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Sporting defeat highlighted why Kulusevski should be starting for Spurs

Posted on September 17, 2022

Late goals from Paulinho and Arthur Gomes condemned Tottenham to a 2-0 loss at Sporting CP on Tuesday evening. Considering a point would have perhaps been a fair reflection of the game, to have conceded twice in second half injury time was a bitter pill to swallow. The defeat further magnified Antonio Conte's struggles in the Champions League.

The Italian has a win ratio of just 36% in the competition, a poor record given his managerial calibre. What was glaringly obvious in Spurs' first defeat of the season, though, is that it highlighted the club's creative shortcomings.

The north London side had a solid transfer window, making no fewer than seven new signings, with the last of those - Destiny Udogie - spending this season on loan at Udinese. Yet a failure to land a creative midfielder may yet come back to haunt Spurs as the campaign wears on, or at least until the January window.

There is no denying that Spurs are yet to click into gear this season. Son Heung-Min, for example, has had 19 shots in all competitions in 2022/23 and has failed to score. Harry Kane also looked off the pace in midweek, this despite Conte having had almost a week to prepare for this Champions League clash following last week's Premier League postponement following the passing of the Queen.

Once Conte's Spurs click into gear, then they will be difficult to stop, but it's a case of waiting for those underperforming to finally hit their stride. What was clear to see in midweek, however, is that Spurs aren't the same side without Dejan Kulusevski in the team. While he began the season fairly well, Kulusevski has started Spurs' last three games from the bench, this coming despite Son's poor start to the season.

Kulusevski's run out of the starting XI has coincided with Richarlison's good form in the side, so fans can understand Conte's decision to use the latter, but should that have come at the expense of the former? The issue is that while Richarlison has been impressing of late, and once Son and Kane click into gear, Spurs will be a force to be reckoned with once more, the midfield and attack looks disjointed without the Swede in the side.

There is a clear lack of guile in the final third when Kulusevski doesn't feature. His introduction against Marseille, coupled with Chancel Mbemba's second half red card, swung the game in Spurs' favour and while he didn't have the same impact against Sporting in midweek, much of that can be attributed to Conte's poor game management and unwillingness to maximise his squad depth. Indeed, Kulusevski's introduction at Son's expense with 18 minutes of normal time to play was the only change Conte made in Lisbon on Tuesday evening.

Yet despite Kulusevski's curious relegation to the bench, he is arguably Spurs' biggest creative threat when on the pitch. A key pass every 37 minutes is the best of all players for the north London side, a return that Son (38.3) ranks second for, though that the latter is on set-piece duties skews that figure.

That all of the 13 goalscoring chances Kulusevski has created this season have come from open play shows he provides the spark Spurs need in the final third, and something that is found wanting when he does not feature. The 22-year-old is able to create something out of nothing and as was painstakingly obvious against Sporting, this spark was lacking in a laborious display at the Estadio Jose Alvalade. Even when taking into account a late introduction, Kulusevski made as many key passes as Son (1) in Portugal

In truth, Kulusevski could feasibly be the solution to Spurs' number 10 woes. He isn't a nippy winger, though able to beat a man when needed, but rather is quicker in spotting a pass, so could well be the answer to the creative issues Spurs are currently experiencing.

Defeat to Sporting, Spurs' first since a 1-0 loss to Brighton back in April, was tough to stomach given the manner of the loss, but Spurs do have the perfect opponent in lowly Leicester to bounce back this weekend. Given the leggy performance of Son in particular in midweek, it's a match that Kulusevski simply has to start if the north London side are to head into the international break on a high.