Antonio Conte had to break his rule of not explaining to players why they are out of his starting line-up when it came to Dejan Kulusevski because he found the decision to drop the Tottenham attacker so difficult.
The 22-year-old has been left out of the past three Spurs starting line-ups, despite impressing whenever he has played.
Kulusevski has provided 16 goal involvements in his first 24 Premier League matches – 10 assists and six goals – and that’s not to mention his involvement in the earlier parts of moves that led to goals.
Conte has decided in recent games to go with Richarlison and Son Heung-min as his attackers on either side of Harry Kane.
The Italian admitted that he usually does not explain his decisions to his players but this time he felt he had to speak to Kulusevski to ensure he kept his trust.
“This is the good problem, when you are in a team that are trying to be competitive. We have just started our path to be competitive. We added one strong piece in our squad compared to last season because Richarlison is an important piece. You add this piece with Sonny, Harry and Deki, they did really well,” he said.
“For sure to drop Deki for three games in a row, honestly, for me, it was difficult. I don’t like to give explanations to my players because otherwise in every game I have to speak to one, to another one and another one. I think the most important thing is to have respect about the role.”
“But at the same time, I spoke with Deki because after three times in a row that you go on the bench, I think that he deserved to feel that my trust, my confidence, was like always. But it was only a tactical decision because I wanted a strong impact with the three strikers, Richy, Sonny and Harry. [Deki] is not a striker, he’s a number 10. Only for this reason.”
“I’m pleased because I understood very well that we can play with Harry, Sonny and Richy. At the same time, Deki is an important player for me, for the team. He’s in an important moment now because he’s strong physically and is good.”
“For sure the first problem is for him because when I go home and I start to think , it’s a good problem, but at the same time it’s a difficult problem. It’s not easy to make a decision and this is a clear message, in every decision I’m going to make, it’s always for the best of the team, for the welfare of the players, to keep the players in the best possible way, not to risk injury. At the same time, I don’t want to drop the quality of the team because in the end, we have to try to win.”
One of the players who has continued to start under Conte despite his struggles in front of goal is Son.
The South Korean star won the Golden Boot last season with Mohamed Salah but has so far failed to score in this campaign, providing just one assist in the opening game against Southampton.
The 30-year-old is a popular character within Tottenham and normally always has a grin on his face, but it was put to Conte that Son’s smile has been missing at times in recent games.
“Honestly, if I have to pay attention to one smile or not during the game, it means that… I think Sonny, for sure, he is not happy because he’s not scoring but he knows very well that in every game maybe the last game he didn’t have a chance to score but in the last games he had a lot of chances to score,” said Conte.
“You know very well that he is a striker and in the last season he was the top scorer in the league. It’s normal and I like that he’s a bit angry for this situation because it means that he wants to try to change it. Also because we need [him]. We are talking about Sonny and he’s a really important player for us.”
“At the same time, it can happen, especially when you play massive games, you can be a bit tired mentally, also. Your body, it can happen, but I repeat: Sonny for me would be never, never a problem. I hope to have my problems like him!”.
“We are talking about one of the best two players that we have in our team. For sure it can happen that in some games he can’t play from the start, like Harry also, but only to protect him, to give the possibility to rest, to take care of his energy and to bring us to win. We are talking about players that during the game, they are decisive and we need to have these players always to be at the top.”
We finished the game against Sporting with not a lot of energy and for this reason I am a bit upset, because despite the big effort we did in the game, at the end we lost the game.
“We lost a lot of energy and then we lost [the game]. Now I have another day to make the best decision. For sure I will make rotation on Saturday. We will see. I repeat. I try to make the best decision in every moment for the team, not for myself. I am not selfish. I have to think to everybody.”
“I was a player. I know. I know that the player thinks of himself. I did this in the past. Now I am the opposite side. I have to think for everybody to try to make the best decision, but always in an honest way. Always. If I make mistake only in an honest way.”
Conte believes that not only is Son the subject of even more attention this season after winning the Golden Boot with his 23 Premier League goals in the last campaign, but also he’s lost a little bit of confidence because of his eight games so far without a goal this time around.
“I think half and half. In the sense, that when you finish the last season top scorer, a lot of light is shone on you from opponents. If they come to play Sonny, they know he kicks on the right, kicks on the left, is faster,” said the Tottenham head coach.
“When you score a lot of goals the following season is more difficult because you are not an underdog, but are starting like you are the first top scorer up there with Mohamed Salah.”
“But when you don’t [score], for sure the confidence goes a bit down, but at the same time, I think a strong player copes with this situation, faces this situation face to face and overcomes this situation. Again I repeat: Sonny has a lot of credit with me, with his team-mates, with the fans and with the whole environment. For this reason, Sonny for me will never be a problem. Never, never.”
One player who will have been given a boost in confidence this week is Eric Dier as he was called back into Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the coming Nations League matches ahead of the World Cup in just two months‘ time.
Conte believes that the 28-year-old centre-back is one of the players he saw immediately could be raised to a much higher level but there is more to come and he will be angry if Dier does not reach it.
“Since I arrived I found many players with not much confidence. There is only one way, to try to raise this confidence, especially with the players where you understand there is this quality and the space to make these players work and get them to an important level,” he said.
“Eric is one of those players. I felt from the first moment the possibility this player had to become a really top defender, but for him this has to be only the start, otherwise I will be very angry with him. The first step for him is to be called again for the national team, and give him a lot of credit because he worked a lot, but for him that has to be just the start. He has to perform game by game to deserve to play for the national team and ensure he doesn’t betray me.”
“Conte has coached some of the best defenders in the game during his years in Italy and England and he added:”If you compare him with some of these important central defenders, don’t forget Eric started his career as a midfielder.
“With the ball, [Leonardo] Bonucci can be a really good example for him, but Bonucci did a lot in his career. Eric has just started this process but for sure Leo is a really good example for him because we are talking about an important player. He won a lot with Juventus and the national team. I hope Eric can have this type of career.”
If Manchester City come away from Wolves without all three points in the early kick-off on Saturday, Spurs could go top of the Premier League table with a victory later in the day against the bottom side Foxes, which would also continue the north London club’s unbeaten start to the season in the competition.
“We have to try to finish this block of games in the best possible way. The game won’t be easy against Leicester,” said Conte.
“We will try to finish with a win but I think Leicester will have the same idea. For this reason we have to go with the right focus, desire and concentration.”
“Until now I think we have done well. We drew two games away at West Ham and Chelsea, it can happen. Maybe against Chelsea we were lucky. In Champions League we beat Marseille and lost the last game. In the last game maybe we deserved more but sometimes football gives you more and sometimes it cuts something off.”
“I am sure for the way we are working and the new players are progressing, they are playing with the right desire to improve this process. In Champions League at the same time we have to feel when there is the possibility to kill the opponent and we have to kill it. This is the step between a good team and a top team. A top team feels the moment to kill an opponent and they do it. In this aspect we can improve a lot.”
This is the only way to have experience in this competition.
For this reason, at the end you find always the same teams.
“I see players that change totally, their attitude, their behaviour to play Champions League from playing in the league. I don’t want to speak about others but Real Madrid, sometimes they play a game before and they struggle a lot. They arrive for the Champions League and their face changes. We have to feel this competition. To feel it is to be used to playing in it.”