First the good news. Antonio Conte said on Friday that of the nine first-team players who tested positive for Covid in the turbulent two weeks or so at Tottenham, only two remained in isolation. “Now the situation is good for us…Now we are getting out of this situation,” the manager said. However, as Liverpool’s rampant visit kicks off on Sunday, it’s clear things are still far from perfect.
An outline of the Spurs outbreak, which prevailed in the Norwich game on December 5 and was the first of several clubs derailed in the Premier League this season, is instructive. On top of the cases of first-team players, Conte said seven members of the squad have retested positive as well as “many, many” players under the age of 23.
The first team area of the training ground, on the advice of the Health Security Agency, was closed from Thursday last week for three days, and there were three postponements imposed by Covid: the Uefa Conference League final group match at home to Rennes and league matches in Brighton and Leicester . But it is the finer details that highlight just how difficult it is. For Conte, it was one of the most unforgiving challenges working in anything approaching the normal way.
That’s why, on more than one occasion, he sidestepped the grenade issue as to whether he wanted to play the Liverpool game, desperately trying to avoid coming into contact with the pin. “We are ready to do what the Premier League decides,” Conte said.
Last Sunday, when the training ground reopened, Conte said he had “10, 12 players” and that tactical work was impossible. Here, remember that the manager is obsessed with the style of play sessions, pushing his team into the right shape over and over again.
“Usually if you want to try to play against a formation, you need 20 players and it wasn’t easy to do,” Conte said. “You have to train with the models and you’ve stopped.”
What about morale? It was “very, very low,” Conte said, as on Thursday he posted the last drop. The team was in Leicester and ready to play only to be told to postpone before lunch due to a spike in Covid cases among their opponents.
“So we had lunch, then another flight, we came back [at the Spurs training ground] “We had another session,” Conte said. “It is not easy to find the right energy when you are ready to play and postpone the match. Then today, to prepare for another match against Liverpool and not know if you are able to play.”
Conte on Tuesday began welcoming back players who contracted the virus – they’ve been back in dribbling and dribbling since then – but it’s not quite as simple as they note 10-day isolation periods and then prepare. No one’s body is the same and every player reacts in different ways. Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne said on Wednesday that after contracting Covid, he is still adapting because “I do two or three fast sprints and I feel like it”.
After Conte arrived at Tottenham on November 2, he found the players were not fit enough to produce the aggressiveness and intensity he required. He wanted to improve their levels, which is not easy during the season but it is more difficult now with the impossible things related to Covid. How hard is it to push them? How many minutes are they expected?
“When the players come back from Covid, you definitely have to pay a lot of attention,” Conte said. “You can’t give them the same responsibility to work as the other players. They need time to get fit.
“Before choosing the eleventh starting, you have to take into account, for example, [whether] To start with one player, and after 60 or 70 minutes, change it up with one player with Covid. It is important to be patient and take the right risk. Each of us would like to choose the best players, the best starting lineup, but you have to understand that they need some time to get in good shape, to be fit and not risk injury. Otherwise, it will be a disaster.”
Faced with the downward spiral of Covid chaos, it would have been forgotten that Conte has had 10 points out of the 12 available since replacing Nuno Espírito Santo. Tottenham are seventh, four points behind fourth-placed Arsenal, with three games in hand. After Liverpool, they are set to face Crystal Palace (at home) and Southampton and Watford (both away) in the league.
Conte played mainly on the counter, eschewing possession in favor of defensive solidity – only in the 0-0 draw with Everton did his team capture more than 50%. looks familiar?
It was just about getting the job done – rather than looking dominant – and conceding just one league goal during the sequence was invigorating. The Italian knows that style has to come at some point but now is not the time, especially not right now.
Conte was extravagant in his praise of Liverpool, which he called “one of the best teams in the world”. Sunday is a new test. For many different reasons.