Matt Doherty strides purposefully into the interview room ready to discuss a challenging period in his professional life and a number of wider issues at Tottenham. But first things first. Is it still Matt? Or must it be Matthew, as Antonio Conte insists on calling him, in the manner of a fond uncle?
“Yeah, I’ve never once heard Matt from him,” Doherty says of his manager, whom he credits with transforming pretty much everything in the squad. “It’s always Matthew. That is my name, I guess. But Matt is fine.”
It is a fun and positive start from a Spurs player, which is not something that any of them have managed in a match over the past three weeks. When they disappeared into their shells at Marseille on Wednesday night, limping into half-time at 1-0 down to flirt with Champions League disaster, it continued an unwanted trend and fed into a developing narrative.
It was the sixth time in a row that Spurs had missed the first half of a game, the notes on their performances ranging from one-paced and predictable to awol, and it led to plenty of fretting and moaning, even after yet another second-half transformation, this one bringing a 2-1 win and a first-placed finish in the group.
English football loves a good start. A new signing, for example, can seemingly buy months of credit by lighting things up on his debut. But if the frustration comes before the control, it is a different equation – as Spurs are discovering.
There is certainly a lot of criticism blowing the way of the team third in the Premier League before this weekend as they prepared for Sunday’s visit of Liverpool and one looking forward to seeded status in Monday’s Champions League last-16 draw, with much of it rooted in the way they play.
When Spurs struggle, they can be a tough watch: deep and cautious, with little going on ahead of the ball. It has even led to the Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope theory. The lacklustre starts are because of how Conte sets up the team. He wants to lure the opposition into a false sense of security, which might be a neat trick were it not nonsensical in football.
“It’s just the way the games have gone,” Doherty says. “We are not set up at all to just sit there and allow things to happen. You’ve got to respect other teams’s gameplans, how they are trying to nullify our game. I don’t think we’ve been as bad as people may think. People just seem to jump on that bandwagon. We’ve got through the group in the Champions League. We’ve a cup game next Wednesday [Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup] and we’re third in the league. So we can’t be that bad.” Look at results and the table: it is a sentiment that coaches such as Conte will always push. Doherty wants to add something else, a glass-half-full take.
“People think the comebacks can’t last for ever,” he says. “But at some point we’ll start taking the lead in games and then teams will find it hard. We’re going through a period now where we’re conceding first and we’re having to chase the game but we are chasing well. Once we start to fire the goals in first, it will be a bigger problem for teams.
“A lot of it comes down to our fitness. We are just able to maintain the pace for 90 minutes. We train hard. We had a hard pre-season but after that we train hard almost every day, even leading up to games. I’ll be surprised if there are many teams fitter than us.”
Doherty acknowledges the influence of Gian Piero Ventrone, the club’s greatly respected fitness coach, who died on 6 October. “He had a huge say in the fitness regime, I would say nearly all of the say.” But at the heart of everything is Conte, who celebrated the first anniversary of his appointment on Wednesday.
“The biggest changes under him?” Doherty says. “Fitness and just tactically. We are switched on a lot more. Technically we have all improved but he has changed our mentality the most. He has just put that something into us where we kind of feel like we can’t be beaten. You’re still going to lose games but when you have that ‘over my dead body’ mentality, you are going to win tons more. It’s just what he’s done in the game, everything he’s won. If Antonio Conte trusts in you, it’s a big thing.”
Doherty had won that trust, a little belatedly, from the end of February; he had a run in the starting XI and found rare form. Which is why it was devastating when he ruptured the medial collateral ligament in a knee at Aston Villa on 9 April. The injury finished his season and, it turned out, undermined the first two months of this one.
The 30-year-old got himself back for the beginning of pre-season training and the view from the outside was that he must have been fine. He was not, continuing to feel pain and restriction to his movement. Were there dark moments? It sounded like it.
“It’s only because of the previous time that I’ve had at Spurs where I’ve been struggling to really get my career kicked off,” Doherty says. “Getting into the team, I felt so good and we were playing really well. And then over the summer as well, missing the internationals with Ireland, and you’re doing rehab on your own … it’s not that pleasant. I’ve had to overcome quite a few things. But I have confidence in my body and my game right now. My mind is clear.”