How Conte’s automated attacks are helping Kane’s creativity

Ahmed Walid
7 min readApr 3, 2022

Topping both the goalscoring and the assist charts in the same season used to be the preserve of Lionel Messi, the false nine who scored enough to be considered a proper nine.

Last season, though, Harry Kane did the same — becoming only the second player in Premier League history to top both the assists and goal scoring charts in the same season, after Andy Cole with Newcastle United in 1993/94.

In a difficult start to this season under Nuno Espirito Santo, Kane wasn’t scoring much, but he wasn’t creating much either. The appointment of Antonio Conte has transformed Kane, both in front of goal, and in midfield.

First, it’s worth pointing out that Kane’s achievement last season was a bit of a freak event. His 14 assists came from only 7.4xG, but all his passing metrics nearly doubled compared to the previous seasons.

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His role as a creator had become more obvious — Kane dropping between the lines to receive the ball and then find a runner became a regular part of Tottenham’s game-plan, even as Jose Mourinho struggled.

A shortened summer lay-off due to England’s progress at Euro 2021, and Espirito Santo’s lack of a functioning attacking structure didn’t help Kane — or the other Tottenham players — in terms of chance creation, leaving them third-bottom in terms of non-penalty xG, with only Aston Villa and Norwich City less dangerous. Espirito Santo paid the price, becoming the second Portuguese manager to be sacked by Spurs in 2022.

Conte’s arrival has transformed Spurs’ season, and more specifically their attack, jumping from third-bottom in terms of NPxG to third-top since Conte took charge. As expected, the attacks are more organized, and more automated.

Whether it’s Spurs’ intricate build-up, Ben Davies’ overlaps down the left, the timing of the wing-backs’ runs to provide wide passing options or Heung-min Son and Dejan Kulusevski dropping into the half-spaces to receive the ball with their back to goal and beat the defender on the turn, this is Spurs’ best attacking structure since the peak era of Mauricio Pochettino.

It comes as little surprise that a player of Kane’s caliber has benefited from this attacking organization. Conte’s well-drilled attacks enable Kane by creating space for him where he can receive the ball and play those deadly passes.

Kane’s assist to Son for Tottenham’s second goal against West Ham United recently provides a good example.

In the build-up phase, Rodrigo Bentancur dropped into the back line to form a back four and receive the ball comfortably. This allowed Davies — out of picture — to stretch West Ham’s second line. Meanwhile, on the far side of the pitch Matt Doherty is keeping width by the touchline.

Due to the aforementioned movement of Bentancur, he had Davies as a passing outlet with Said Benrahma staying narrow to maintain horizontal compactness.

Bentancur played the ball left into Davies, but the important movement here was Son’s. The Korean dropped into the half-space to provide a passing option for Bentancur, with Kane lurking near the centre circle…

…then once Davies received the ball, Son — who seconds ago dragged Kurt Zouma up the field — sprinted towards goal with Kane remaining patient near the center circle.

Davies then returned the ball to Bentancur, and that’s when all the pieces started to fit together.

Doherty’s width forced Arthur Masuaku to hold his wide position in West Ham’s back line.

Kulusevski’s perfectly timed run killed two birds with one stone (see below). First, it pinned Craig Dawson and prevented him from moving up towards Kane, as that would open up a passing lane directly from Bentancur into Kulusevski, running in behind.

Second, it forced Aaron Cresswell to follow him and drop deep, which meant West Ham’s defensive line was all over the place.

All of this created space for Kane to receive the ball.

Meanwhile, Son’s earlier sprint gave him a head-start over Zouma, with Cresswell playing him onside because he’d dropped back with Kulusevski seconds earlier.

All was in place for Kane to find Son with a line-splitting pass, allowing the Korean to double Spurs’ lead.

The game against Everton also featured a similar pattern: Son and Kulusevski dropping into the half-spaces behind Everton’s hybrid 4–4–2/4–3–3 defensive shape during the build up phase….

…..then making runs in behind to pin the Everton back line. Here, Kulusevski’s well-timed run prevents Michael Keane from following Kane up the pitch, while also forcing Jonjoe Kenny inside, leaving space on the far side.

This created space for Kane to receive the ball, and prepare his next pass out to Doherty. Unfortunately, Bentancur decided against playing a pass with his left foot into Kane, and played the easier pass backwards to Eric Dier.

As Tottenham were resetting the attack, the positioning of Doherty and Kulusevski was the main focus for Kenny and Keane respectively (below). Kenny was looking to shorten the distance between him and Doherty, while Keane was aware he couldn’t move up towards Kane because of the threat of Kulusevski’s run in behind.

So when Dier played the ball into Romero, Kane still had space to receive but he was under the pressure of Allan…..

…..and that’s where Kane’s ability to receive on the turn comes in. He pauses for a moment to trick Allan, before letting the ball run past him with Kenny late to react, for fear of leaving Doherty free. Kane then finds Kulusevski with a single touch….

…..before the Swede plays another first-time pass to put Son through on goal to score Tottenham’s second of the night. Another piece in this attacking jigsaw is clear in the last image: Seamus Coleman’s weird positioning is a result of Ryan Sessegnon stretching the pitch on the left side. And this puts Son in a clear one-on-one situation.

The last example is from Spurs’ most impressive win this season, against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Three minutes into the game, Spurs managed to play through City’s shifting 4–2–3–1 pressing shape. Again, it was the smart movement of Son and Kulusevski creating space for Kane to receive the ball and find a runner.

After Spurs floated a ball from the right towards Davies on the left, Son dropped near Rodri. Not exactly next to him, but enough for the City midfielder to switch his focus towards the Korean attacker.

That simple angled run opened up the passing lane into Kane — again, dropping deep — by shifting Rodri’s position. While Davies was playing the pass into Kane, Son was on his bike…..

….and with Aymeric Laporte late up to Kane, he managed to find Son just before he strayed offside. The rest of the attack is history, as Son set it up for Kulusevski to finish into an empty net.

Similar to the goal against West Ham, the scorer — Kulusevski here — is already making an initial run even before Kane’s pass was played. These synchronized movements from the attackers and the wing-backs show how they’re essentially one step ahead of the passing moves unfolding elsewhere.

Five months into Conte’s tenure at Spurs, the attacks are becoming those well-drilled moves we saw his Inter side perform.

The main beneficiary is Kane, because it isn’t simply about moves that put him in good positions to score, but also moves that put him in a position to create. Seven goals in seven games is a good return — but three assists in that period shouldn’t be overlooked either. We don’t know what the summer will bring and whether either will remain at the club for next season, but it’s clear that Conte has worked wonders with Tottenham’s most valuable asset.