For Antonio Conte, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, there were reassuring signs his leading lights have kept last season’s momentum.
For a capacity crowd gathered in Seoul to watch Tottenham’s first game of their pre-season tour, there was compensation for the 6-3 defeat of a team assembled from locally-based players by the two-goal contribution from South Korea’s very finest sporting export, Son Heung-min.
Son converted a penalty and scored Spurs’s sixth, while Harry Kane added a goal from a free-kick to a handsome earlier strike. Both had a brief first experience of partnering new signing Richarlison, the Brazilian starting the friendly against the K League XI, Kane and Son joining him in the second half.
In the coming weeks, other new recruits, such as Ivan Perisic, Yves Bissouma and Clement Lenglet will make debuts for their new employer, a Tottenham setting a brisk pace in the summer transfer market.
Conte has made it clear he wants a squad for the coming campaign that is ready to compete, deep into the spring, in two demanding competitions, the Premier League and the Champions League he guided Spurs into via a tight tussle for fourth spot in English football’s top division in 2021-22.
He wants a strength in depth that cushions against the fatigue that will inevitably drag on players, such as Kane, who are involved in the World Cup in November and December. He wants a talented enough bench to maximise the tactical implications of the Premier League’s introduction of five possible substitutions per match - up from three - as of next season.
The busy traffic of incoming players to Tottenham within the first six weeks of the three-month transfer window also acknowledges the importance of pre-season rehearsal for Conte.
Spurs, famous across the elite end of the football industry for chairman Daniel Levy’s tough, drawn-out brinkmanship in their transfer negotiations, have a habit of doing their bigger deals late in summers, with the domestic season already under way. Conte insisted this close-season’s recruits arrived as early as possible so he could integrate them well in time for the Premier League kick-off on the opening weekend of August.
Richarlison’s first outing gave the coach encouragement. He led the forward line in the opening half. He showed his prowess meeting crosses, and his skill carrying the ball on the counter-attack. At £50m-plus from Everton, Richarlison is a pedigree newcomer, and a good fit for the high-energy, quick-on-the-break game plan that Conte is finessing.
He will be ambitious, too, for regular starts for a club with far greater firepower than the struggling Everton whose fight against the threat of relegation he so often spearheaded in the last 10 months.
Richarlison sees the move as an upgrade and a platform. He has a realistic target of a place in Brazil’s World Cup side; 12 months ago he was the leading goalscorer at the men’s Olympic football event at the Tokyo Games, and a gold medal winner.
At Spurs he will need to squeeze out a slot in an attack that, during the successful push for Champions League qualification, was in enviable form. Richarlison will do well to match the initial impact made by Dejan Kulusevski, who began an 18-month loan from Juventus in January and who contributed eight assists and five goals in his 18 Premier League appearances. In the same period, the dynamic duo of Son and Kane scored a combined 27 league goals.
Richarlison’s virtue is that he can slot into any of the front three positions, a forceful wide player or a central striker. Some of the same versatility applies to Perisic, 33. He used to regard himself as a winger, on left flank or right, but when he worked with Conte at Inter Milan, he was persuaded he could add further top-flight years to his long and distinguished career by operating at left wing-back.
The Croatian won Serie A under Conte in 2021, has a Bundesliga title and a Champions League to his name from his time at Bayern Munich and was a World Cup finalist in 2018 with Croatia.
Conte, who helped secure Perisic on a free transfer from Inter, trusts him, will value his winning character in the dressing-room, and the expertise that can rub off on younger midfielders like Bissouma, the exciting 25-year-old signed from Brighton.
To those is added the considerable experience of the veteran Fraser Forster, the former England goalkeeper brought in as back-up to Hugo Lloris. Lloris will have in front of him his compatriot and fellow France international Lenglet, secured on loan from Barcelona and a defender whose assets include precise passing over long range and a comfort playing in a back three, essential for a Conte team.