Tottenham’s Dejan Kulusevski is lucky to become the first player to score seven goals in his first 10 Premier League starts when Spurs take on Brighton on Saturday.
If the 21-year-old can set the record – and you wouldn’t back down against him just yet – then that would cap a fine two-and-a-half-month-long debut at Spurs who, despite skeptics, Sky in Italy transfer expert Gianluca Di Marzio saw it coming.
“Kulusevski is a very talented player,” he said Sky Sports News on deadline day when the Sweden international joined the club.
“It’s hard to understand what his real position is, but Antonio Conte is the perfect coach to understand where best to use him in the right system.
“Conte and Fabio [Paratici – Tottenham’s transfer chief] are the right couple to take Kulusevski to his highest level.”
But even Di Marzio surely couldn’t have foreseen the heights reached by Kulusevski, in what turns out to be one of Plan B’s biggest ever signings.
Kulusevski helps Spurs past Diaz
On the morning of Friday January 28, Tottenham fans woke up to extremely disappointing transfer news. The club’s big shot for Porto’s Luis Diaz had been hijacked by Liverpool overnight and the 25-year-old was now heading to Merseyside.
But with adversity comes opportunity, and three days later Tottenham signed Kulusevksi on an 18-month loan from Juventus.
His arrival, however, was not greeted with much fanfare – and understandably so. Two goals in 27 appearances for Juventus since August, with just seven starts, the move seemed like a last-minute gamble by Paratici on a player he signed from Juve two years ago.
Those doubts were only heightened when Spurs fans saw the club’s top target Diaz impress in his first three games at Liverpool, while Kulusevski made three unspectacular substitute appearances. It looked like Tottenham had missed badly.
But on Saturday, February 19, everything changed.
Just four minutes into his first Tottenham start, Kulusevski gave Tottenham a shock lead over Premier League leaders Manchester City. He then delivered an accurate cross for Harry Kane’s spectacular winner in the 94th minute.
Kulusevski “played an incredible game” at the Etihad, according to Conte, and the Swede has been ever-present since then, starting in every game since that 3-2 win at City.
As the comparison below shows, Kulusevski is proving just as effective as Diaz in the Premier League – with the added bonus of being four years younger than the Colombian.
“Tottenham fans are happy that Diaz has gone to Liverpool,” said former Reds defender Stephen Warnock. The football show on Sky Sports News“Because if he hadn’t gone there and gone to Spurs, how would that have worked out?
“We know Diaz is brilliant, but they’re going to reflect and think, ‘We’re pretty happy with Kulusevski as well’.”
Kulusevski’s “remarkable” PL adaptation
Following his goal and assist in the 4-0 win at Aston Villa on Saturday, Kulusevski has been involved in nine goals in his nine Premier League starts. Only four players aged 21 or under in Premier League history have been involved in more goals in their first nine starts.
Meanwhile, no player has more Premier League assists than Kulusevski (six, level with Harry Kane) since his first start for Spurs in February.
Warnock said: “What a signing he has been: assists, goals and smart runs.
“He makes the game look really easy and at 21 the speed with which he has settled into the Premier League has been quite remarkable, having been a small player for Juventus.”
Kulusevski’s impact since joining in January has been such that no player aged 21 or younger in the Premier League this season has a better minutes-to-goal ratio than him.
And of all Premier League players with five or more goals, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (78 mins) and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (87 mins) have a better minutes-to-goal ratio than the Swede.
But for all Kulusevski’s individuality, it’s how he completed Tottenham’s attack to turn their deadly duo of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son into a terrifying trio.
Kane, Son and Kulusevski: Tottenham’s ‘Red Arrows’
Watch Kane, Son and Kulusevski’s top three against Aston Villa last weekend for sky sports was former Spurs striker Darren Bent.
He said: “Kulusevski and Son on either side of Kane are working really well.
“The moment Kane gets the ball, it’s like the Red Arrows, you have Kulusevski and Son running behind.”
Statistics indeed confirm that the triumvirate flies.
Twenty-three of Tottenham’s last 29 Premier League goals have involved Kane, Son or Kulusevski, with 19 scored by one of the three.
“Going forward, Spurs are very smart,” sky sports said specialist Graeme Souness after the win at Villa. “They now have three strikers capable of delivering passes and scoring magnificent goals. These are three players who can win you games.”
Since that victory at Man City in February, the trio are the top three providers of combined goals and assists in the Premier League.
“It’s a really exciting top three,” Warnock said. “We always knew the relationship between Son and Kane – it was great.
“Then it was about adding someone to that; it was always [Steven] Bergwijn or [Lucas] Moura, but he was never a consistent person.”
If Lucas and Bergwijn hadn’t clicked, then many thought Gareth Bale would be the final piece of the attacking puzzle of last season, but that never really materialized.
Kulusevski, however, finally feels like the perfect foil for Kane and Son’s evolution.
The Swede’s direct and quick runs helped Kane drop deeper to play defensive passes and show off his unique passing ability. In fact, the England captain has provided 17 balls from deep, the most for any Premier League player since Conte’s arrival.
Meanwhile, Kulusevski’s selfless play and efficiency in the final third freed Son in front of goal, with the South Korean needing just one more goal to register his best season in the league. A late challenge for the Golden Boot can’t be ruled out either, with Son just three goals behind Salah (20).
“Kulusevski fits in so well,” said former England striker Sue Smith. The football show on Sky Sports News.
“It was a bit of a gamble to get him in, but he definitely showed that it wasn’t because the way he plays with Son and Kane, he makes those runs that make those front three so effective and work so good.”
The Kulusevsky-Conte relationship
For Kulusevski, his rebirth is entirely due to Conte.
Speaking on international duty last month, he said: “There were a lot of things at Juventus that weren’t working and it was very frustrating. I played one game a month always in a new position. My body did not feel good, I did not feel physically strong.
“At Tottenham there is a breath of fresh air, I have a better relationship with the coach, I have trained better and my physique has improved.”
According to a report published in the Daily mail, Kulusevski “enjoys the concentration of Conte’s exercises” while he has also been influenced by Italian rules off the pitch regarding food. His running stats, as shown below, suggest it’s paying off.
Kulusesvki’s sentiment towards Conte is shared by the 52-year-old, who has long been interested in the winger.
After the 5-1 home win over Newcastle, in which Kulusevski got an assist, Conte said: “We are talking about a player I know very well, because he played in Italy.
“He started playing with Atalanta, then Atalanta brought [sent] he was loaned to Parma and he played in Serie A. And he played fantastically.
“When I was the coach of Inter [Milan], I tried to ask him, but Juventus moved before. Maybe they put in more money than us back then and then they bought that player.
“We are talking about a player who is only 21 years old. And he has to keep playing that way. Because he is strong physically, big motor, he is good technically.
“I think for Tottenham he’s a great signing for now and for the future.”