Three was a crowd as far as Tottenham were concerned. They had not convinced with the attacking trident of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Richarlison leading an incoherent charge against Everton during the first half. Spurs were at a numerical disadvantage in midfield and Everton, who are a much sturdier proposition under Frank Lampard this season, would have been 2-0 up at half-time if Amadou Onana and Demarai Gray had shown more composure in front of goal.
Yet the mood changed when Richarlison limped off in the 52nd minute. That was the moment when Antonio Conte bent the contest to his tactical will and reminded critics of his counterpunching approach that he knows more than a thing or two about football.
After all it would have been easy for Conte to trust in Plan A after Richarlison’s departure. The obvious move? Stick with three up front and bring on Lucas Moura or Bryan Gil. Conte’s move? Bolster his midfield with the introduction of Yves Bissouma, shift his system from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2, and watch Spurs overwhelm Everton, who had no way back after Harry Kane punished an error from Jordan Pickford by opening the scoring from the spot.
It was a controlled second half from Tottenham, who have made their best start to a top-flight campaign since the 1963-64 season. To emphasise the point, there were seven minutes between Bissouma coming on and Kane marking his 400th appearance for Spurs by moving within eight goals of Jimmy Greaves’s record of 266 goals for the club.
There was far more robustness to Conte’s side, who are missing Dejan Kulusevski in attack, with Bissouma on the pitch. The arrival of the former Brighton midfielder was key to releasing Rodrigo Bentancur, negating the influence of Onana, Idrissa Gueye and Alex Iwobi, and there was never any prospect of an Everton equaliser once they were behind. Spurs were far too solid at the back. They gave nothing away and, to underline how much hinged on Conte’s alteration, the points were safe when Bentancur’s pass allowed his fellow midfielder, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, to make it 2-0 in the 86th minute.
“The intensity we played at was really positive,” Conte said. “We can play with 3-4-3. Sometimes we can play with 3-5-2. At that moment I preferred Bissouma. Everton are a really strong physical team. After a win I think my decision was good.”
Conte was in a fine mood. He singled out Matt Doherty for praise, saying that the right wing-back is close to returning to the high standards he set last season, and revelled in Spurs taking 23 points from their first 10 games. “To have this good start is positive,” Conte said. “It means we are doing everything with common sense.”
This was a test of endurance for Spurs. The opening period was a slog, even if Kane extended Pickford and Richarlison went close to piercing his old side when he nodded wide after Ivan Perisic crossed from the left. Yet Everton should have led at half-time.
The visitors were solid after switching to a back five and their graft was accompanied by the odd flash of incision. “If we finish our chances the feeling would have been different,” said Lampard, who rued Onana and Gray blazing over when they were through on goal.
Lampard pointed out that Everton, who have moved on from last year’s relegation worries, could not match Spurs’s class. The hosts were more energetic after Bissouma arrived, Kane testing Pickford with a stunning volley, and it was not long before Everton cracked.
“The first goal is what it is,” Lampard said. It came when Pickford spilled a drive from Doherty and brought down Kane.
“Jordan dived and took me out,” the England captain said. “He was a bit unlucky but I’ll take it.”
Kane showed no mercy on his international colleague. He drove his penalty past Pickford and Spurs did not look back, pulling clear when Kane and Bentancur teed up Højbjerg for a shot that took a deflection off Iwobi before soaring into the net.
“I am really delighted,” said Conte, who can continue to ignore the naysayers. He may not win many stylistic awards, but who cares when Spurs are a point below first-placed Arsenal? Conte is entitled to point out that the table never lies.