After a meek north London derby defeat, perhaps it is time to start asking if Conte is really doing enough to earn a bumper new contract.
Arsenal moved eight points clear at the top of the table with a win and performance which confirmed what has long been obvious: in the eight months since Mikel Arteta’s side were beaten 3-0 by Spurs here in May, they have moved to a different level to their rivals.
Arsenal are now playing like champions elect while Spurs have regressed since their impressive second-half to last season and, for all his insistence that their top-four finish was “a miracle” and that the club are years from competing for trophies, Conte must accept a considerable share of the blame.
Trailing 2-0 to a disastrous Hugo Lloris own goal and Martin Odegaard’s superb strike, Spurs produced their customary second-half rally and Arsenal had Aaron Ramsdale to thank for a string of fine saves, which preserved their clean sheet and ensured a first away winner this fixture since 2014 – when Arteta played in the Gunners’ win at White Hart Lane.
By the time Spurs finally woke from another first-half slumber, the damage was already done, however, and had Eddie Nketiah shown more killer instinct, the scoreline and mood might have been even worse for Spurs.
For most of the first half, it was easy to wonder if Arsenal had more players on the pitch, such was their superior organisation, work rate and technical quality.
Conte’s tactical inflexibility was both baffling and costly, as his two-man midfield of 20-year-old Pape Matar Sarr, making his Premier League debut, and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were outnumbered by Arsenal’s magnificent three of Odegaard, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka. The trio were frequently supported by left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko or Nketiah, leaving Spurs completely overrun in the middle of the park.
The second goal perfectly highlighted the problem, as a hopeful Lloris punt was quickly recycled by Partey before Bukayo Saka found Odegaard in oceans of space. The Norwegian had already tested Lloris with a sighter but this time found the bottom corner with an arrowed strike.
Arsenal’s midfield dominance was also the story of their 3-1 win over Spurs at the Emirates in October but Conte, seemingly, had not heeded the lessons from that defeat. The Italian’s refusal to deviate from his 3-4-3 system increasingly feels costly, particularly when Spurs do not really have the squad to make it work, and his counter-attacking system felt horribly outdated against Arsenal’s possession game.
Conte’s set-up made for a gruelling debut for Sarr – who in held his own, in fairness – and left Harry Kane, still one goal shy of Jimmy Greaves all-time goal record, having to drop into the midfield to restore parity.
Conte’s other big selection call was also strange, with Ryan Sessegnon starting at left wing-back ahead of the experienced Ivan Perisic, presumably to help counter the threat from Saka.
Sessegnon backed off Saka for the opening goal, a disastrous own goal by Lloris who turned the winger’s cross into his own net after it a slight defection off Sessegnon. The former Fulham man also squandered several promising positions, including a one-on-one with Ramsdale.
In fairness to Conte, it was the second home League game in a row in which Lloris has gifted the opposition the lead with a clanger after his mistake for Aston Villa’s opener here on New Year’s Day.
The Spurs captain had already been forced to make a smart stop to deny Nketiah after inviting pressure from Gabriel Martinelli with a sloppy piece of play, and his jitters set the tone for another miserable first-half display from which Spurs never recovered.
Lloris has been a fine servant to the club, and did make smart saves to deny Odegaard and Nketiah again after half-time, but he also made a mistake in the defeat at the Emirates and is increasingly becoming a liability. Spurs are planning to target a long-term successor for the 36-year-old in the summer but there is a case for targeting a new goalkeeper this month.
In common with almost every game this winter, Spurs improved in the second half, with Dejan Kulusevski, Kane, Sessegnon and Richarlison all forcing saves from Ramsdale, who had stood up to efforts from Heung-min Son and the England captain before the interval.
Their improvement, again, only made another abject opening 45 minutes all the more infuriating and suggests it is now imbedded psychological flaw that Conte must address.
At full-time, Spurs were booed off, but with something more like apathy than genuine anger as the home crowd seemingly accepted a loss which, based on performances this season, should not have come as any surprise.