After a smooth, accomplished, largely untroubled victory over Southampton (scroll down for the match report), Antonio Conte gave a hint of the direction he wanted Tottenham to travel. What he wanted, he said, were players who fit into his system.
“The characteristic is to play intensive football,” was how he defined the Conte way. “Strong, solid, a good engine. To run a lot. To bring intensity to the game.”
And those characteristics were writ large as his team achieved their biggest opening day victory since 1986.
'A good engine' - Ryan Sessegnon
Since he signed from Fulham in 2019, Ryan Sessegnon has been plagued by niggles and injuries which have restricted him to just 22 starts. Against Southampton, he finally showed Spurs supporters what he might do. Full of energy and running at left wing back, he scored his first league goal for the club and had another ruled out for offside. This is a player who has benefitted mightily from Conte’s intensive training system.
“First of all we are working very well with him, especially on the physical aspect,” the manager explained. “He had many injuries. Now he is working well and we are giving him stability.”
What the manager would have liked even more is the manner in which Sessegnon had clearly followed instruction. His goal, arriving at the far post to head home Dejan Kulusevski’s invitation of a cross, was one choreographed on the training ground. Not that the ever demanding Conte was entirely satisfied with his wingback’s display.
“He has potential. Now he has to show it.”
'Strong, solid' - Eric Dier
Eric Dier looked like a player adrift before Conte arrived at Tottenham. His 2018 World Cup form had evaporated under Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo. Conte has revived him. Playing in the middle of a back three, he has become the rock around which the Conte team shape is anchored. Watching him in this sort of imperious form it is hard to see how Gareth Southgate, who favours a similar defensive shape to Conte, could not use the player in the same way in Qatar.
'Bringing intensity to the game' - Dejan Kulusevski
For Conte, intensity does not simply mean harassing the opposition when out of possession. It means when his team has the ball, playing it forward quickly and intelligently to put the opposition on the back foot. And against Southampton no-one did that better than Dejan Kulusevski.
The player who appeared most vulnerable to being replaced by a summer signing, the Swede gave a star turn against Ralph Hassenhutl’s side. Watching the speed and precision of his passing, as well as his beautifully taken goal, it is hard to make the argument that Richarlison offers more.
Admittedly against a defence that you do not have to be Mystic Meg to predict will struggle this season, he was relentless in his effort. This was the third time he had scored and assisted in a Spurs game. And he has only been at the club six months. But whatever his achievement, like all the Spurs players, he knows the only way to stay in the team is to do precisely what his manager wants to see.
“I have to keep scoring these goals,” he explained. “Me, I have to grow. I have to get better in every way.”
'Run a lot' - Emerson Royal
Emerson Royal is another player whose place in the starting line up appeared under threat from one of Conte’s summer buys. Djed Spence was assumed to have been brought in to resolve an issue at right back. Because anyone who had seen Emerson play under Nuno had long since reckoned him symptomatic of the Portuguese manager’s poor recruitment.
But like Sessegnon, he has thrived under Conte’s ferocious demands. And against Southampton he was a non-stop whirl, tearing up and down the right flank, providing the kind of passes that seemed beyond his capabilities when he first arrived. Indeed the way he played insisted that, as manager, Conte does more than simply buy in players to fit his system: he improves those he inherits too.
No wonder the Spurs fans sing his name with such insistence. They know, with him in charge, they have a chance. Now all they need is for him to stick around.
Spurs underline title credentials with free-flowing win over Southampton
By Jim White
With a comfortable, comprehensive and ultimately rather easy win over Southampton, Tottenham demonstrated that pre-season predictions suggesting they might make a charge on the title were not entirely far-fetched.
This was one of those afternoons when everything went right for Antonio Conte, whose team selection, tactics and preparation worked to perfection, with his side scoring four goals, none of which, notably, came from Harry Kane or Son Heung-min.
After beasting his players in pre-season, Conte maintained his old-school approach to management by putting his new signings on the bench. Six of them were paraded before kick off, but none of them started. True, Richarlison is serving a ban for chucking a flare into the crowd last season, but you suspect, however, even had he been available, he would have been obliged to wait his turn. That is the way Conte works.
“I think I use common sense,” he said of his approach to his recruits. “They have to know they have to fight. They have to give me the possibility to make rotation.”
Conte expects his players to scrap for everything and Spurs began as if they were more than aware of his expectations: they attacked at will.
On the three previous times Ralph Hasenhuttl had sent out a Southampton team for their first game of the season, he had lost. The presumption was they were ripe for a hammering, particularly as Hasenhuttl – in full hipster combination of collar and tie, waistcoat and trainers without socks – handed 20-year-old Irish international Gavin Bazunu a Premier League debut in goal.
