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Cartilage Free Captain: Tottenham Blog Q & A

In the first of a series organised by NMA writers, I had the honour of interviewing Dustin from an SB Nation sister blog that covers everything about Tottenham Hotspur.

Antonio Conte and Heung-Min Son - Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

This article could not have come at a better time — The biggest question about Spurs has been Hueng-min Son’s Fantasy value. This interview was held right after Tottenham’s 0-2 UCL defeat to Sporting CP. Please keep that in mind while reading. Spurs’ 6-2 dissection of Leicester happened yesterday, and the boy in question returned to form by scoring a 2nd-half hattrick coming from the bench. The Korean International left the pitch with a smile and the match ball to commemorate the night.

You will definitely find everything you want to know about this match and much more on Cartilage Free Captain, which is SB Nation’s Tottenham blog. One of the managers there, Dustin George-Miller, was kind enough to answer NMA questions aimed mainly at helping our fantasy managers to achieve new heights in FPL / Fantrax this season.

Before we go into the interview, I should clarify that I caused some confusion regarding Spurs formation when I asked about it. To me, Conte’s style continues to look like a modified 3-5-2 with one of the forwards (mostly Harry Kane) dropping back to an attacking midfielder role completing the 5. However, the reality is a 3-4-3, and it should be called a 3-4-3 as Dustin talks about it.

The Interview

MiQ: Hello Dustin and thank you for agreeing to answer Never Manage Alone questions about Spurs. Let us kick off with a brief introduction about Tottenham’s SB Nation blog Cartilage Free Captain and the crew.

Dustin: Cartilage Free Captain was founded in 2010 by Kim McCauley, and over the past decade+ has steadily grown to become the largest Tottenham Hotspur fan-blog in North America. We’re quite proud of that fact. Like all SB Nation blogs, we aim to provide a fan voice on Tottenham results and news, with a real focus on community — We strive to be a welcoming, inclusive community of Tottenham fans from all over the world, and as much as possible free from the toxic histrionics that permeates throughout social media.


Spurs 2022-23 season

MiQ: Spurs won on four occasions and drew twice in EPL season start to occupy second place alongside Man City just one point behind Arsenal. (The home match against Leicester City is scheduled on Saturday so feel free to add its result In your answer). UEFA Champions League, the record is one win and one loss and once again Spurs are in second place alongside Frankfurt and three points behind Sporting CP. How do you rate the start of the season?

Dustin: Results-wise, it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s been a good start. Spurs are unbeaten in the league through six matches, though it should be mentioned that arguably our toughest match of the season (away at Man City) was postponed last weekend after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Laced through that however is a streak of mild discontent — while the results have been unquestionably good, the performances have been uneven, and as a fan it’s a little hard to disentangle those conflicting facts. It doesn’t help that Spurs limped to a pretty dispiriting 2-0 loss at Sporting recently in the Champions League, Spurs’ first loss since mid-April. That discontent is probably a product of our own heightened expectations of the season under Antonio Conte. Do we really have THAT much to complain about right now?

MiQ: Where do you see Spurs by the time the FIFA World Cup starts, which will be after GW-16, making it almost mid-season? Will they maintain a top four rank, or perhaps you have different expectations?

Dustin: I don’t think many Spurs fans feel as though the club is going to be challenging for a Premier League title this season — It’s just too hard to look past Man City as the heavy favorites, and Erling Haaland is a cheat code. But finishing top four and qualifying for Champions League is the expectation for this team under this coach. It’ll be tough, and there are a lot of unknowns, but hanging around 2nd through 5th by the World Cup break would be a very encouraging sign of where they may end up by the end of the season. And who knows? If a team like Arsenal, Chelsea, or even City start to falter, that puts Spurs in a position where they can potentially take advantage.


Tactician and Tactics

MiQ: As a Spurs fan, I always hope for an extended lead myself! Now, let us move on to talk about Italian tactician Antonio Conte. He has done wonders with Juventus when he started his career, winning three Serie-A titles. He followed that with a 2016-17 EPL title victory with Chelsea, but he was sacked two years later after Chelsea failed to achieve UCL qualification. He went back to Italy, this time with Inter Milan and helped the club win during his second season, ending Juventus’ nine year title streak, which ironically, he started himself! He resigned after that and started his career with Spurs in November 2021. This may not be known by the younger crowd: Conte played most of his career as a player in Juventus as a box-to-box midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation that he innovated as a coach. It is a fact that Conte helped Spurs finish 4th last season and win a UCL qualification spot, so I assume the fans are happy with his performance. I do not really have a specific question here so I will leave the subject open for you to talk about his time with Tottenham and future expectations.

