Conte's Spurs show Singapore how the Lions can improve

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Tottenham Hotspur's South Korean striker Son Heung-Min (left) celebrates with teammates after scoring their third goal during their English Premier League football match against Crystal Palace.
Tottenham Hotspur's South Korean striker Son Heung-Min (left) celebrates with teammates after scoring their third goal during their English Premier League football match against Crystal Palace. (PHOTO: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

By Edwin Yeo

If you’re a fan of both Tottenham Hotspur and the Singapore national team - like I am - then it was a roller coaster of a weekend for you.

To say that both teams have vastly improved under their respective managers is like saying the sun is hot, but sadly, only one team came out of the weekend victorious, at least in terms of the result on the pitch.

Let’s get the Spurs result out of the way first.

There is very little doubt that it’s great to be a Spurs fan again. Prior to Antonio Conte taking over the reigns of manager, watching Spurs play football was akin to watching paint dry on a cold and wet day. Nuno Espirito Santo’s Tottenham dished out week after week of football that can drain the life out of a zombie who’s not had a human in sight for months. No fight and players running around like headless chickens, though arguably, no one has really seen how a headless chicken runs.

Under Nuno, Spurs had the lowest average distance run in a match, at 100km per match. Under Conte, Spurs top the table of distance covered, at 115km. Just that alone tells you how much the players have improved in just nine short matches under the Italian serial winner.

That explains also how Spurs went ahead against a COVID-hit Palace, with two transitions in the first half that were quickly countered and converted by Harry Kane and Lucas Moura. The intensity of the pressing game between Nuno’s and Conte’s Spurs is like comparing Spider-man 3 and the most excellent No Way Home.

And this isn’t the first time Spurs have scored this way under Conte. They did the same to title challengers Liverpool, where Harry Winks won a crucial ball in midfield that led to Kane opening the scoring in the thrilling 2-2 draw just a week ago.

That’s the other thing Conte has done. Fringe players such as Winks, Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn, Matt Doherty, Ben Davies and Ryan Sessegnon, as well as defensive “mistakes waiting to happen” Davinson Sanchez and Eric Dier, have suddenly all looked like decent players. Even Lucas Moura, whom we always knew had a player in him somewhere with occasional standout performances such as the 2019 Champions League semi-final second leg against Ajax, is suddenly delivering week in week out.

What was a super thin squad where one worried whenever a first team player got injured or suspended or hit with Covid-19 or out of form, suddenly you would struggle to see how the squad can improve.

That Spurs pushed Liverpool all the way without Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp, Cristian Romero, Serge Reguilon and Moura speaks of how the fringe players stepped in and stood up to be counted. Of course, we’re still waiting for Conte to do the same with Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni lo Celso, two players with bags of talent that never looked particularly comfortable in a Spurs shirt, but if Alli can be resurrected better than Neo in the Matrix, then there’s hope for the two potentially world class players.

Crystal Palace never stood a chance against a Spurs side that barely got out of second gear, and even more so when their talisman Wilfried Zaha got sent off in the first half for a second yellow card that had similarities with Safuwan Baharudin’s sending off in Singapore’s second leg tie against powerhouse Indonesia in the second half a day before.

Spurs now sit fifth in the English Premier League, six points off in-form Arsenal at fourth, but with three games in hand. If Conte can beat Southampton tomorrow, they will narrow Arsenal’s lead to three points, with the Gunners not playing till New Year’s Day, and against a rampant Manchester City at that.

There’s every chance that by 1 January, Spurs could sit level on points against their hated rivals, with two games in hand, and there would hardly be a happier new year than that, short of Emma Stone finally replying to my messages to her over Instagram.

It also hasn’t escaped many Singaporean football fans how our national team, the laughing stock of Southeast Asian football for the better part of the decade, has also unleashed half a roar during this edition of the Suzuki Cup. Under coach Tatsuma Yoshida, their improvement hasn’t been as stark as Conte’s Spurs, but there are similarities. Setting aside a disappointing end to the World Cup qualifying campaign, which were somewhat forgivable given that the Lions had not played a competitive match since pre-Covid-19, not many were optimistic about the Suzuki Cup, given that Singapore were drawn against defending champions Thailand and the Philippines, who must now be considered one of the stronger teams in Asean football.

Yes, their big losses to Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan were reminiscent of the football V Sundramoorthy had the national team playing, directionless and lacking intensity, but that Yoshida had Singapore still having a shot to qualify for the next round until those final three matches, with wins in 2019 against the likes of Yemen and Palestine, both ranking higher than our tiny nation in the Fifa rankings, had given a glimpse of what he had brought to the team. Had there not been a pandemic, who knows what might have happened.

