When Chris Wilder got chatting to Antonio Conte at a recent awards night, Middlesbrough’s manager jokingly accused the Italian of copying his tactical blueprint.
At his former club, Sheffield United, and, albeit to a lesser extent, on Teesside today, Wilder has built teams around attack-minded wing-backs and a trio of sometimes overlapping centre-halves. It is not a million miles removed from the system Conte swiftly installed at Tottenham, favoured utilising at previous clubs and, like his FA Cup fifth-round opponents on Tuesday night, seems philosophically attuned to.
“I said to Antonio at one awards evening that he was copying me,” Wilder recalled as he looked forward to a reunion with Conte in front of a near 35,000 sellout crowd at the Riverside. “But, actually, I’m not so sure about that. Spurs have a world-class manager.”
If Conte is unlikely to underestimate a Boro side not merely pushing strongly for promotion from the Championship but which knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup – winning on penalties at Old Trafford in the fourth round – Wilder is certainly not downplaying the tactical challenge ahead.
“Just look at Antonio Conte’s record,” he said. “It speaks for itself and he’s got an incredible passion to help his team. For us to beat Spurs would be an incredible achievement.
“Just as we did at Old Trafford, we understand that a lot of things have to go for us and we have to be at our absolute best to give ourselves an opportunity.”
Middlesbrough have improved significantly since Wilder succeeded Neil Warnock in November but, following an unforeseen 3-2 defeat at Barnsley last Saturday, they slipped to eighth in the second tier, two points off a play-off place.
“If we play as badly as we did in the first 15 minutes at Oakwell it will quickly be game over against Spurs and we might as well go home at half time,” Wilder said.
Boro’s manager will welcome the return of Matt Crooks, so impressive at Manchester United, to midfield following suspension. He is also hoping his influential Australia international Riley McGree could be passed fit in time to start in the same department.
Crooks, who began his career at Manchester United, has impressed this season after being signed from Rotherham by Warnock last summer. Wilder believes the 28-year-old is one of a number of Boro players potentially capable of holding their own at Premier league level.
“Matt’s work ethic is fabulous and he chips in with goals too,” Boro’s manager said of his leading scorer. “He was good against Manchester United but blew up after 60 minutes because of the emotional exhaustion of playing against his former club.
“Hopefully Matt will have learnt from that because, to play in the biggest games, you can’t get emotional, you’ve got to stay calm.”