Dusttin: Landing Antonio Conte as a head coach was a significant coup for a club like Tottenham Hotspur. He is the most talented and high profile manager Spurs have appointed in the Premier League era (and yes, I’m counting Jose Mourinho). Convincing him to come and build something at Spurs is no small feat; convincing him to stay past the initial first season is even more significant.

But appointing Conte also comes with some expectations. Tottenham are known as a club that historically plays free-flowing, progressive football, and Conte... is not known for that. Not that his football can’t be exciting, but it’s predicated on a stout defense, established attacking patters, and clinical counterattacks. It’s not ten-behind-the-ball Mourinho-esque tactics and can be scintillating when working well, but we haven’t seen it click very much so far this season. Hopefully that happens with a little time.

Conte is also a manager who can be prickly when he doesn’t get his way — It’s why he’s never lasted longer than three seasons at a club. That said, he has said numerous times that he’s happy with Tottenham’s summer transfer business and is looking at Spurs as a long-term prospect. We hope that continues.

MiQ: 3-5-2 formation almost went extinct when the trending 4-3-3 came to life. Some coaches like Conte innovated the 3-5-2 to hold strong against almost every 4-3-3 powerhouse in EPL. Is it the right combination of players? Or is it the quality of players in midfield and their ability to play their assigned roles to the letter?

Dustin: It’s interesting you bring that up, as Conte has only played a 3-5-2 formation twice at Tottenham, both last season. Instead, he has almost exclusively employed a 3-4-3 with two attacking wingbacks and an attacking band of Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min, and either Dejan Kulusevski or Richarlison. Conte actually gave some quotes in a press conference very recently where he intimated that his use of the 3-4-3 was due to the wealth of attacking talent he has at his disposal at Spurs, and hinting that he’d rather have a third attacker in the front band than an extra central midfielder. Tottenham’s primary CMs, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur, are defensively solid and pragmatic but are not creative passers, and as such, ball progression has been shifted to the wing-backs, primarily Emerson Royal and Ivan Perisic. Results have been mixed, but I understand the rationale behind it. I do wonder if Conte might shift to a 3-5-2, sacrificing a more fluid front three for an extra passer in midfield and a Harry Kane strike partnership against certain opponents, but we haven’t seen it yet.

But yes, Conte’s teams are well-drilled and are expected to know their roles. Spurs had the option to sign a more creative midfielder this summer and didn’t do it, meaning Conte knows how he wants to play and expects his players to adhere to his system.


Summer Transfers

MiQ: I believe your answer on tactics will give our fantasy managers insight about the importance of some of the players in their fantasy teams. Moving on, it is summer signings early performance review. After playing a total of nine matches by the time this article drops, who is the best / worst summer signing this season?

Dustin: I think we have to be a little careful, as “the best signing” from a fantasy perspective isn’t necessarily the best signing as a fan of a particular football team. From a fantasy first focus, I’d say Ivan Perisic has been Spurs’ best signing of the summer thus far, and he’ll continue to get points, though fantasy owners are rightfully wary about just how much he’ll play — Conte loves to rotate his fullbacks when there are multiple matches in a week. But taking a longer view, I think Richarlison will be Spurs’ best fantasy signing when all is said and done — he’s been a magnificent performer, and while he hasn’t scored in the Premier League yet, he’s the one poised to carry the scoring burden should Kane get injured or Son continue his recent slump.

MiQ: The only notable transfer out this summer, in my opinion, is Steven Bergwijn, he is a regular starter at Ajax this season, scoring goals and making assists regularly as well. Will Tottenham regret not having him in the squad anymore?

Dustin: Stevie’s a weird one. He didn’t benefit at all from playing under Mourinho, who deployed him as a defensive winger, which is very much not his skillset, or under Nuno Espirito Santo, whose tactics left a lot to be desired. He’s obviously a very talented player, but he’s also not a good fit for Conte, and by the time the Italian came in, it was clear that he was disgruntled and wanted out. Bergwijn’s struggles were primarily a product of circumstance, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s tearing it up in the Eredivisie. The Premier League is a tough league, but Bergwijn is very clearly better than what he showed at Spurs. I wish him well, but Stevie and Tottenham simply was not a good match.


