LONDON — Antonio Conte has been charged with the task of transforming Tottenham Hotspur into a team that no longer wilts with silverware in sight, and Wednesday’s 2-1 win over West Ham United will give him a glimpse of the progress he is making at the first available opportunity.
A smile broke out across his face as he learned Spurs’ Carabao Cup semifinal opponents will be his former club, Chelsea, and the mere fact Arsenal take on Liverpool in the other tie underlines how tough this competition remains to win.
“First of all it is good for Tottenham to reach the semifinal of this competition,” said Conte, who managed Chelsea between 2016 and 2018. “You can see the name of the teams that reached the semifinal — Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal are with us. That means that every club wants to try to win this trophy.
“I remember in the past at Chelsea, this trophy was not secondary but you used this trophy to play with young players, with players that usually they didn’t start. Now I’m seeing that in England to win a trophy is very, very difficult and tonight we played against West Ham, they beat [Manchester] United and [Manchester] City. In England it is very, very difficult to win something.”
Spurs have found it tougher than most. They are without a trophy since 2008, a barren run that includes defeats in the 2019 Champions League final and, most recently, losing the final of this competition last season to Manchester City.
Giant strides were made under Mauricio Pochettino only to fall short of any tangible return in the form of trophies, an issue Jose Mourinho failed to rectify before the club sank further during Nuno Espirito Santo’s brief 17-game reign. Conte was hired at great expense to reverse the decline, and progress here represents early validation of the 52-year-old’s methods and the buy-in he has achieved from the entire squad.
That manifested itself specifically in two ways: peripheral squad members coming to the fore before a collective rearguard action helped repel West Ham, who dominated the second half but ultimately fell short, bereft of a centre-forward with Michail Antonio testing positive for COVID-19 in the buildup.
The first part featured Steven Bergwijn most prominently. The winger is widely expected to be made available in January — Ajax are confident of securing his signature either on loan or permanently — yet the Netherlands international responded on his first start of the season with a goal and assist that ultimately settled the game in Tottenham’s favour.
There were nervy moments for the 24-year-old early on. Receiving the ball in a dangerous position on the edge of the box from Sergio Reguilon inside the first 10 minutes, Bergwijn opted to give it back rather than take a risk and lose possession as he had already done on more than one occasion in the opening exchanges.
The contrast with what followed was stark.
After a largely uneventful opening 29 minutes, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg drove into the box and exchanged passes with Bergwijn before finding a dangerous square pass. Bergwijn was on hand to finish and the moment ignited his performance, turning provider after Jarrod Bowen had equalised to breeze past Manuel Lanzini before crossing for Lucas Moura to restore Spurs’ advantage.
Following on from Dele Alli’s committed display on his return from the wilderness in Sunday’s spirited 2-2 draw against Liverpool, Bergwijn proved himself ready to rise to the challenge of playing for his Tottenham career in a manner that reflects well on both the player and his manager.
“I am giving the chance to my players to show me they deserve to play for Tottenham, to stay here,” Conte explained. “This is a positive aspect for sure. I always said that I found a group of players that showed me from the first day, a great commitment, good behaviour and a good desire to show me that we can be something important together.
“I think that I am very happy to have this type of answer tonight. [Matt] Doherty and Steven Bergwijn, they played a really good game. They are working well, they are involved in what we want to do and I am always very clear with my players: they have to give me everything, then if they deserve to play, they play.
“When they play, they have to give me everything. They can have a good game, a bad game, but I have to see players are totally involved in what we want to do.”
The final 30 minutes was increasingly desperate for Spurs. West Ham gradually asserted dominance of possession and territory, but without Antonio they lacked a penalty-box focal point to create meaningful chances. Substitute Andriy Yarmolenko hit the crossbar in stoppage-time with a deflected shot, but Hugo Lloris was rarely called into action.
Conte switched to the 5-3-2 system that helped facilitate such a positive display against Liverpool, and explained the late dip by the recent COVID-19 issues that forced the closure of Tottenham’s training ground and the postponement of three fixtures.
“Many players who played had COVID and at one point in the game, the intensity dropped,” said Conte. “For this reason I made the substitutions. It was good not to concede a goal and reach the semifinal, but we have to manage this situation on Sunday and on Tuesday — this period will be very tough for us. We had an important problem with COVID and we have to manage [it].”
After beating United and City to get this far, West Ham boss David Moyes was left to rue the timing of this fixture, coming as it has as Spurs are generating some real momentum. Or as Moyes put it, “reinvigorated, playing with a lot more determination just recently.”
The signs of Conte’s influence are multiplying.