Tottenham’s new number 21 received possession deep in his own third. His side were 3-0 up away at Aston Villa, well on their way to a fourth emphatic Premier League win on the bounce. Coolly, the languid figure evaded Jacob Ramsey’s challenge before returning Emerson Royal’s pass down the line.
A few seconds later, this elegant customer who’d ignited yet another flowing Lilywhite move, was one-vs-one against England international Tyrone Mings in the Villa box. The defender made a concerted effort to show him towards the byline, well aware of his gorgeous left foot, but the ginger-haired playmaker simply toyed with him.
He called Mings’ bluff, darting towards the byline before sitting the defender down with a subtle fake. Time then seemed to stand still for the ball possessor as he paused for a second, took a deep breath and browsed through an IKEA brochure before perfectly teeing-up Son Heung-min for his hat-trick.
Once Son’s strike inevitably hit the back of the net via the post, the assister turned with his arms aloft to the travelling Spurs fans. “GIMME GIMME GIMME…” some might’ve replied.
Dejan Kulusevski has been a revelation for Tottenham since joining from Juventus in January
Since leaving Juventus at the end of the January transfer window, Dejan Kulusevski has transformed Spurs’ attack – yes, that’s right, one containing the most prolific attacking partnership in Premier League history – into one of the continent’s most potent tridents. His assist for Son at Villa Park was his sixth in the Premier League following his arrival, a tally that can only be matched by teammate Harry Kane in the English top-flight during that period.
Kulusevski’s impressive work and Son’s ruthless strike had put the finishing touches on a 4-0 away win for Antonio Conte’s side. And, boy, it was one they had to work hard for after they were subject to a battering in the opening 45 minutes.
Although Son had given Spurs an early lead, it was anyone’s game as the teams re-appeared for the start of the second half before Kulusevski landed a killer blow. The 21-year-old Swede instinctively ran onto Kane’s flick-on five minutes into the second half before evading Matty Cash’s challenge and standing himself up one-vs-one against Mings. A quick shift and a pinpoint left-footed strike across Emi Martinez was all it took for Kulusevski to double Spurs’ lead and suck the life out of 40,000 Villa supporters.
The former Juventus man then paid homage to LeBron James – perhaps because of his immediate impact in Cleveland, Miami and Los Angeles? – as he rather chaotically celebrated his third Premier League goal.
In short, Kulusevski has been a revelation for Conte’s Tottenham. He quickly usurped the technically insecure and streakier Lucas Moura as the final member of Spurs’ front three, and now he looks intent on matching the staggering outputs of his strike partners.
I know what you’re thinking Juventini… how?
Why did it not work out for Kulusevski at Juventus?
This iteration of Dejan Kulusevski is a far cry from the faux playmaker we saw in Turin during the first half of the season. The Swede’s confidence looked shot, rarely ever asserting himself in games, and his poor decision-making in transition combined with a somewhat unathletic gait meant he struggled to convince Juventus supporters.
That shadow of a footballer now clouds over Massimiliano Allegri.
Speaking about his time at Juventus, Kulusevski said: “There were many things at Juventus that weren’t working and it was very frustrating.” The 21-year-old described Tottenham as “a breath of fresh air” and hinted that he has a “better rapport” with Conte compared to Allegri.
“I couldn’t express myself,” is perhaps the most damning line.
The soon-to-be departing Paulo Dybala is the only attacker who’s regularly produced in an incredibly inhibiting system. Although, Alvaro Morata has recently found some form following the arrival of Dusan Vlahovic and his subsequent liberation from the leading role. Nevertheless, Allegri’s emphasis on defensive structure and the re-installation of vintage Juventus ideals have undoubtedly compromised several of his ‘flair’ players.
Federico Chiesa had just five Serie A goal contributions before his season ended early thanks to an ACL rupture, while big-money arrival Vlahovic has often struggled for reliable service. That’s a systemic issue as much as it is a personnel problem. Allegri’s Juve are bereft of a concrete idea with possession and how to reliably create chances. That couldn’t be further from the case in north London, where Conte’s automatisms ease the burden on his players and often force Spurs’ opponents into a state of reaction.
There’s a clear identity, and it’s easy to see what Spurs are trying to achieve every time they receive possession: retain the ball deep in their own half, utilise depth to draw the opponent higher up the pitch before finding Kane or Kulusevski’s feet and transitioning at speed.
The Swede has rapidly grasped his function off the right flank. He’s excellent off one-touch, possesses a remarkable sense of timing and an innate feel for the game. In essence, Conte has allowed the 2019/20 iteration of Kulusevski, where he won Serie A Young Player of the Year honours playing for a counter-attacking Parma side, to manifest once more – and he’s reaping the rewards.
Allegri, meanwhile, never trusted the young Swede and rarely gave him the chance to build on a promising first season in Turin. Any bright moments proved to be mere false dawns as he was restricted by Juve’s conservative approach.
“He is a fantastic coach and a fantastic guy. At Juve I talked to him almost every day and he always explained to me how I can look for passes without showing my opponents where I will play the ball. And that’s exactly what I hope will help assist Harry even more in the future” – Kulusevski on Andrea Pirlo.
While it wasn’t all plain-sailing for the young playmaker under Andrea Pirlo last season, his distinct talent glimmered enough to suggest that he could evolve into a Bianconeri star further down the line.
He could’ve grown further with Pirlo, but Juve’s decision to re-appoint Allegri was the beginning of the end for the expressive Swede. Alas, it’s obvious that the current Juve boss was the primary factor in Kulusevski’s quick demise in Turin.
Now, Antonio Conte, the man who laid the foundations for Juve’s recent subjugation of calcio, is maximising his potential, helping him earn fan-favourite status at Tottenham and transforming him into a bona fide Premier League star.