Painful, predictable Spurs reach endgame with Conte looking out of time

Before this second leg of the last 16, Son Heung-min had announced that Tottenham Hotspur intended to “make a statement”. And they did. That statement was: this is not a very good Tottenham Hotspur team. Rather, this felt like a Spurs team reaching the end of something, with no clarity or dexterity or any real sense of life; a team now facing another season of chasing another season of chasing another season of…well, what exactly?

A good 0-0 draw is played. There are heroic exits, games where you chase the sun and come up short. This was not one of those things. Instead, this was a night that seemed to raise some very fundamental questions about what Spurs is for, what this entity is meant to express.

A just good enough team is built to play just good enough football, cashing in on the happy misfortune of a single world-class homegrown player, teasing its fans with a sense of being close to the success of others. And not just once, but year after year following the same patterns.

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What’s the point of the rest of Spurs’ league season from here? A desperate attempt to finish fourth to do all this again? What is the point of creating this mimesis of an ambitious team? Who exactly enjoys this, destined to look back on it as the days of their lives? This is product. Things on a stage. They apparently also have a kart show here.

The Spurs needed to score to advance in this tie. The Spurs were terrible in the first half, a team playing through a muddle of drowsiness and heavy hitting. They had no shot on target. They didn’t look like they wanted a shot on target.

After 37 minutes there was a 20 second game of seven-a-side head tennis over the halfway line, settled by Olivier Giroud charging through the bodies and passing back to his goalkeeper. It almost came as a relief when Sergio Romero was booked for an absurd full-body lunge to the excellent Rafael Leão, launching himself at full length like a parachutist jumping out of a burning plane, taking his man at waist level with him.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was a magnificent, chill, drab spectacle at kick-off, although the tone on nights like this always seems a bit mismatched with a three-minute blast of Chas and Dave tinkly-tonkly pub rock before kick-off, but hey, you can’t kill the ghost.

Rafael Leão on the ball against Spurs.

‘A player of elastic brilliance’: Rafael Leão on the ball against Spurs. Photo: Andy Rain/EPA

Antonio Conte was back on the sidelines, having recovered just enough from a horrendous operation. He looked a little tender and emaciated, but he was still there, touchingly erect in his baggy quilted coat. And from the start, Spurs were just half there.

Early on, Son sprinted 60 yards to squeeze Milan’s back-line after a corner, looked back to see only space behind him, Ivan Perisic furiously gestured to three Milan players in his space, and behind him the deep flat back five. Spurs just can’t push high in this form. There aren’t enough bodies. This is certainly part of Son’s reduced efficiency. He wants turnover, wants to be hungry in the last third, run against a disorderly defense.

And Milan just looked more settled, seemed to have more forward on the flanks, and in Leão a player with real elastic brilliance on the ball. Brahim Díaz was a rushing threat, so easy on the ball, putting the game ahead of him.

Spurs have no one like this on their team, no player whose first love is simply the ball. Here, the Spurs midfield sprinted back and forth in straight lines and right angles, as Díaz fluttered between them, like Pac-Man on the run from a group of white-shirted robot ghouls.

And sometimes watching Spurs try to attack is like playing a very basic video game: the same patterns, the same angles and lines and preset rhythms. Kane turns deep. Kane turns and hits left on the joystick, long pass inside out. A simple computer could “learn” Conte’s Spurs in four-sevenths of a second and create a predictive printout of their projected offensive moves for the next 400 years.

Related: Antonio Conte admits he could leave Tottenham before the end of the season

In the second half, the situation changed a bit. Spurs were still terrible. But they were horribly slightly faster. The midfield ran more energetically through its dead ends, filled sideways with a greater sense of urgency. Pedro Porro came on and added some direct running to the right.

Yet nothing really happened, nothing of any shape or structure. With 21 minutes left before the exit door, Spurs made an attacking switch, with Richarlison replacing Emerson. And this was it, the cavalry charge, the pedal floored, Conte’s Spurs in full battle mode. In practice, this amounted to a frantic 4-2-4, and endless high diagonal passes to something undefined, a brighter future, an end to this thing.

There was one last note of gallows humor: With eight minutes left and the Spurs in need of dexterity, patience, incision, Conte knocked out Dejan Kulusevski and sent Davinson Sánchez. Is this like irony?

And those last minutes were painful. Here, Sánchez, somehow playing the role of the general in midfield, spewing punt passes to the wings. Here’s Leão holding the ball with devastating ease. This is not a star Milan side, it is the product of three years of keeping the club’s debts in check. But they had a clarity that Spurs lacked, a sense of at least resembling a modern, fluid, elite football team.

For Spurs, this thing is definitely reaching a tipping point. Conte seems a bit timeless. Here’s a carriage staunchly true to the tactical hairdo of its youth, still rolling out the same shape, the same deep block; and yet, as all Spurs managers must, hoping that Harry and Sonny will sort out the rest. It never really looked like it would happen here. An event was organized. Revenue was generated. The white shirts had their patterns.

And of course Romero was sent off before the end for a second yellow card, this time for a running ankle-chop lunge on Théo Hernandez. It was a very stupid act. But maybe also a scream in the dark. All Spurs had to offer here was pent-up fury and football-like patterns. Romero’s unloading on Hernandez was at least some sort of clarity. Sometimes you just have to feel something.

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