Antonio Conte has long since proven he can unlock qualities in footballers that few, perhaps not even the players themselves, thought were there. Give him good players and he can make them great. Give him great and they can become the best in the world.
There was no greater reminder of the latter truth than Romelu Lukaku’s presence on the pitch today. The Belgian had become so devastating a forward in two years at Inter Milan with Conte that Chelsea felt compelled to spend $125 million to reunite themselves with a player who will be worth far less than that if they come to sell him again. Meanwhile Lukaku’s form under Thomas Tuchel suggests it is no easy task to eke such high level production from him.
As for the good players who became great, the team in blue Conte — the former Chelsea boss who is now at Tottenham — managed here was full of them. Some remain, though Marcos Alonso has perhaps never been as effective as he was when the Italian was in charge. The likes of Victor Moses never really looked like Chelsea players after their manager left.
In short, don’t question Conte. Still, some notes.
It was certainly curious that after enjoying such success with a 3-5-2 system in those first nine unbeaten Premier League matches Conte summarily abandoned it for the trip to his former employers. His side had of course been beaten here already in the EFL Cup semifinal but their performance on that night was so unexceptional as to seem an aberration before kick off. Address some of the simple issues from that night — don’t play Matt Doherty at left wing back for starters — and Spurs would surely be more effective.
Instead they rolled out a 4-4-2 that from minute one came with a note for Chelsea’s benefit. “We don’t think we can match you.” Conte made clear that belief after the game, pointing to “an important gap” to a team that have beaten him three times this month but also wobbled against other opponents. Without the ball Tottenham were effectively playing a back six with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Harry Winks scarcely much further ahead.
Their only real hope of winning this match is that one of those kick and rushes up to Steven Bergwijn and Harry Kane might have brought something. Who knows, that approach might have been vindicated if Paul Tierney did not judge Kane to have fouled Thiago Silva before he put the ball in the net in what turned out to be a 2-0 defeat for Spurs. Certainly there was a push on the Brazilian though one could imagine a different referee might have deemed it to be nothing more than a fair fight for position.
Conte was unimpressed. “It’s best to tell the referee sometimes in a polite way that to see this type of goal disallowed in England was incredible. In Italy maybe 50:50. In England, incredible.”
Still the game might equally have changed if Romelu Lukaku had not snatched at three shooting opportunities early on. Kane’s foul was the only real moment the game might have pivoted Tottenham’s way. There were half a dozen such moments for Chelsea before Hakim Ziyech’s brilliant opener.