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Graham Ruthven: Kulusevski shining as Spurs’ best signing in years

March 1, 2022

Antonio Conte wasn’t overly satisfied with the business conducted by Tottenham Hotspur during the January transfer window. “Four players left in January – four important players for Tottenham,” the Italian coach explained to a reporter in his homeland. “Two have arrived, so even numerically, instead of reinforcing yourself you may have, on paper, weakened.”

January did, however, see Dejan Kulusevski sign for Spurs. He, along with Rodrigo Bentancur, was one of the new additions Conte mentioned in his comments and given the Swedish international’s impact in North London it’s difficult to view Tottenham as weaker than they were before the window. Kulusevski on his own makes them stronger.

The last two weeks have demonstrated just how important Kulusevski could become to Conte’s team. Against Wolves in his first Premier League start, the 21-year-old was used as a number 10. Then against Manchester City, Kulusevski notched a goal and an assist as a right winger before spending the final 25 minutes of the match at right wing back.

On Saturday, Kulusevski was once again returned to the right wing from where he added another goal to his tally in a 4-0 demolition of Leeds United. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min shone brightest, particularly in the case of the former, but Tottenham’s new number 21 gave them a different dimension.

Kane and Son have forged a historically strong partnership at the head of Spurs’ attack. Indeed, Son’s goal against Leeds, set up by a stunning long-range pass from deep by Kane, means the pair have now combined for more Premier League goals (37) than any other duo, overtaking Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard (36).

BORO V SPURS ODDS

Kulusevski’s presence has sharpened Tottenham’s attacking edge even further with the Swede a technically excellent all-rounder who can be deployed in a number of different positions. Kulusevski is most effective with the ball at his feet and Conte’s approach affords him this opportunity. He can be devastating in quick transition, as already shown against City and Leeds, and draws opposition attention away from Kane and Son.

“I think he is showing that he is a fantastic player for the present, but also he if he continues in this way he can become a really important player,” Conte said about Kulusevki after the win at Elland Road. “He is strong physically, good technically; he has no fear of the opponent or the tackle. It is a good sign, with Harry and Son, also Lucas Moura and [Steven] Bergwijn, offensively we are good, and I am happy about this.”

Conte was right to mention his other final third options with Lucas Moura particularly effective on the break, but Kulusevki offers more than the Brazilian winger. At Juventus, the Swede’s versatility counted against him as he struggled to nail down a specific spot in the team. Under Conte, though, this quality should make him one of Conte’s favourites.

At 21, the signing of Kulusevski should set a precedent for Tottenham in the transfer market. They might not have the resources of some of their Premier League rivals, but smart recruitment and good coaching can make up the difference. Spurs need more players like Kulusevski who can perform a role now, but still have time to refine certain areas of their game.

Conte’s Tottenham team have been difficult to work out. Some of their performances, like the ones produced against City and Leeds, suggest they are heading in the right direction and are genuine contenders to finish in the top four. Others, like the ones witnessed in defeats to Burnley and Wolves, suggest no progress has been made. In Kulusevski, though, Spurs now have the embodiment of what they could become.