Antonio Conte and Spurs braced for visit of rampant Liverpool

Italian manager set to juggle his resources as players begin to return from recent Covid outbreak at the club

First the good news. Antonio Conte said yesterday that of the nine first-team players to have tested positive for Covid over a tumultuous two weeks or so at Tottenham, only two remained in isolation.

"Now the situation is good for us . . . now we are going out of this situation," the manager said. And yet, as tomorrow's visit of a rampant Liverpool heaves into view, it is plain that things are a long way from being ideal.

The broad outline of the Spurs outbreak, which took hold around the Norwich game on December 5th and was the first of several to derail Premier League clubs this season, is instructive. On top of the first-team player cases, Conte said that seven members of staff had returned positive tests plus "many, many" under-23 players.

The first-team area of the training ground was shut, on the advice of the Health Security Agency, from Thursday of last week for three days and there have been three postponements: the Uefa Conference League final group phase tie at home to Rennes and the league fixtures at Brighton and Leicester.


But it is the finer details that have shone a light on just how difficult it has been. For Conte, it has been the most unforgiving of challenges to operate in anything approaching a normal way.

It is why, on more than one occasion, he skirted around the hand grenade question of whether he wanted to play the Liverpool game, desperate to avoid contact with the pin.

“We’re ready to do and follow what the Premier League decides,” Conte said.

Last Sunday, when the training ground reopened, Conte said he had only “10, 12 players” and tactical work was impossible. Here, remember, is a manager obsessed by pattern of play sessions, walking his squad into the correct shape over and over again.

“Usually if you want to try to play against a formation, you need 20 players and it wasn’t simple to do this,” Conte said. “You have to train with mannequins and I stopped.”

What about morale? It has been “very, very down,” Conte said, with Thursday bringing the latest low. The squad had been in Leicester and ready to play only to be told of the postponement before lunch because of a rise in Covid cases in their opponents’ ranks.

“So we had lunch, then another journey, we arrived back [at the Spurs training ground] and we had another session,” Conte said. “It’s not easy to find the right energy when you’re prepared to play and the game is postponed. Then today, to prepare for another game against Liverpool and you don’t know if you are able to play.”

More difficult

On Tuesday Conte began to welcome back the players who had contracted the virus – they have returned in dribs and drabs since – but it is not as simple as their having observed 10-day isolation periods and then being ready. Nobody's body is the same and every player reacts in different ways. Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne said on Wednesday that, having had Covid, he was still adapting because "I do two or three sprints and feel it".

After Conte had arrived at Spurs on November 2nd, he found that the players were not fit enough to produce the aggression and intensity he demands. He has wanted to improve their levels, which is no easy feat during the season but is even more difficult now with the imponderables linked to Covid. How hard should he push them? How many minutes can he expect from them?

“When the players are back from Covid, for sure you have to pay great attention,” Conte said. “You can’t give them the same charge of work as other players. They need time to be fit.

“Before picking the starting XI, you have to take into consideration, for instance, [whether] to start with one player and, after 60 or 70 minutes, change him with one player who had Covid. It’s important to have patience and take the right risk. Every one of us would like to pick the best players, the best starting XI, but you have to understand they need a bit of time to have good form, to be fit and not risk an injury. Otherwise it would be a disaster.”

Against the swirl of Covid chaos, it has been possible to forget that Conte has taken 10 points from an available 12 since replacing Nuno Espírito Santo. Spurs lie seventh, four points behind fourth-placed Arsenal with three games in hand. After Liverpool, they are scheduled to face Crystal Palace (home) and Southampton and Watford (both away) in the league.

Conte has played mainly on the counter, eschewing possession in favour of defensive solidity – only in the 0-0 draw at Everton have his team had more than 50 per cent possession. Sound familiar?

It has been about getting the job done – rather than looking dominant – and the concession of only one league goal during the sequence has been a tonic. Conte knows that the style will have to come at some stage but now is not that time, particularly right now.

Conte was effusive in his praise of Liverpool, who he described as “one of the best teams in the world”. Tomorrow is a new test. For many different reasons.

– Guardian