Tottenham’s Dejan Kulusevski has the chance to become the first player to assist seven goals in his first 10 Premier League starts when Spurs play Brighton on Saturday.
If the 21-year-old can set the record – and you would not back against it right now – then it would cap a fine first two-and-a-half months at Spurs that, despite the doubters, Sky in Italy transfer expert Gianluca Di Marzio had seen coming.
“Kulusevski is a very talented player,” he told Sky Sports News on Deadline Day when the Swedish international joined the club.
“It’s difficult to understand what his real position is, but Antonio Conte is the perfect coach to understand where best to use him in the right system.
“Conte and Fabio [Paratici – Tottenham’s transfer chief] are the right couple to allow Kulusevski to reach his highest level. “
But surely even Di Marzio could not have foreseen the heights Kulusevski has hit, in what is turning out to be one the greatest Plan B signings.
Kulusevski helping Spurs move on from missing out on Diaz
On the morning of Friday January 28, Tottenham fans woke up to hugely disappointing transfer news. The club’s big-money move for Porto’s Luis Diaz had been hijacked by Liverpool overnight and the 25-year-old was now headed for Merseyside.
But out of adversity comes opportunity, and three days later, Tottenham signed Kulusevksi on an 18-month loan deal from Juventus.
His arrival, though, was not met with much fanfare – and understandably so. Two goals in 27 appearances for Juventus since August, with just seven starts, the move appeared to be a last-minute gamble from Paratici on a player he had signed at Juve two years ago.
Those doubts were only exacerbated as Spurs fans watched the club’s top target Diaz impress in his first three Liverpool games, as Kulusevski made three unspectacular substitute appearances. It looked like Tottenham had badly missed out.
But on Saturday, February 19 everything changed.
Just four minutes into his first Tottenham start, Kulusevski gave Tottenham a shock lead at Premier League leaders Manchester City. He then delivered a pinpoint cross for Harry Kane’s dramatic 94th-minute winner.
Kulusevski “played an amazing game” at the Etihad, according to Conte, and from that moment the Swede has been an ever-present, starting in every match since that 3-2 win at City.
As shown by the comparison below, Kulusevski is proving just as effective as Diaz in the Premier League – with the added bonus he is four years younger than the Colombian.
“Tottenham fans are happy Diaz went to Liverpool,” former Reds defender Stephen Warnock told The Football Show on Sky Sports News“because if he hadn’t gone there and gone to Spurs then how would that have worked out?
“We know Diaz is brilliant, but they’ll be looking at that thinking, ‘We’re happy enough with Kulusevski as well.’
Kulusevski’s ‘remarkable’ PL adaptation
Following his goal and assist in the 4-0 win at Aston Villa on Saturday, Kulusevski has been involved in nine goals in his nine Premier League starts. Only four players aged 21 or under in Premier League history have been involved in more goals in their first nine starts.
Meanwhile, no player has more Premier League assists than Kulusevski (six, level with Harry Kane) since his first start for Spurs in February.
Warnock said: “What a signing he’s been: assists, goals and intelligent runs.
“He makes the game look really easy and at 21 years of age, it’s been quite remarkable how quickly he settled into the Premier League, having been a bit-part player for Juventus.”
Such has been Kulusevski’s impact since arriving in January that no player aged 21 or under in the Premier League this season has a better minutes-per-goal ratio than him.
And of all the Premier League players with five or more goal involvements, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (78 mins) and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez (87 mins) have a better minutes-per-goal ratio than the Swedes.
But for all of Kulusevski’s individuality, it’s the way he has completed Tottenham’s attack to turn their deadly duo of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son into a terrifying trio.
Kane, Son and Kulusevski: Tottenham’s ‘Red Arrows’
Watching the front three of Kane, Son and Kulusevski against Aston Villa last weekend for Sky Sports was former Spurs striker Darren Bent.
He said: “Kulusevski and Son either side of Kane just works really well.
“The moment Kane gets the ball, it’s like the Red Arrows, you’ve got Kulusevski and Son running in behind.”
The statistics indeed confirm the triumvirate are flying.
Twenty three of Tottenham’s last 29 Premier League goals scored have involved either Kane, Son or Kulusevski, with 19 of them scored by one of the three.
“Going forward, Spurs are very clever,” Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness said after the win at Villa. “They’ve got three strikers now who are capable of delivering passes and scoring wonderful goals. They’re three players that can nick you games.”
Since that win at Man City in February, the trio are the top three providers of goals and assists combined in the Premier League.
“It’s a really exciting front three,” Warnock said. “We always knew the relationship between Son and Kane – it was formidable.
“Then it was about adding someone into that; it was always [Steven] Bergwijn or [Lucas] Moura, but it was never someone consistent. “
If Lucas and Bergwijn had not clicked, then many thought Gareth Bale would be the final piece of the attacking jigsaw last season, but it never really materialized.
Kulusevski, though, finally feels like the perfect foil for the evolving Kane and Son.
The Swede’s direct and fast runs have helped Kane to drop deeper to play defense-splitting passes and display his unique passing ability. In fact, the England captain has provided 17 through-balls, the most of any Premier League player since Conte has come in.
Meanwhile, Kulusevski’s unselfish play and effectiveness in the final third has unleashed Son in front of goal, with the South Korean needing just one more goal to record his best-scoring league season. A late challenge for the Golden Boot cannot be ruled out either, with Son just three goals behind Salah (20).
“Kulusevski fits in so well,” former England striker Sue Smith told The Football Show on Sky Sports News.
“It was a bit of a gamble to bring him in, but he certainly showed it was not because the way he plays with Son and Kane, he makes those runs that are making that front three so effective and work so well.”
The Kulusevski-Conte relationship
For Kulusevski, his rebirth is all down to Conte.
Speaking on international duty last month, he said: “There were many things at Juventus that were not working and it was very frustrating. I played one match a month always in a new position. My body did not feel good, I did not feel physically strong.
“At Tottenham, there’s a breath of fresh air, I have a better rapport with the coach, I was trained better and my physique has improved.”
According to a report in the Daily Mail, Kulusevski ‘enjoys the focus of Conte’s drills’ while he has also been influenced by the Italian’s off-pitch rules regarding diet. His running stats, as shown below, suggest it is paying off.
Kulusesvki’s feeling towards Conte is reciprocated by the 52-year-old, having held a long-standing interest in the winger.
Following the 5-1 home win over Newcastle, in which Kulusevski got an assist, Conte said: “We are talking about a player that I know very well, because he played in Italy.
“He started to play with Atalanta, then Atalanta brought [sent] him on loan to Parma, and he played in Serie A. And he played in a fantastic way.
“When I was coach of Inter [Milan], I tried to ask him, but then Juventus moved before. Maybe they put more money than us at the time, and then they bought this player.
“We are talking about a player who is only 21 years old. And he has to continue to play this way. Because he’s strong physically, big engine, he’s good technically.
“I think for Tottenham, this is a great signing for the present and for the future.”