How has Tottenham’s squad utilisation changed from Nuno to Conte?

Premier League winning manager Antonio Conte replaced Nuno Espirito Santo at the beginning of November to rejuvenate a lethargic Tottenham side that had lost four of their six league games and were in danger of going out of the European Conference League. As the Italian has now been in charge for 12 games, it is worth investigating the similarities and differences in squad utilisation between the two managers. What – if anything – has changed?

More European and Cup rotation by Nuno; more League rotation by Conte

The first part to consider is whether the two managers have approached rotation differently, as this affects players’ utility and minutes. The number of changes made to Tottenham’s starting line-up in all competitions this season is detailed below:

Note. Matches up to, but not including, 3rd round of FA Cup

Overall, Spurs have averaged 5.96 changes to the starting line-up each game so far – the highest out of all Premier League teams in 2021-22. However, this has largely been driven by Nuno rather than Conte, who had an average of 7.81 changes per XI per match compared to his successor’s 3.73 changes.

This is also supported by looking at the above graph. There are 13 matches under Nuno that are above the black average line, which works out as 76.5% of the games he took charge. Alternatively, there are just 3 matches under Conte that are above average – a mere 25% of his 12 games as manager. This is why the three-game average line (red) is consistently below the black average line for Conte.

Yet are there extenuating factors that could explain this divergence in changes made between the two managers?

Yes. The make up of their fixtures has played a huge role.

Nuno had Conference League qualifiers and early group matches to navigate between Premier League games, as well as the early rounds of the League Cup. These are games that managers tend to view as good opportunities to rest key players so that they are fresh for the league.

In comparison, Conte’s fixtures have been more league dominated, as well as having the latter rounds of the League Cup to consider. This means he has had less rotation-heavy games during his tenure, which would explain why his rotation across all competitions is significantly lower than Nuno’s.

Instead, Conte has had to use league games to rotate players. We can see this more clearly in the below graph, which details the changes made to Tottenham’s starting line-up this season, but for Premier League matches only:

Note. Matches up to and including Gameweek 21

Overall, Tottenham has made an average of 2.18 changes to its starting line-up so far, placing them 12th out of the 20 competitors. Yet in a reverse of roles, Conte has a higher average than Nuno, making 2.86 changes per XI per match compared to his predecessor’s 1.78 changes.

Though it is important to note that this is a smaller sample size than all competition matches, which does make it more volatile, especially as we typically see less rotation in the league than elsewhere anyway.

The other factor to note is the role postponements have played on Conte’s numbers. They have given Spurs a longer break than they would have had over what is a notoriously difficult festive period to navigate. This makes it difficult to ascertain how much of the observations are due to Conte’s style or contextual factors.

Nonetheless, we can still draw tentative observations about the similarities and differences of squad utilisation by the two managers.

Nuno utilised two different XIs; Conte prefers more concentration

This is best demonstrated by plotting the percentage of minutes played by Tottenham under Nuno and Conte, shown in the scatter graph below:

Here, we can see which players played more for which manager. Those under the black line had a higher percentage of minutes under Nuno, whereas those above the black line have had a higher percentage under Conte. For example, Dele Alli (#14) has seen his minutes drop from ~50% to ~20% under the Italian, finding himself far below the black line.

We can also see which players have been used a similar amount, by looking at those very close to the black line. Oliver Skipp (#18) and Sergio Reguilon (#5) are two players who have been used a lot by both managers, meanwhile Japhat Tanganga (#11) and Matt Doherty (#8) have consistently been seen as rotation options.

There are lots of other observations we can pick up from the above graph, of which I have highlighted the three most important:

Observation #1 – Nuno preferred to share minutes out:

The first interesting observation is that no player under Nuno had a minute percentage higher than 75%. The three most-used were: Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (72.2%), Skipp (70.9%) and Harry Kane (70.3%). Though it is reasonable to assume that Kane’s percentage would have easily surpassed 75% if not for the transfer saga during the summer which plagued his preseason preparations.

Why this observation is important is because it points to a recurring theme under Nuno which saw two different teams used for different competitions. The best players were kept for the league, whereas the second string were relied upon for Europe and the early rounds of the League Cup.

Whilst this was a great strategy for lessening the burden on your stars, it had the consequence of destroying squad harmony, which exacerbated with poor results.

Observation #2 – Clear separation between Conte’s starters and squad players:

In stark contrast, Conte has preferred to concentrate his minutes in his starters. In the above variation of the scatter plot, we can see that no players under the Italian have a minute percentage between 40-60%. This indicates a clear separation between the starters and the squad players.

In fact, seven players have minutes above 75%, including six that are above 80%. Conte’s three most-used are Kane (97.6%), Hugo Lloris (91.7%) and then Ben Davies (86.7%) / Eric Dier (86.6%).

Observation #3 – Conte concentrates his minutes in key players:

What this means is that we can clearly see who are Conte’s key players, circled in red in the above variation. They are: Lloris, Sanchez, Reguilon, Dier, Royal, Davies, Hojbjerg, Skipp, Kane, Son and Moura.

This core will likely remain as the season progresses as long as the eleven players remain fit. However, there are two exceptions that might bring some changes on the horizon.

The first is Cristian Romero (#3), who has been injured throughout Conte’s time as manager. His minute percentage has understandably plummeted but that will change when he returns in late January / early February, threatening the minutes of Sanchez, Dier or Davies.

The other exception depends on whether Conte is able to bring in some players more akin to his style and demands during the January transfer window. If he is, then this will impact the utility of some currently in the squad. We will be able to make better predictions on who once the window closes.

Observation #4 – The winners and losers in the managerial change:

So who are the winners and losers of Conte’s arrival? The final variation highlights these two groups within the red circles.

Whilst every starter has benefitted as their percentage share of minutes has increased, there are three players who have risen significantly: Emerson Royal (#7), Davinson Sanchez (#4) and Davies (#9). The fact all three are defenders is interesting and perhaps not surprising given Conte has shifted to a consistent three at the back, increasing their likelihood of getting a decent amount of minutes.

This is supported when looking at the losers of Conte’s arrival: Romero (#3 – who has been injured), Alli (#14), Lo Celso (#15), Tanguy Ndombele (#12), Pierluigi Gollini (#2), Bryan Gil (#21) and Steven Bergwijn (#23). The majority are midfielders and attackers, who are shedding minutes due to the switch in formation, fixture make-up and Conte’s total reliance on his starters.

Apart from Romero, it is difficult to see where these players will increase their minute load going forward, especially if the Italian brings in new arrivals in January. They may have to rely on injuries to Tottenham’s starters to have any chance of being included more.

So to summarise, there has not been too much difference in squad utilisation between the two managers. Fixture make-up meant more rotation in Europe and the Cups by Nuno whilst we are seeing more in the league with Conte. Yet key players remain largely the same, they are just playing a higher percentage of minutes under the Italian than they were with his predecessor. Whether that is sustainable during the second half of the season remains to be seen. The ones benefitting most from Conte’s arrival are due to the switch to three at the back and Romero’s injury. But this could all change depending on what transfers – if any – are made by Daniel Levy in the January window.

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