because he’s not scoring. It’s normal and I like that he’s a bit angry for this situation because it means he wants to change it.
“It can happen, especially when you play massive games. You can be a bit tired mentally, also [in] your body. But Sonny will never, never be a problem for me. I hope to have all my problems like him.”
Conte intends to make changes against Leicester after the mental and physical drain of Sporting and it felt instructive that he brought up the possibility of leaving out Son. “It can happen that in some games he can’t play from the start – like Harry, also,” he said. “But only to protect him, to give him the possibility to rest and take care of his energy.”
Had Son scored at Sporting or, indeed, previously this season, it might have been easier for Conte to give him a breather. Now, if he does so, he risks inflaming the situation around the player’s goal drought.
“We need energy against Leicester,” Conte said. “We finished against Sporting with not a lot of energy and for this reason I am a bit upset. We lost a lot of energy and then we lost the game [to two late goals]. I will make rotation on Saturday. We will see [with Son].”
Sporting represented Spurs’ first defeat of the season, although it continued an unwanted trend from last season – losses on their travels in Europe. The club lost in each of their Conference League away ties apart from at Rennes when they drew a little fortuitously.
It is one obvious area for improvement but Conte is emboldened by his deeper resources – even if they bring him a headache. “It’s a good problem to have,” he said and Son should probably not expect a soothing chat about where he finds himself. “A strong player copes with this situation, faces this situation and overcomes this situation,” Conte said, which sounded a lot more like him.