Although this was Antonio Conte’s first away north London derby, there was no clear beginning or end from Tottenham’s past. The last time Tottenham won this match was in 2010, at the height of the Harry Redknapp era. Conte is now down to last place in the long list of Spurs managers who have lost league games at the Emirates.
Thomas Partey scored the game’s first goal after Tottenham gave him too much room on the edge of the area. Hugo Lloris mishandled a shot early in the second half, Cristian Romero took too long to pounce on the rebound, and Arsenal went up 2-1. Even before Granit Xhaka scored the third goal, the game was already gone when Emerson Royal was dismissed shortly after.
These mistakes cost the game to the Spurs. Whatever your opinion of the decision to send Royal off, it was a careless tackle that did not need to be made, and the second goal was worse than the first. However, Conte did not criticize Romero, Lloris, or the defending as a whole when he spoke later. The only criticism he offered Royal was that he is a young athlete and hopefully would choose better the next time.
What Spurs did with the ball was what really infuriated Conte about their performance, not what they did without it. He claimed that although his players “felt the chance” of winning the game in the first half, they chose not to seize it. We had numerous opportunities to take advantage of the circumstances considerably better, he remarked. Even in the locker room at halftime, with the score at 1-1, there was sadness that Spurs were not ahead. “Every time we played, we beat their pressure, we had a lot of space, and every time we made a mistake on the last ball.” Additionally, they were unable to recover after Gabriel Jesus made it 2-1.
Although the move that resulted in Richarlison’s penalty was really skillfully executed, there were far more instances in the first half where Spurs broke into open space but mishandled the last ball or touch. There was an Eric Dier flick from a Son free-kick, a Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg through ball to Son, a Richarlison through ball to Son, Perisic blazing over with his left, Richarlison getting a cross wrong from the right, and then there was the sad tale of Royal, who is so crucial to this system moving forward but so blunt in his attempts to hurt teams when he does get the ball, something teams are increasingly inclined to just let him do.
Spurs might have been able to take advantage of these opportunities and win the game on a different occasion, with Son performing at his peak, Dejan Kulusevski back in the lineup, or with a more incisive right wing-back.
As a result, there are two reasonable explanations for why this execution failed, each of which absolves the manager of responsibility and places the blame on the defense or the attack, respectively. However, it sometimes seems as though Conte designed a system that relies on players performing at a high level to be successful. In order to prevent the other team from advancing, they must defend flawlessly, frequently in their own third.
Moreover, for them to overcome the opposition, their attack must be inch-perfect. They failed on both counts in this instance.
Clearly, Conte’s strategies succeed more frequently than not. He has significantly improved things since taking Nuno’s place, and it is obvious. However, in contests like these, up against a more proactive foe who believes the best course of action is to obtain the ball in the half of the opponent, it might appear not only unfavorable but also brittle. A plan can fail if only one element does not go according to plan, since everything must go according to plan for a plan to succeed.
On days like this, it can appear to be a house of cards, close to being flawless but ultimately falling short.