It was a little under a year ago when Antonio Conte took charge of Tottenham in the Premier League for the very first time.
The Italian had only worked a few training sessions with his players and had seen off Vitesse in the Europa Conference League when a hard-fought goalless draw at Everton in early November last year already pointed towards a Spurs side being programmed in his image.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the game – Spurs extended an unwanted run to three hours in the league without a shot on target – but it provided a real gauge of the task at hand for the Italian, who is renowned for making his teams tactically robust, intense and energetic.
For Everton, the prospect of a relegation battle was still rather remote, however bleak the mood under the unpopular Rafael Benitez.
It was Francis Bacon who said, “things alter for the worse spontaneously, if they be not altered for the better designedly.”
Everton effectively slept on their plight believing their squad was good enough and that Benitez was the right appointment on a footballing level, regardless of his Liverpool links.
They are only now recovering. The sale of Richarlison to Tottenham was deemed a financial necessity as a result of previous missteps under majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri but their narrow escape made it inevitable.
For Conte, his meticulous alterations have been designed from that first day in office from the Goodison Park dugout, when he might well have seen part of himself in how Richarlison carried Everton’s fight. To some degree, it has been too clearly thought out in every department.
It is why the sad passing of Gian Piero Ventrone, who made Juventus and Italy so well drilled earlier in his career prior to joining Spurs, is felt not only on a human level but also in terms of the glitch it leaves in Conte’s machine.
The Spurs manager’s penchant for detail being both his friend and foe was further brought to the surface by Diego Costa last weekend.
Costa spoke after his emotional return to Chelsea about how “that manager” was the reason why his Stamford Bridge love affair came to an end.
Richarlison shares Costa’s license to thrill, his occasional dark arts, but he will have to fall in line with Conte’s expectations. How his Tottenham career develops will be an intriguing watch.
Richarlison has gone from being at a team built to suit his strengths during a strong goalscoring run which dragged Everton to safety, to needing to fit into how Conte wants his team to play. The early signs have been encouraging with his intensity and aggressive pressing from the front suggesting the marriage can last.
“It’s always a tough call when you have such strong connections with your club, and that was definitely the case for me,” Richarlison said of his Everton departure in an interview with Four Four Two last month.
“I was happy at Everton and I’m grateful for everything I learned there. It’s a big club with a lot of history.
“However, perhaps they’re suffering with a lack of ambition nowadays. You know, that eagerness to win matches and trophies.
“I spent four years there and I could see there was still a very long way to go to achieve big things. I felt it was the right time to move on, and the club also had to make some money. It was a good deal for everyone involved. I’m delighted with this new challenge at Spurs.”
It is a challenge that Richarlison has taken on during a World Cup year, but the 25-year-old hasn’t shied away from the competition at a team whose front three was more or less set in stone.
South American football expert Tim Vickery told Sky Sports: “If Brazil play with a centre forward, he is it. He’s scored seven goals in six games for his country. It’s all about marrying all the various bits together, and for Brazil he fits.
“With quick wingers and both Neymar and Lucas Paqueta to set up the play, Richarlison is like a racehorse. He doesn’t have a lot of recourse in terms of back-to-goal game, but if you put him in front of goal, he’s got this strength of character.
“That’s seen in the fact that he moved to Tottenham in the summer as it was a gamble in terms of his international aspirations. There’s no doubt about it – playing for Brazil is the most important thing for him.
“When he moved to Tottenham, it was commonly held that the best part of that team towards the back end of last season was its front three. Where was he going to fit in? But he backed himself to do it.”
Richarlison has settled in seamlessly at Spurs, scoring both goals in the Champions League victory over Marseille, but there is naturally still an understanding that needs to develop with Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son.
At Brighton last weekend, Kane and Son combined to score a Premier League goal for the 43rd time, the most of any duo in the competition’s history.
It is a double act that Richarlison has been bought to supplement – not break up – but Conte is still working to find the right balance for the team.
There is too much quality for the trio not to click, but Son’s hat-trick in the 6-2 win over Leicester came when Conte again moved to a 3-5-2 formation when Richarlison was off the pitch.
The South Korean’s brace against Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday night were his first goals while Richarlison has also been in the side in nine appearances.
Conte’s luxury problem is no different to any of the league’s big hitters, and it is the healthy competition that should benefit the team overall.
The recent injury to Dejan Kulusevski has stripped Spurs of a different dimension, rather than provide any clarity over the front line based on availability.
When asked to explain Richarlison’s absence from the start against Brighton last weekend, Conte said: “At the moment we have Kulusevski injured and it’s the same with Lucas Moura.
“We only have Bryan Gil and then when you have to play every three days, you need to give a bit of rest. Richy has played every game in the last period.
“When you play every game and especially with a different pressure compared to at Everton, he needed to have a bit of rest. For this reason, I preferred to play with the two strikers and with the extra midfielder in Yves Bissouma.”
There is certainly a time and a place for a more expansive approach and this Saturday’s reunion with Everton, live on Sky Sports, seems an opportune moment to provide a reminder of Spurs’ ability to entertain.
Last Saturday’s win at the Amex Stadium evidenced how Conte’s DNA is now imprinted all over this Tottenham team.
The £60m signing of Richarlison from Everton in the summer adjusted what some onlookers perceived was possible of an Antonio Conte side, but his decision to move to a 3-5-2 from a 3-4-3 on the south coast in order to bring about a positive result is in keeping with his ethos and his very essence.
