Tottenham have no clear identity under Nuno Espírito Santo
Tottenham struggled in the infancy of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign. They may have won the opening two league matches of the 2014-15 season, securing victories over West Ham and QPR, but they won just one more of their opening nine league matches of the campaign, leaving them 11th in the table. At the time, Pochettino was under early pressure as the players struggled with his high-pressing demands.
It took a late Harry Kane free-kick at Aston Villa in early November for everything to click into place. Spurs finished fifth that season, a respectable return in Pochettino’s debut campaign as he set about changing their style of play. Even in the early months of his time at the club, there was an idea of the direction the club would be going. Fast-forward to the present day and Spurs are again faltering in the opening weeks with a new man at the helm.
The difference now, though, is that there is no clear identity under Nuno Espírito Santo. The Portuguese boss was named head coach in late June after a lengthy pursuit of targets that stretched across Europe. Spurs started the season well enough under Nuno, winning their opening three league matches 1-0 to sit top of the Premier League at the end of August.
He was even named manager of the month yet, even in victory, Spurs were not wholly convincing. Hugo Lloris made more saves (12) than any other goalkeeper in August, with only Arsenal (18.3) and Burnley (17.7) conceding more shots per game than Spurs (17.3). They rode their luck in August, but have reverted to the mean in September, conceding nine goals across three London derbies as they suffered convincing defeats at the hands of Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal.
The loss to Arsenal on Sunday was perhaps the most galling. Spurs were blown away in the opening 45 minutes. Goals from Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gave Mikel Arteta’s side a 3-0 lead at half time, and it could have been more. The introduction of Oliver Skipp in the second half helped Spurs gain some control but, by then, it was a damage-limitation exercise rather than a genuine push to rescue the result.
The performance just about sums up Spurs in the early weeks of Nuno’s reign. They have only scored four goals in six league games this season – only Norwich and Wolves have scored fewer. They rank bottom in the league for shots taken per game (9.3) and key passes made per game (6.7). Only Leeds (18.7) and Newcastle (18) – two teams who have not yet won a match this season – are conceding more shots per game than Spurs (17). They have only made four clear-cut opportunities in the league this season. For context, the Wolves goalkeeper José Sá has created two. This is a disjointed Spurs side that shows no signs of improving anytime soon. Nuno’s pragmatic approach makes him look like José Mourinho, albeit without the CV.
So how do Spurs shake themselves out of this rut and begin to establish a path back up the table? The simple answer is to revert to a 4-2-3-1. Nuno has tended to use a 4-3-3 formation but Spurs do not have the players to make it work, particularly in midfield. They did not gain a foothold against Arsenal on Sunday until Skipp was introduced to play alongside Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg at the base of the midfield. Having two players in that position gives their fragile defence more protection and offers another bank that opponents need to break through.
There were gaping holes in the Spurs midfield right from the start of the match. Tanguy Ndombele and Dele Alli pushed up high up the pitch, well out of position, leaving Hojbjerg stranded by himself and giving Martin Ødegaard, Saka and Smith Rowe the chance to break through the midfield time and time again. Tottenham made it easy for Arsenal, effectively surrendering their local derby in the first half.
Is this what Tottenham had in mind when they appointed Nuno? “We are acutely aware of the need to select someone whose values reflect those of our great club and return to playing football with the style for which we are known – free-flowing, attacking and entertaining,” said Spurs chairman Daniel Levy back in May, yet they plumped for a head coach who brought none of those qualities to Wolves and has done little to convince his doubters in the early weeks of his time in north London.
Granted, Nuno did well to get Wolves promoted and then establish them as a Premier League club, but he did so by forging a solid foundation that made them tough to break down – not by playing the football Levy advertised. Nuno’s teams are not proactive; they have only scored in the first half of 84 of his 119 Premier League games in charge. His inability to set up his side effectively was obvious in the derby on Sunday.
He is not a manager who will bring free-flowing, attacking and entertaining football to Tottenham and, while nine points from six games is not relegation form, fans have every right to expect more following Mourinho’s dull reign. That is unlikely to improve anytime soon with Nuno at the helm. The pressure is already mounting.