Aiming to build on their biggest win of the season, the 4-0 win over Leeds, Spurs have pulled out of a third and final cup competition this season, ensuring their trophy drought will extend into a 15th year.
Josh Coburn’s ferocious extra-time strike earned Boro a deserved spot in the quarter-finals and continued Spurs’ wildly inconsistent run, taking their 2022 form to WLWLWLWLLWLWL.
Six times since the start of the year Spurs have won games, excitingly in the case of victories over Leicester and Manchester City, but each time they have failed to capitalize on the results.
They went from beating champions to losing to relegation candidates, from brilliant attacking performances to painfully labored displays. They have, at least, shown themselves capable of responding to defeats, barring back-to-back defeats to Southampton and Wolves, but Conte was left frustrated at the Riverside.
“I always say we have to get stronger and if we want to become competitive we have to be a stable team,” he said. “There are still too many ups and downs for us and we have to keep working very hard and try in the future to learn from this loss.”
Conte blamed his players’ mentality for their form last night, suggesting a lack of focus was to blame for their failure to capitalize on wins.
“In this type of situation, you have to find the right key to get into the minds of the players, because sometimes it’s not just a tactical problem or a technical problem,” he added. . “Sometimes you have to try to work and push other aspects – the mental aspects – and try to stay focused and also work on the workouts, to keep focused.”
Conte’s assessment of the problem has merit, but to what extent is Tottenham’s form also the result of the manager himself?
It’s surely no coincidence that results and performance have fluctuated so wildly when Conte’s own message swings from glowing positive to sadly pessimistic with consistent regularity.
There’s a chicken-and-egg element to Conte’s message and his team’s form (which came first, the poor result or the frustrated outburst?) and a fragile team would surely benefit from being exposed to less of emotion, even though Conte insists his message is all about “strategy”.
There are also tactical elements at play. City and Leeds both played to Tottenham’s strengths, giving them space to play in the final third.
After four months in charge, Conte’s Spurs are still more effective in transition than in structured possession, but Boro followed the plan set out by Burnley last week, picking up the numbers, then starving the visitors of oxygen and threatening on shots of stopped feet.
The hosts saw plenty of the ball and were worthy winners, but they frustrated Spurs with their disciplined approach to defending in numbers. Conte’s side created chances, with Harry Kane seeing a goal harshly ruled out for offside and waster Heung-min Son testing the goalkeeper on three occasions, but for long stretches the hosts were comfortable to repel painstaking and unimaginative attacks.
Less precisely but, perhaps more importantly, Spurs’ topsy-turvy form is down to their quality, which Conte has repeatedly described as ‘in the middle’. There was too little difference in technical quality between too many Spurs players and their opponents.
That’s just what mid-table teams do: go from good to bad, without the quality and consistency to run a Premier League run, where no opponent is a breeze.
Spurs fans old enough to remember the 90s should be familiar with the experience.
Conte hopes that with the injured players back and one game a week for the rest of the season, his side can find enough consistency to maintain their top-four push, which is now all that’s left of their stuttering season. .