Son’s Form

MiQ: Since we are talking about the left-wing position, Korean superstar and one of my favorite players is not making a similar impact in terms of scoring goals and creating them. However, Conte continues to trust him to start. How do you rate his performance this season, since I for one understand that not scoring and not assisting is not everything in football?

Dustin: No way around it — Sonny’s been bad. He has yet to put in anything better than a tepidly good performance and is still goalless, and it’s a little worrying. That said, Son has always had fallow periods where he disappears for matches at a time, and almost every time he rounds into form and goes on a purple patch, scoring five in seven or something like that. He looks like he’s stuck in his own head at the moment, but I’m not worried. Leicester this weekend looks like a good opportunity for him to get back on track, and if not he’ll have a couple of international matches with Korea next week to find his shooting boots.


Richarlison vs Kulusevski

MiQ: Switching to the right-wing, Richarlison was given the nod to start against Marseille in UCL and scored two stunning goals. He was awarded with a second start against Sporting, but Tottenham blanked even though the stats show six out of twelve attempts were on target. Do you agree with benching Kulusevski in favor of playing Richarlison? And who do you think is a better fit for the team?

Dustin: I don’t really, but it’s a curious conundrum. One of the things we’ve seen tactically from Spurs this season is that teams are more likely to press the midfield, forcing Spurs to funnel their ball progression through Emerson Royal on the right side of the pitch. The advantage of Kulusevski is that Deki links up extremely well with Royal, and is more of a creator on that right flank than Richarlison, who is big, crashes the box, and holds up play very well. So when Richarlison is on the right with Royal, that same kind of link-up play isn’t as readily available and Spurs have looked a little tepid at times going forward as Emerson isn’t a particularly good crosser of the ball.

Richarlison is a player who is forcing his way into the conversation, and that’s a really good problem to have, but I wonder if there are other ways to get him involved — either his early role as a super-sub, or as a rotation option on the left for Son if he needs a rest. Kulusevski also has been mooted as a possible right wing-back, which could be super fun in the right circumstance.


Fantasy Prospects

MiQ: The last few questions were intended to provide insight to our fantasy managers about fantasy prospects going forward in the season. In your opinion, who do we invest in within Spurs squad? (A couple of options should be enough but you are always welcome to elaborate more).

Dustin: You probably can’t go too wrong with any of Tottenham’s attacking players. Harry Kane is the obvious answer, and for good reason — He’s chasing Jimmy Greaves down as Tottenham’s all-time scorer, and that’s going to further motivate him to score as much as possible. He’s also almost impossible to keep out of the side. Son Heung-Min has been poor, but he won’t stay that way. For fantasy owners who haven’t already dropped him (and honestly, I don’t blame you), sticking with him a while longer could pay dividends. He won the Golden Boot last season, he’s clearly got goals in him. We’ve talked about Richarlison and Kulusevski already. I’m not sure how much I’d recommend Perisic only because he’s in a job-share with Ryan Sessegnon, and it’s tough to know when he’s going to play and when he’ll be rested this season. They both have assists in them, so the key is knowing when to play them (that’s tough!).

Also, strangely Spurs’ second highest scorer behind Kane is Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. “General Ho” isn’t known as an especially prolific scorer in Conte’s system, but he has two goals already this season and plays a much more progressive role for Denmark. At 5.5, he’s a decent cheap option because he’s going to play a LOT and might surprise owners with some points.

MiQ: I highly appreciate your cooperation and answers to the questions. If there is anything else you would like add or say to our readers?

Dustin: Come on you Spurs!

Spurs brought it last night and defeated Leicester City 6-2 highlighted with Son’s return to form. I hope that you enjoyed reading a true Tottenham fan’s insightful answers to my questions.

We are in the process of interviewing many other SB Nation blogs over the international break: Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Man United and Inter Milan. More may be included over the coming days!

Who is part of your fantasy team from Spurs? Will you be picking more players after reading this article? Or maybe dropping players? Please keep us updated in the comments section below on your FPL / Fantrax / UCL fantasy plans for after the international break!