Ostensibly taking out an attacker for a more defensive-minded player in Bissouma can for now be viewed as merely adapting to the opposition.
It is something Everton boss Frank Lampard chose not to focus too heavily on in March, when a 4-3-3 formation in the reverse game at Spurs was hastily aborted with his side trailing 3-0 at half-time.
An Everton side with Richarlison in it were eventually beaten 5-0. Lampard cited “crucial mistakes” and playing Michael Keane in spite of illness as being contributory factors, but a soft underbelly was ruthlessly ripped open by a Harry Kane-inspired Tottenham.
Of the 10 outfield players who started that evening, only Seamus Coleman is virtually guaranteed to start on Saturday – and that is only due to Nathan Patterson being injured.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin played his first minutes of the season against Manchester United last Sunday so could return from the off but Anthony Gordon, the only other outfield starter from the heavy defeat who played against United, is suspended.
The chasm between the two sides highlighted years of mismanagement, Everton’s mix-and-match bunch of individuals typified by the ghost of Dele Alli making a second-half cameo appearance.
Everton were drifting and an overhaul was needed. There has been a gear shift since that chastening night, and the mess Lampard inherited is being carefully disentangled.
Sunday’s home defeat to Manchester United was a setback, but there are signs now that his project is truly taking shape. A seven-game unbeaten run in all competitions was Everton’s best since December 2017.
Detecting the improvement isn’t difficult, despite two home defeats to Chelsea and United in fixtures that were marginally won towards the back of last season – two isolated ‘Cup finals’ given the club’s predicament.
The record against the Big Six sides was better than 11 rivals in the Premier League last term, but picking up points against the other 13 teams was the problem.
Lampard is striving for consistency, and this weekend’s visit to Tottenham should provide a far more accurate barometer for progress than last weekend’s off night.
There is a clarity and structure that is building. The deserved United defeat is being viewed more as a blip than anything that has long-term implications.
Kane loves it against Everton and has scored in four consecutive Premier League games, equalling his personal best. But signing James Tarkowski and Conor Coady – two centre-backs who love nothing more than defending – will provide him with far more obdurate opposition.
The sceptics would say Lampard hasn’t implemented a system but has just plugged a gap with ready-made brute force. That, too, counts as good recruitment.
Concluding that he hasn’t cultivated a greater team ethos that mirrors a more united fanbase would be unkind.
In the same way the club’s hierarchy listened to Richarlison’s ambition to skilfully negotiate his exit without any sense of acrimony, Lampard has addressed issues of leadership most acutely felt in defence.
So often compared with Steven Gerrard during his playing days, he now shares his former England team-mate’s attacking shortcomings with Aston Villa.
The next step is to challenge those currently at his disposal to fill the Richarlison void. There still needs to be greater conviction in the final third.
Towards the end of his time at Chelsea during the autumn of 2020, Lampard’s side conceded just two goals in 10 games. The problem with that impressive defensive run was that he also oversaw three 0-0 draws.
Now with Everton, the early-season form has been deemed encouraging based on a defensive improvement – the joint-best defensive record after nine games – but the shortage of creativity that Richarlison’s exit leaves behind has been somewhat discounted.
The underlying stats suggest Lampard is still pursuing that state of equilibrium in the post-Richarlison era, in part due to Calvert-Lewin’s cautious return from his injury troubles. Each of the last five goalscorers have been different since Gordon scored in back-to-back away draws at Brentford and Leeds.
The recent 2-1 win at Southampton is the only time Everton have scored more than once this season in any game, including their Carabao Cup win over Fleetwood.
Lampard is learning on the job and has made profound alterations to the way he wants Everton to play. For those on the outside, and indeed those Tottenham fans who will goad the former Chelsea midfielder on the sidelines this weekend, imagining a world in which Lampard and Everton were connected and intertwined seemed improbable.
It is an unlikely arrangement but one with a good energy. Proving the haters wrong is something Richarlison has used as fuel throughout his own playing career.
“He can only be Richarlison – he cannot be anything else,” Vickery adds. “He was in the first squad after the last World Cup – but he wasn’t originally in it. He only got in because another player got injured. So he was given a chance, and what did he do? He went out and took it.
“He’s a fearsomely strong character and he can only play that way. He can only play with that kamikaze intensity.”
For once, opposition fans won’t be jeering his occasional antics. Richarlison still holds Everton close to his heart and the club’s supporters still see him as one of their own.
Following his departure, Richarlison penned an emotional farewell message to those fans.
“It’s very difficult to say goodbye to a place that has become my home; fans who welcomed me not just as another player but as if I were one of them; and a club that treated me kindly and helped me develop my sense of community and empathy. No words and not all the love I have for this club is enough to thank you. We’ll see you along the way. I love you Evertonians.”
It was a poor side with him in it which only mustered 39 points last season. The previous time Everton amassed such a measly total was in the 2003/04 campaign.
Everton had Wayne Rooney in their ranks, but finished 17th in David Moyes’ second full term in charge. The following season – having sold Rooney to United – Everton finished fourth and narrowly missed out on a place in the Champions League group stages.
Richarlison became the latest big name to feel the club could not match his ambitions in its current state. Everton and Lampard must show they too have moved on and are now collectively stronger.
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