Matt Doherty enters the interview room deliberately, ready to discuss a difficult period in his professional life and a number of wider issues at Tottenham. But above all. Is it still Matt? Or must it be Matthew, like Antonio Conte insists on calling him, like a loving uncle?

“Yeah, I’ve never heard Matt talk about him,” Doherty says of his manager, whom he credits with transforming almost everything in the team. “It’s still Matthew. That’s my name, I guess. But Matt is fine.

It’s a fun and positive start from a Spurs player, something none of them have managed in a game in the past three weeks. When they disappeared into their shells at Marseille on Wednesday night, limping off at half-time at 1-0 to flirt with Champions League disaster, it continued an unwanted trend and fueled a developing narrative.

It was the sixth time in a row that Spurs had missed the first half of a game, with the ratings on their performance ranging from paced and predictable to awol, and it led to plenty of worry and moaning, even after a another second-half-transformation, this one bringing a 2-1 win and a first place in the group.

English football loves a good start. A new signing, for example, can apparently buy months of credit by lighting things up on their debut. But if frustration comes before control, that’s another equation – as Spurs find out.

There is certainly plenty of criticism on the way to the Premier League third side ahead of this weekend as they prepare for Sunday’s visit to Liverpool and top-seeded status is eagerly awaited at the Monday’s Champions League round of 16 draw, with much rooted. in their way of playing.

When Spurs are struggling, they can be a tough watch: deep and cautious, with little in front of the ball. It even led to Muhammad Ali’s drug rope theory. The lackluster starts are due to the way Conte is setting up the team. He wants to lure the opposition into a false sense of security, which could be a good trick if it wasn’t nonsense in football.

“If Antonio Conte trusts you, that’s a great thing.” Matt Doherty shakes hands with his manager after Tottenham’s win over Everton on October 15. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

“It’s just the way the games went,” Doherty says. “We are not at all organized to sit back and let things happen. You have to respect other teams’ game plans, how they try to cancel our game. I don’t think we’ve been as bad as people might think. People just seem to jump on this bandwagon. We crossed the group in the Champions League. We have a cup game next Wednesday [Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup] and we are third in the league. So we can’t be that bad. Look at the results and the board: it’s a sentiment coaches like Conte will always push. Doherty wants to add something else, a glass half full.

“People think returns can’t last forever,” he says. “But at some point we will start to take the lead in games and then the teams will struggle. We are now going through a period where we cash in first and we have to continue the game, but we are continuing well. Once we start shooting first it will be a bigger problem for the teams.

“It largely depends on our physical condition. We are barely able to keep up the pace for 90 minutes. We train hard. We had a difficult pre-season, but after that we train hard almost every day, even before games. I would be surprised if there were a lot of teams in better shape than us.

Doherty recognizes the influence of Gian Piero Ventrone, the club of highly respected physical trainer, who died on October 6. “He had a huge say in the fitness regime, I would say almost all the say.” But at the heart of it all is Conte, who celebrated the first anniversary of his appointment on Wednesday.

“The biggest changes under him?” Doherty said. “Fitness and just tactically. We are much more turned on. Technically, we all improved, but he was the one who changed our mentality the most. He just put that something in us where we feel like we can’t be beat. You’re still going to lose games, but when you have that “on my dead body” mentality, you’re going to win tons more. It’s just what he did in the game, everything he won. If Antonio Conte trusts you, that’s a big thing.

Matt Doherty receives treatment after rupturing his medial collateral ligament against Aston Villa in April 2022
Matt Doherty is receiving treatment after rupturing his medial collateral ligament against Aston Villa in April. The injury ended his season prematurely. Photograph: James Williamson/AMA/Getty Images

Doherty had gained this confidence, a little belatedly, at the end of February; he had a run in the starting XI and found a rare form. That’s why he was devastating when he ruptured the medial collateral ligament in a knee at Aston Villa on April 9. The injury ended his season and, as it turns out, plagued the first two months of it.

The 30-year-old reunited for the start of pre-season training and the view from outside was that he had to be fine. He wasn’t, continuing to experience pain and restriction of movement. Were there dark times? It looked like it.

“It’s only because of the previous time I had at Spurs where I struggled to really launch my career,” Doherty said. “Coming into the team, I felt so good and we were playing really well. And then in the summer too, missing internationals with Ireland, and you do rehabilitation on your own… that’s not not so nice. I had to overcome a lot of things. But I have confidence in my body and my game at the moment. My mind is clear.

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