But still, it took a brave betting man to put any money on Singapore coming out of the group stages in the AFF tournament and making the semi-finals. Yet, Singapore did so with a game to spare, with their final match against Thailand simply a contest of who would top the group.

In pockets of the game against Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor Leste, the Lions were showing teeth with crunching tackles and dominating aerial duels. Almost all their goals came from set pieces and flowing counter-attacking football.

Most thought then when paired against Indonesia in the semi-finals, that Yoshida’s Lions would fall apart, as they did somewhat tamely against a reserve Thai side in the final group game.

But man, did our boys show the kind of grit last seen in the Rocky movies, and we witnessed a fighting performance that required terrible refereeing to put Indonesia into the Final.

That second leg performance on Christmas Day could possibly be a day that will go down in history as the day that belief finally returned to Singapore football. That belief had been missing since 2012 and not even Liam Neeson could find it, despite his special skills.

After a spirited first leg which ended 1-1, Indonesia went ahead again in the first half after some schoolboy defending, and at that point, things looked bleak. Things got much worse when Singapore got a free kick in a dangerous position but in a moment of madness in jostling for position, Safuwan, till then the player of the tournament for Singapore, inexplicably shoved his marker out of the way and earned a second yellow card. And then, the Christmas miracle happened.

From the ensuing free-kick, Singapore equalised and suddenly it was game on. Sure, it was hard to see how we could do so with 10 men and our star defender out, but stranger things have happened in football. And it did.

You see, not only was it already tough against a strong and fast Indonesian side, it got even harder in the second half when our other star defender, Irfan Fandi, got himself sent off when bringing down the Indonesia striker to prevent him going through on goal. It was a mission so impossible that even Tom Cruise wouldn’t have accepted it.

But somehow, somehow, in a display of the very definition of indomitable spirit, Singapore went ahead in the 74th minute with a delightful free kick from Shahdan Sulaiman that would have gotten David Beckham applauding its technique.

And had there been better officiating of the match, Singapore would have gone through to the Final. Indonesia’s 87th-minute equaliser was clearly offside, and despite that, Singapore went up the other end to get a penalty at the death.

Setting aside why it was Faris Ramli who was taking it instead of Ikhsan Fandi, or even Shahdan, Indonesia’s goalkeeper was suspiciously off his line when making the save.

In the end, it was not to be, as the lads totally ran out of steam in extra time.

Singapore might have lost the match, but they won a nation with their never say die attitude. Never have I seen so many accolades for the Singapore men’s football team despite a loss, as my social media feed exploded with nothing but praise for the Lions.

But after all the euphoria, Yoshida would do well to study what Conte has done for Spurs. Both coaches, at their levels, have a team which possibly isn’t as technically gifted as their strongest competitors, but both have made their teams punch above their weight.

There is a key difference though. Apart from physically improving the players, Conte focused very much on defensive organisation, so much so that Spurs went from a team whose defence was so leaky that it could feed a nation facing a drought, to one that is almost impossible to penetrate.

And he did so, in large parts, without his best defender in Romero. Under Conte, Spurs defence conceded just three goals in six league matches, two of that against what is possibly the best attacking force in the world right now in Liverpool.

In that run, apart from Leeds and Liverpool who registered 13 shots on target against them in total, Everton, Brentford, Crystal Palace and Norwich, the first three no slouches in attack, managed only five shots on target all in. That’s the foundation that Conte has built for Spurs which has resulted in their fine league run.

Yoshida still needs to work on the Lions’ defending, as even though the team comfortably won against Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor Leste, all three had good chances against them, as the boys were unable to keep up their high intensity game for 90 minutes. Similarly, if not for goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, Indonesia would have been out of sight in the second leg before all the drama.

Yes, the Lions performed heads and shoulders beyond anyone’s expectations, but with the next edition of the Suzuki Cup just a year away, there’s much to be improved on if we are to challenge the likes of Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam for the crown.

Perhaps apart from partnership with Borussia Dortmund and La Liga, Unleash the Roar (UTR) can also consider sending Yoshida to understudy Conte for a couple of months? Surely if Daniel Levy can invite SEA Ltd founder and owner of Lion City Sailors to Spurs’ match against Liverpool, they can swing an apprenticeship for our national team coach.

What say you, UTR? If nothing else, it would make this lifelong Spurs and Singapore fan happier than seeing (SPOILER WARNING: STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME) …







This article, "Conte's Spurs show Singapore how the Lions can improve", originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.

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