Conte-ism conjures performative suffering to leave 10-man Arsenal lost
Spurs sat back in the north London derby, then applied their shoulder to the wheel to bump and press Mikel Arteta’s side
Two minutes into the second half of this north London derby, Harry Kane took the ball inside the Arsenal penalty area and entered into a chest-bumping grapple with Gabriel. Kane stalled a little, struggling to keep his feet. Then he did something that seemed to capture the physics, the newtons of this match in a single collision. Kane pushed and found no resistance, no pressure in front of him.
Gabriel fell backwards, swished aside like a pair of rickety saloon bar doors. The ball was nudged back to Son Heung-min, who smashed it past Aaron Ramsdale to make the score 3-0. And this is what happened to Arsenal. They were simply overrun, pushed back by a superior force, made to shrink in the hard white lights.
Two things clicked here for Spurs. First, this was the most Conte of Conte nights. For an hour they played like a team high on pure uncut essence of Antonio, football reimagined as a kind of glorious, performative suffering.
Conte is all about that magnetism, the flashing eyes, the sense of some deep well of personal man-energy. Before kick-off he had demanded that Tottenham’s fans get this place rocking for a game they had to win to keep their season alive. And it did feel like a new frontier in some ways. Not just a first full-house London derby in the new stadium, not just a performance of bracing brutality. Both here and at Anfield last Saturday something else has shifted. Spurs – and there is no higher praise – haven’t looked like Spurs. How deep can this thing run?
Arsenal did start brightly, finding those familiar angles. Spurs sat back, then applied their shoulder to the wheel. And before long Arsenal were being bumped and pressed back, not so much by fine football but by the weight, the force, the will of Spurs’s movements down the flanks.
Son was fouled five times in the opening half-hour. These were desperation fouls, the kind of foul that takes a little bit more out of the player committing it every time, an admission that the battle is being lost. Tottenham just looked like an entity with more weight behind it. Over 90 minutes they had twice as many shots and made three times as many tackles. Conte-ism is like this: football, just a bit more intensely.
He likes simple lines and movements, settled patterns. There is no embroidery, no playing around with space in the Guardiola-lite style. Conte was up on his feet throughout, literally pointing to where he wants his players to pass the ball, shrieking at Ryan Sessegnon, arms quivering, eyes ablaze, seeing ghosts, wolves, fire in the tree line. Eventually he was booked for performing a kind of double-handed full-body decapitation mime in the referee’s direction, which is, on balance, probably not on.
With 20 minutes gone Spurs turned the screw. They did it by pressing higher up the pitch, seeing Arsenal drop deeper. From the right Dejan Kulusevski produced a wonderful, dipping left-footed cross. Son was bundled over as he went to head the ball. Kane settled, stuttered, walked up and buried the kick.
It was only his third touch of the ball. His whole season has been a flabby, gristly, uneven thing. But Kane does love these games, and these moments. And this was the second thing that happened: Kane repaid a debt. Spurs are only one point off in the race for a Champions League spot. Kane, distracted by his own attempts to leave, really didn’t start playing until the turn of the year.
He wasn’t brilliant or unstoppable here. He didn’t dazzle or twinkle. But his movements had a rare kind of force behind them. He made 15 passes all game. He had nine shots at goal. He never at any stage looked like man willing to countenance losing. He scored his second before half-time, this time kneeling to produce a daisy-skimming dive and heading the ball over the line from a couple of feet.
Rob Holding had already been sent off for two yellow cards, both for fouls on Son, who was once again Tottenham’s best player. Both were deserved, despite some slightly risible deflection from Mikel Arteta, who claimed some terrible injustice on the night. It is a necessary piece of morale management. Arsenal remain in the box seat but they were bullied in a way that might just leave its own resonance for the games to come.
For Spurs, the next two weekends will decide whether this amounts to anything more than another false trail, another taste. But should they fail to make fourth spot Spurs will have lost this race at the very start, with five defeats in their first 10 league games; lost it by being a club that only acts with clarity every 18 months, by only feeling this way when the day is just out of their reach. They will, though, make Arsenal sweat from here.