But then, entirely against the run of play, his team scored. After just 12 minutes, Moussa Djnepo feinted and jinked to the byline, sending Cristian Romero the wrong way. He then stood up a neat reverse pass to James Ward-Prowse, lurking on the edge of the box. There is no one else at whose feet a Southampton fan would wish the ball to land than their captain. And he duly shaped his body perfectly to meet the cross with a volley into the ground that bounced up beyond Hugo Lloris into the corner of the net.
Spurs looked a little affronted by such insolence; as if all that work over the summer should never have put them in this position. And they were soon back in contention, their wing-backs breaking at every opportunity. First, Son had a shot well saved by Bazunu, then Dejan Kulusevski sent over a superb cross that evaded everyone except Ryan Sessegnon, charging in at the far post, and he put a hammer-blow header past Bazunu.
“If I hadn’t scored that I think he would have killed me, to be honest,” the defender said of his manager. “There was a moment a couple of minutes earlier when Dejan cut back and I arrived too late and I knew I couldn’t arrive too late the next time he did it.”
Conte smiled when his player’s talk of severe punishment was put to him.
Not that his answer will have entirely alleviated Sessegnon’s fears.
“We celebrated a lot this goal,” he said. “Because five minutes before he was not in the right place to score. He has great potential but has to show it.”
After that goal, Spurs were soon back where they felt they should have been: in the ascendant. A corner was not cleared properly; Son picked it up and crossed and Eric Dier stooped and deftly headed the ball home.
It was a really cunning effort, carefully transferring the weight of Son’s cross and totally bemusing poor Bazunu in the Southampton goal.
It was not his strike, though, that made you think Dier is destined to be at the centre of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup plans. It was his tactical awareness, his passing, his organisational skills; he is another thriving in Conte’s defensive system. If you are going to play with three at the back, as Southgate favours, he is surely a shoo-in.
Not that he had much to do once Spurs were in the lead. And they should have had more. Son danced across the front of the Southampton area, the crowd on its feet anticipating a shot. He dummied, he faked, he shimmied, but when his strike finally came it sailed over the bar.
“It felt a little like the opponent switched into the next gear and we couldn’t follow,” was Hasenhuttl’s glum assessment. “It was frustrating to see how big the gap was between the two teams to be honest.”
The Southampton manager tried to spark a response, replacing one Armstrong (Adam) with another (Stuart) in a bid to stretch the Spurs back line, but this game was only heading one way.
With Kulusevski full of intelligence and purpose, constantly probing, his passes loaded with threat, Spurs were dominant. A horrible own goal by Mohammed Salisu, turning in an Emerson Royal cross that was heading nowhere, was followed by Kulusevski getting just reward for his efforts by arcing a shot into the corner. It all compounded Southampton’s sense this was not to be their afternoon. Nor, on this evidence, is it likely to be their season.
As for Spurs, their fans were given some encouragement that they should have real hope in the league this season after so many false dawns.
Premier League 3pm kick-offs: As they happened
The Premier League is back!
Hello and welcome to coverage of the 3pm kick offs on the opening weekend of the 2022/23 Premier League season.
Last night, Arsenal made a promising start by beating Crystal Palace 2-0 and now their north London rivals get their campaign underway today. Antonio Conte has made some useful additions to his Spurs side, which finished fourth last term and will expect three points from the visit of Southampton.
Meanwhile, former European champions Nottingham Forest are back in the Premier League after a 23-year absence and mark their return with a difficult test at Newcastle United who enjoyed a fine second half to last season. Forest will arrive at Newcastle with a new-look team after bringing in 12 players but manager Steve Cooper said the club have not yet completed their transfer business.
Midfielder Jesse Lingard joined on a free transfer and goalkeeper Dean Henderson arrived on loan from Manchester United, while Forest also broke their transfer record to sign Nigeria forward Taiwo Awoniyi from Union Berlin for a reported £17 million pounds.
"I think there will be more ins and outs," Cooper said. "It's not a straightforward process in bringing a player in, I don't know in terms of numbers. "If I'm being honest, we would have liked to have carried on with a large part of the team from last year and just added where we thought we needed to add to compete at the level, but that was never going to be the case.
"We had no alternative than to make the amount of changes that we've had to make - and are continuing to do so."
Elsewhere, Liam Cooper, Luis Sinisterra and Dan James are among the absentees for Leeds' Premier League opener against Wolves. And Wolves will be without key striker Raul Jimenez and winger Adama Traore, who are both expected to miss the first two league games.
Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard has challenged his team to step up their game and aim for a top-half finish after receiving the backing of the Premier League club's owners in the transfer market. Villa have signed five players, including Philippe Coutinho on a permanent transfer from Barcelona, in the close season as they look to better their 14th-placed finish from last year.
"It's about walking the walk now. It's very difficult to gauge in pre-season whether you've improved or not... but finishing 14th wasn't acceptable," Gerrard told reporters ahead of their opener at Bournemouth later on Saturday.
"I made that pretty clear to the players and we are looking for a better level of consistency, and we want to be operating in the top half of the table. We also want to have better cup runs. We need to give our fans more."